“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.
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?”
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.”
“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.”