Researchers call for meaningful action to end sexual violence in sports
Open letter from Canadian experts and academics on sexual violence in hockey and other sports
Open Letter from Experts
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.
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:
Independent oversight and regulation of sport at the local, provincial, and national level.
Openness and transparency with regular reporting of incidents and regulatory compliance to ensure accountability and change is occuring.
Investment in the development of evidence-based and effective approaches which target and change the drivers of sexual violence in sport.
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 homophobic “banter,” 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.
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).
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
Consensus Statement: Sexual harassment and abuse in sport: https://olympics.com/ioc/news/ioc-adopts-consensus-statement-on-sexual-harassment-and-abuse-in-sport
International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement: Harassment and Abuse (Non-Accidental violence) in Sport: https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/50/17/1019
Mental health in elite athletes: International Olympic Committee consensus statement: https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/53/11/667
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/
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