More than 1000 top Canadian athletes inform prevalence study of maltreatment in sport

OTTAWA (May 7, 2019) - AthletesCAN, in partnership with University of Toronto, is pleased release a detailed report of the Prevalence of Maltreatment among Current and Former National Team Athletes study.

The online, anonymous survey was developed by Gretchen Kerr, PhD, Erin Willson, B.KIN, and Ashley Stirling, PhD in collaboration with AthletesCAN, supported by the University of Toronto and the federal government, and distributed by AthletesCAN to current national team members as well as retired national team members who had left the sport within the past ten years.

“All Canadians have the right to participate in sport in an environment that is safe, welcoming, inclusive, ethical and respectful,” says Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Sport. “This study shows us that a systemic culture shift is required to eliminate maltreatment, including sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, neglect, harassment, bullying, exploitation and discrimination. I would like to thank AthletesCAN and the University of Toronto for working together on this study and providing us with the evidence we need to make well-informed decisions to make sport safer in Canada.”

“While recognizing the numerous potential benefits that sport participation has to offer, it is also important to acknowledge that for some athletes, sport is a harmful experience, characterized by various forms of maltreatment,” says Dr. Gretchen Kerr, University of Toronto Professor. “This study looked at all forms of maltreatment including sexual abuse, physical abuse, psychological abuse, neglect, various types of harassment, bullying and hazing. Although most of the attention to-date has been focused on experiences of sexual abuse, the findings indicate that athletes experience psychological abuse and neglect to a far greater extent than other forms. Most troubling are that neglectful and psychologically harmful behaviours such as the use of demeaning, threatening or humiliating comments, and denying basic needs such as food, water, and safe training conditions, are accepted as normal practices in sport,” she adds. “We wouldn’t accept such behaviours in any other walk of life so why should athletes have to endure these?”

764 current national team athletes and 237 retired athletes, completed the survey of which 61% of which were female. Additional self-identified, underrepresented groups included 10% racialized athletes; 12% athletes with a disability; 2% Indigenous; and 7% LGBTQ2I+.

“We know that sport has the power to inspire a nation, to build leaders and to unite Canadians,” says Dasha Peregoudova, President of AthletesCAN. “That is why we are pushing hard for the necessary change to address abuse, harassment and discrimination in sport. For those who have listened, the athlete voice has been a dominant one on the issue of safe sport for generations. Advocacy work around this issue over the years has included both the disclosure and reporting of various forms of maltreatment; recommendations and demands for change; and knowledge-sharing about the practices that have worked and shaped athlete experiences positively,” she adds. “However, we have not seen one central, independent and research driven survey of the athlete perspective on the issue of safe sport in more than 20 years. That has now changed. A report based on concrete data, collected from over 1000 national team athletes, is undeniable. It will complement the athlete voice in driving change in an unparalleled way.” 

The survey produced a number of key findings that will inform the national conversation around Canada’s ability to address not only abuse, harassment and discrimination in sport but all forms of maltreatment.

HARMFUL BEHAVIOURS

The percentage of the top harmful behaviours reported to be most frequently experienced by current and retired athletes include psychological (17%, 23%); neglect (15%, 22%); sexual (4%, 7%); and physical (3%, 5%). 

Of the current and retired athletes’ who reported experiences of at least one harmful behaviour in each category of harm, the percentage of the top harmful behaviours were neglect (67%, 76%); psychological (59%, 62%); sexual (20%, 21%); and physical (12%, 19%).

“This study has provided a snapshot of the depth and breadth of harm athletes are experiencing while competing for our country,” says Erin Willson, Olympian. “It is evident that this issue goes beyond criminal conduct to a wide variety of behaviours that impact both the physical and mental well-being of athletes. We, as high performance athletes, are in a unique position to speak to the wide scope of normalized behaviours we have experienced from grassroots to elite sport, but we are only a small portion of recreational and competitive athletes in Canada. If we have experienced maltreatment throughout our sport pathway, this study then brings into question how many other athletes are experiencing harm that are not yet at this level, or have dropped out because of abusive experiences before making it onto a national team?”

DISCRIMINATION

The most commonly experienced form of discrimination was gender discrimination with female athletes feeling they had fewer opportunities, supports and resources to advance their sport careers. Furthermore, 22% of self-identified racialized athletes experienced discrimination based on race.

“Based on the data collected, we know that racial discrimination exists in sport,” says Neville Wright, 3-time Olympian and Safe Sport Working Group member. “Due to the lack of awareness and reporting, this is a topic that does not receive enough attention, nor is it adequately addressed through policy or education. The system needs more leaders that have the ability to relate, empathize and deal with this issue. We must promote the equitable treatment of all sport participants and need to ensure under-represented groups feel supported and free to train and compete in a sport environment free from discrimination. Education and sensitivity training is a key step to recognizing and addressing racism in sport and I am committed to supporting this positive change in the months to come.”

NEGATIVE HEALTH OUTCOMES

Across all categories of harm and both current and retired athletes, females reported far more harmful health outcomes, while retired athletes reported higher percentages than did current athletes.

There were significant and positive relationships between all forms of harm (psychological, physical, sexual and neglect) and the negative health outcomes of engaging in self-harming behaviours, disordered eating behaviours/eating disorders, and having suicidal thoughts.

The data regarding negative health outcomes revealed 15% of current and 22% retired athletes engaged in disordered eating behaviours; 5% and 6 % respectively, engaged in self-harming behaviours; and 13% of current athletes, while 20% of retired athletes had suicidal thoughts.

The findings also highlight the notion that negative health outcomes are experienced by athletes long after the national team career has ended.

“This latest study reinforces years of research about athlete mental health,” Thomas Hall, Senior Manager of Game Plan, says. “As a core pillar of Game Plan, we recognize poor mental health is a serious problem for many athletes both during and after their careers. Compared to just a few years ago, more programs are in place to support athletes, but we need to continue to reduce the stigma around asking for help, raise awareness about what being mentally healthy actually means, and increase the options for athletes seeking help. And, perhaps most importantly, we need to continue to push the sport system to recognize that athletes are more than medal potential.”

DISCLOSURE & REPORTING

Of those current and retired athletes who experienced abuse, bullying or discrimination, only 15% reported their experiences. Athletes are not reporting issues or concerns to their sport organizations because they believe doing so means they are asking their sport organization to incriminate themselves, creating a major conflict of interest. To-date there has been no other avenue to take their concerns to.

“While some could view the outcomes of this study as negative, highlighting the extreme nature of the issues and having a baseline to then work from to effect change is actually positive,” says Allison Forsyth, Olympian and AthletesCAN board member. “Athletes rarely report. Plain and simple. They are not comfortable or feel safe doing so with anyone who has a vested interest in the outcome. I reported and did not experience a positive outcome. It is not easy being the whistle blower. We need to support athletes through this – they need a safe place to report free from conflict of interest.”

As some athletes reported in the survey:

“Knowing we can be replaced and our careers are on the line, you are regularly forced to ignore issues or maltreatment out of fear. I have witnessed blackmail, intimidation, favouritism, experienced verbal and mental abuse personally. We are silenced or put down if we ask questions. I am fearful that after I speak out, I will be punished.”

“I never felt like there was anyone I could speak to about [concerns about harmful behaviours] because [sport] was my life and I didn't want to jeopardize my career.”

HUMAN RIGHTS

“Not only does this prevalence study provide a snapshot of athletes’ experiences but it serves as baseline data against which to assess the impact of future preventative and intervention initiatives,” says Ashley LaBrie, Executive Director of AthletesCAN. “It also signals the importance of addressing the human rights and welfare of Canadian athletes. We’ve seen the human rights movement take center stage in sport most recently with the decision to uphold the IAAF eligibility regulations for ‘DSD athletes’ of which AthletesCAN was an intervenor in support of Ms. Semenya’s case. This ties in closely to the work we are doing to create safer, more inclusive sport environment.”

READ FULL STORY - CCES, CAAWS and AthletesCAN very concerned with the CAS ruling on IAAF’s eligibility regulations for female classification

“Accommodation in sport does not equate to inclusive and safe sport,” says Kristen Worley. “Through the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada already has a policy principled in universal design with human rights as the foundation. This national prevalence study encapsulates clearly the vulnerabilities within the Canadian sport system, and the necessity to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all athletes from the local sports clubs to elite participation through the lens and values of human rights.”

RECOMMENDATIONS

Open-ended questions on the survey enabled athletes to contribute additional comments and recommendations to improve the current landscape.

The recommendations for advancing safe sport included:

  • establish a mechanism to receive, investigate and adjudicate complaints independent of sport governing bodies;
  • address all forms of maltreatment;
  • enhance the focus on athletes’ holistic well-being;
  • implement mandatory education for all sport stakeholders;
  • strengthen accountability measures;
  • ensure supports and resources are available for victims of maltreatment;
  • prohibit sexual relationships and forced intimacy between athletes and those in positions of authority; and,
  • conduct a climate survey of athletes’ experiences on a regular basis.

These recommendations both informed and align with the recent recommendations coming out of the AthletesCAN National Safe Sport Summit held in Toronto that brought together 50 of Canada’s top athletes to influence safe sport policy.

READ FULL SUMMIT STORY - Athlete leaders unite to influence safe sport policy in Canada

AthletesCAN is scheduled to present the study findings and athlete recommendations at the upcoming National Safe Sport Summit hosted by the Coaching Association of Canada May 8th and 9th in Ottawa. The event will enable representatives from more than 100 national, provincial/territorial, and multi-sport organizations and partners to come together to address abuse, harassment and discrimination in sport.

ADDITIONAL ATHLETE VOICES

“Athletes with a disability just like able-bodied athletes are vulnerable to maltreatment in our sport system. Due to our disabilities and at times the need to rely on individuals within sport for support with our day to day training and living needs, we are just a bit more vulnerable to this risk of maltreatment than our able-bodied counterparts.  We support the recommendations coming out of the survey and summit to set healthy and appropriate boundaries between athletes and support staff in positions of power, and to provide a clear system to support athletes in addressing concerns for their safety in their training and competition environments.”

TONY WALBY, CHAIR CPC ATHLETES’ COUNCIL, SAFE SPORT WORKING GROUP, PARA JUDO

For the first time we have an opportunity as athletes to anonymously, confidentially, and externally from our NSO, disclose the experiences of maltreatment in sport. These are topics that frankly are rarely addressed within teams and organizations because these problems and behaviours have been ignored and have become normalized for so long. I'm tired of being silenced, of being in fear, of seeing my teammates threatened and abused. And this experience is across the spectrum of sports in Canada.

We're asking for an external entity that is removed from the people in power that have allowed this to continue for so long. We're asking for a shift in the cultural landscape of sport in Canada. We're owning the podium, but we can do that AND still be safe and ethical. Let’s put the value on people first rather than performance first. I believe if we can shift the culture at the highest level and collaborate across all stakeholders, it will have a huge impact on the lives of all Canadians that participate in sport at all levels. 

ERICA WIEBE, OLYMPIC CHAMPION, WRESTLING

When we went through the Prevalence of Maltreatment Report at the Summit, my eyes, as well as the eyes of all the athletes in the room, were opened. This study clearly demonstrates that we need to see change for the better, for athletes. System stakeholders need to open their eyes!

MERCEDES NICOLL, 4X OLYMPIAN, ATHLETESCAN BOARD MEMBER, SNOWBOARD HALFPIPE

 

For more information please contact:

Ashley LaBrie
Executive Director
AthletesCAN
[email protected]

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