Even when policy is followed and sanctions are levied, it’s not enough
Last year, I wrote for this site, detailing how existing safe sport protections in Canada are woefully insufficient. The objective of the piece was not to lambaste amateur sport organizations for these shortcomings because, while many amateur sport organizations could and should do more, nothing they can do will actually solve the problem. Instead, I argued that the only path to safe sport is through a federally-funded, multi-sport system of education, reporting and discipline. Unfortunately, this past week, the CBC reported on a story that highlights why this is necessary because, even when existing protections work as intended, they are insufficient.
The facts of the case are clearly laid out in the CBC story, including first-hand testimony from the affected athletes. The case hinged on a recording made by a player, which captured coach Jenya Feldman berating his players in a profanity-laced tirade, in which he used the f-word 156 times, and threatened players with physical violence in response to their perceived shortcomings. The ultimate outcome was that the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association (OWHA) suspended Feldman permanently, with possible reinstatement no sooner than 31 May 2036. The suspension was levied approximately four months after the incident took place and the OWHA was clear that Feldman’s conduct was “extremely inappropriate” and that “there is no place in the OWHA program for adults, especially coaches, who emotionally abuse players.”
The issue that the CBC story brought to light is the fact that Feldman is still running his private, Ontario-based hockey school in Canada and the United States. He is travelling with the team, coaching in games, running practices, and participating in extracurricular activities. Quite reasonably, the players and parents who reported the abuse are asking how this is possible. The answer is that while the ban levied by the OWHA is enforceable across Canada, it only applies to sanctioned amateur hockey, and not to private companies. As soon as Feldman leaves the ecosystem of sanctioned hockey, he is simply another private business owner, outside the jurisdiction or oversight of Hockey Canada, or any other governing body. Feldman can still refer to himself as a coach, trade on his past successes, and is under no obligation to disclose to potential parents and athletes that he is under suspension.
So, despite the actions of the teenaged players who were subject to Feldman’s abuse and had the courage to expose his behaviour and the decisive discipline levied by the OWHA, Feldman is still able to run a hockey-coaching business in Canada. Despite his indefinite suspension, if parents are willing to pay him to coach their children, he can do so – just not on Hockey Canada-sanctioned teams or competitions. This speaks to the challenge of the existing safe sport landscape in Canada. The OWHA has levied the heaviest sanction available to them – they have done their duty – but it isn’t enough.
This is why the paradigm must shift. We need proactive education, combined with a rigorous regulatory framework. In essence, we need to take what the US Center for Safe Sport is attempting to do and combine it with the professional regulatory structures that already exist in Canada, under the mandate of the federal government. There is no reason why our governments regulate the professions of teaching, counselling, and even dietetics, but not coaching. The Coaching Association of Canada is already working towards something similar, with their “Registered Coach” and “Chartered Professional Coach” designations. However, these designations are voluntary and lack the specific educational requirements, as well as the disciplinary power and tracking, that is necessary to make this system effective. This is not to diminish the work that dedicated individuals are doing to provide safe sport for participants across Canada – this is important work and should be lauded – it’s just not enough.
The need for sporting experiences that are free from discrimination, harassment, and abuse is bigger than any individual sport. However, we have yet to see Canadian governments take on the responsibility of protecting athletes. Instead, that responsibility is devolved to hundreds of national and provincial sport organizations across the country with a clear line drawn between what is criminal, and taken seriously, and what is not. This leaves us with a patchwork of safe sport protections and it is through those gaps that abusive individuals find ways to continue their abuse and avoid accountability. Unfortunately, the research is in and the results are clear: self-regulation does not work. The current system is simply not good enough.