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Time for the Sport Industry to Step Out of Their Bubble

As many of you reading this will know, our firm does a lot of work in the sport sector. We also do work in other areas such as employment law and all aspects of litigation. It is always interesting to me when I compare how different industries tackle similar problems.

Very rarely do people go too far outside of the box for their industry, and very rarely do leaders from different sectors get together. We all work and live in our immediate bubbles. I think it is time to burst the bubble. I will start.

This is apparently a photo of a frozen bubble.

One significant difference that we have noticed from the sport sector and other industries is that the sport sector is much less proactive about identifying and solving small problems before they become big problems. A culture has developed that when a concern is raised about the actions of an individual in the sport environment, the immediate first step is to recommend that the individual submit a formal complaint, which then leads to a very long, expensive and not very trauma informed process. We have seen many of these processes from all different perspectives: as the neutral investigator, as an adjudicator, as counsel for the complainant and as counsel for the respondent. While these "safe sport" systems may well have their place (although I expect that the forthcoming Sport Commission will recommend a significant overhaul of the entire safe sport system), I believe that organizations would save a lot of time and money by being more proactive in their approach to identifying and dealing with concerning conduct.

For example, a very common recommendation that I have made when I have reviewed complex complaints made in the sport setting, is that the problems and poor conduct often went on for years without being identified or addressed as a problem. There are rarely any coach or supporting staff performance reviews for national and provincial level coaches - unlike in most workplaces. There is also very rarely any formal input obtained from the athletes regarding the coaching staff, or the coaching staff regarding each other. I do not think any of these omissions are intentionally nefarious, it has just not been part of how the sport industry does things.

In my view, the sector needs to be far more proactive. If I were in charge (and I am not and never will be), the first thing that I would do is make sure that national and provincial level athletes (and for young athletes, parents), are surveyed frequently and anonymously regarding their coaching staff. The questions asked should cover both aspects that deal with the knowledge of the coach, but also areas that fall in the "safe sport" world. If a coach is regularly ignoring the Rule of 2, sending athletes inappropriate messages on social media or otherwise, grooming athletes, being abusive in their training methods, and/or being discriminatory or harassing in their communications - the leaders of the organization need to know about it. Most athletes do not feel comfortable reporting these matters directly due to concerns about retaliation. Some athletes may not even be aware that certain actions are not appropriate. Ignorance of the problem will not save an organization in a lawsuit. In fact, it will make things worse.

The sport industry needs to move beyond waiting for bad things to happen and improve their key processes for identifying, evaluating, monitoring and selecting who will be trusted to work with athletes. Organizations do not need to wait for a Safe Sport complaint to make changes to your staff - and they shouldn't.

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