Open Letter from Experts

Sexual violence and misogyny are deeply rooted problems in men’s ice hockey

This letter was sent on July 26, 2022 to Canada's Sport Minister and members of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage which is investigating sexual violence in Canadian men's ice hockey.

 

The letter was written to help Canadian politicians and the public understand the drivers of sexual violence by athletes and in hockey settings. 

 

Dear Hon. Pascale St-Onge, Sport Minister, and Hon. Hedy Fry, Chair of the Heritage Committee,

The most recent allegations of sexual assaults against women involving Canadian hockey players are deeply disturbing. However, while these types of incidents are surprising and shocking to the public, academics and journalists have repeatedly documented these problems in hockey and we have been calling for action for decades.

As researchers who have studied hockey and/or these problems, we are writing to provide an overview of research on why these incidents keep occurring and what needs to be done to prevent future incidents. We hope the outrage felt by you and many Canadians will translate into meaningful action. Canada could be a world leader in developing solutions.

Sport leaders and the sport industry have accepted sexual violence is “widespread”

There appears to be little awareness in Canada that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has released three scientific “Consensus Statements” in 2007, 2016, and 2019 which have warned the Canadian Government, Hockey Canada, and all sport organisations that:

 “Sexual harassment and abuse happen in all sports and at all levels … (in) the locker-room, the playing field, trips away, the coach’s home or car, and social events, especially where alcohol is involved. Team initiations or end-of-season celebrations can also involve sexually abusive behaviour against individuals or groups” (IOC Consensus Statement, 2007, p. 5)

The 2016 “Consensus Statement” called for “urgent” action after it found evidence that sexual violence remains “serious and widespread” in sport and this is “facilitated by an organisational culture that ignores, denies, fails to prevent or even tacitly accepts such problems. They may thus be considered as symptoms of failed leadership” (p. 1020).

The IOC and the research community have consistently made the following core recommendations to address these issues in a meaningful way:

 

  1. Independent oversight and regulation of sport at the local, provincial, and national level.

  2. Openness and transparency with regular reporting of incidents and regulatory compliance to ensure accountability and change is occuring.

  3. Investment in the development of evidence-based and effective approaches which target and change the drivers of sexual violence in sport. 


These are deeply rooted cultural problems that harm everyone

The incidents in hockey are not caused by a few ‘bad apples.’ These are systemic problems and a symptom of a deeply rooted culture in hockey and other Canadian sports. These problems are particularly harmful to children, youth, and women. 

Research has found sexual assaults, abuse, and harassment are caused by a ‘win at all costs’ sport culture in hockey which normalises violence, aggression, drinking, bullying, sexist and homophobicbanter,” and the degradation of women and 2SLGBTQ+ people. This behaviour is often dismissed as 'boys being boys '. 

Over the last two-decades, researchers have consistently reported finding highly sexualised cultures in youth hockey settings, particularly at the elite and highly competitive levels. They have found violent language such as “a kill” or “pumping” used to describe sex with women. It is telling that “Canada’s Game” has struggled to attract women to play the sport. In contrast, much of the global growth in sports such as soccer or rugby union now comes from new participation by women, girls, and diverse communities.  

However, it is critical to highlight that there is extensive evidence that men are also harmed and they are often the victims of sexual violence. This is illustrated by the evidence provided by former hockey players pursuing a class action lawsuit against Canadian and American hockey leagues for “systemic abuse suffered by young players” which they claim included “widespread and ritualized hazing, racism, homophobia, sexual and physical abuse.” Reviews of research by the IOC and sports medicine bodies have found this type of sport culture is harmful to the mental and physical health of athletes, negatively impacts their performance, and is a key risk factor for substance abuse, suicide, and self-harm. 

Men in hockey leadership must drive change

Most men in the hockey community are good people, but they are shaped by the culture of the sport. Changing hockey culture must start with the men at the top. 

 

The men who lead hockey organisations, commentate about hockey, or benefit commercially from selling hockey-related products do not reflect a diverse and inclusive modern Canada. The Canadian Government must ensure this changes. A small group of individuals use their power as gatekeepers to protect the status quo and maintain an outdated and narrow definition of what it is to be a successful ‘man’ in the hockey world (e.g., aggressive, physically dominant, white, heterosexual, and emotionally restricted).    

Athletes experience intense pressures to conform to others and experience career-limiting repercussions if they break the ‘code of silence’ around harmful behaviours. This is why a video of a woman allegedly being sexually assaulted in 2003 has only now become public.

If hockey commentators and corporate sponsors truly want change to occur they must stop framing the problems detailed in this letter as “rare” violations of “zero tolerance policies.” These problems are not rare, they are endemic, particularly in elite junior hockey and in other elite male-dominated sports. This type of misleading ‘crisis management’ framing reflects a lack of engagement with scientific research and it is harmful. This harm is explained by the IOC’s 2016 scientific “Consensus Statement” which concluded that:

 

 “Passive attitudes/non-intervention, denial or silence by people in positions of power in sport (particularly bystanders) and lack of formal accountability all create the impression for victims that such behaviours are legally and socially acceptable, and that those in sport are powerless to speak out against them; this bystander effect can compound the initial psychological trauma” (p. 1024).

Canada can be a world leader in finding solutions

Preventing these problems will require strong and long-term leadership from the Canadian Government. This has been lacking in the past. We hope this will now change.

A recent analysis by researchers at the University of Toronto found efforts to prevent these types of problems over the last two decades have been characterized by “recurring cycles of crisis” when allegations of sexual assaults and abuse in Canadian sport emerge, short-term public and media attention on the problem, reactionary policy responses from governments followed by “sluggish implementation,” “active resistance” to new policies from sport leaders and the wider sports community, and “very little observable change” to the underlying culture that enables sexual violence, abuse, and harassment.

Politicians, the media, and the public must begin holding sport leaders accountable and monitoring them closely to ensure they take meaningful action. Creating one-off ‘sensitivity' or 'diversity' training programs’ and ‘complaint lines’ will not be enough to fix the deeply entrenched norms and cultural drivers of these problems. Any complaint-driven program inappropriately places full responsibility for reporting on the victims, rather than on the people responsible for safeguarding vulnerable athletes and setting the values in Canadian sport.

Finally, Hockey Canada and other national sport federations cannot solve these complex problems alone. Change will require significant investment from governments, as well as from the corporations that have benefited commercially from using hockey in their marketing campaigns. We need evidence-based methods to shift these problems.

Sexual violence in sport is not a uniquely Canadian problem, however, Canadians now have the opportunity to become world leaders in developing effective solutions. We offer our support for this important work.

Helen Lenskyj, University of Toronto

Margo Mountjoy, McMaster University

Peter Donnelly, University of Toronto

Lindsay Duncan, McGill University 

Shannon Herrick, McGill University 

Laurel Walzak, Toronto Metro. University

Joseph Recupero, Toronto Metro. University

Brett Pardy, University of the Fraser Valley

David Telles-Langdon, University of Winnipeg

Nathan Kalman-Lamb, Uni. of New Brunswick

Rachelle Miele, Wilfrid Laurier University

Mark Norman, McMaster University

Ryan Gauthier, Thompson Rivers University

Erik Denison, Monash University

Sandra Kirby, University of Winnipeg

Michael Kehler, University of Calgary

Cheryl MacDonald, Saint Mary's University

Gretchen Kerr, University of Toronto

Taylor McKee, Brock University 

Daniel Sailofsky, Middlesex Uni. London

Shannon D.M. Moore, University of Manitoba

Kristi Allain, St. Thomas University 

Erin Morris, State Uni. of NY at Cortland

Teresa Anne Fowler, Concordia University

Martine Dennie, University of Manitoba

MacIntosh Ross, Western University

Kristopher Wells, MacEwan University

Tim Skuce, Brandon University 

IOC Consensus Statements
 

2007

Consensus Statement: Sexual harassment and abuse in sport: https://olympics.com/ioc/news/ioc-adopts-consensus-statement-on-sexual-harassment-and-abuse-in-sport

 

2016

International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement: Harassment and Abuse (Non-Accidental violence) in Sport: https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/50/17/1019

 

2019

Mental health in elite athletes: International Olympic Committee consensus statement: https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/53/11/667

 

Recent research to support your work

 

Hockey

2021: Exposures of hypermasculinity: Aesthetic portrayals of disengaged “Hockey Boys” in a specialized sports academy: https://doi.org/10.1123/ssj.2020-0098

2021: Book review of Overcoming the Neutral Zone Trap: Hockey’s agents of change: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09523367.2022.2081780

 

2021: Masculinity, cancel culture and woke capitalism: Exploring Twitter response to Brendan Leipsic’s leaked conversation: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/10126902211039768 

2019: Exploring the subcultural norms of the response to violence in hockey: https://doi.org/10.1080/17430437.2018.1529027

 

2018: Hockey: Challenging Canada’s game: https://muse.jhu.edu/book/58684

 

2018: Girls love me, guys wanna be me: Representations of men, masculinity, and junior ice hockey in Gongshow Magazine: https://bit.ly/3Oxesfg 

 

2016: Understandings of gender and sexuality and attitudes towards homosexuality among male Major Midget AAA ice hockey players in Canada:  https://spectrum.library.concordia.ca/id/eprint/981103

2015: Crisis Masculinity, Canadian National Identity, and Nostalgic Longings in Don Cherry's Coach's Corner: https://www.utpjournals.press/doi/abs/10.3138/ijcs.52.107

2013: ‘What happens in the room stays in the room’: conducting research with young men in the Canadian Hockey League: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/2159676X.2013.796486

 

2012: Real Fast and Tough: The construction of Canadian hockey masculinity: https://www.canadianscholars.ca/books/rethinking-society-in-the-21st-century-4th-edition 

 

2012: Manifestations of Masculinity among Major Junior Ice Hockey Players: https://spectrum.library.concordia.ca/id/eprint/974057/ 

Preventing sexual violence in sport

2020: One step forward, two steps back: The struggle for child protection in Canadian sport: https://www.mdpi.com/2076-0760/9/5/68  

2020: Organisational factors and non-accidental violence in sport: A systematic review: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smr.2019.03.001

 

2019: Maltreatment in youth sport: A systemic issue: https://doi.org/10.1123/kr.2019-0016  

 

2019: Trouble in paradigm: “Gender transformative” programming in violence prevention: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1077801219872551

 

2018: Revising Canada’s policies on harassment and abuse in sport: A position paper and recommendations: https://kpe.utoronto.ca/sites/default/files/harassment_and_abuse_in_sport_csps_position_paper_3.pdf