With stories of sexual violence in sports dominating headlines, lawyer Steve Indig shares his thoughts on some of the key steps sport organizations must take to foster a safe environment for everyone.
By Connie Jeske Crane
Amidst all the glory of sport—hoisted trophies, rollicking camaraderie and fired-up fans—the spectre of sexual misconduct and abuse continues to reappear with alarming frequency in Canada. From hockey to gymnastics and virtually all sport organizations, the hard truth is, there is more work to be done.
In July of this year, 28 academic researchers sent an open letter to the Canadian government seeking meaningful action from sports leaders and politicians on sexual violence in sport. Why are we still seeing so many cases of abuse? And how can sport organizations shift the culture and proactively protect all participants?
We took our questions to Steve Indig, a partner with Sport Law, a consulting organization whose services include legal representation, risk management and leadership solutions. Indig shared these key steps in a multi-pronged approach:
Do an inventory
As a first step, Indig recommends taking stock: Do you have the proper policies in place? Are your coaches, athletes, board members and volunteers aware of the required standards and foundational documents that exist?
“So that’s kind of ‘How are you doing? What do you have in place? What are people actually aware of?’ And the second phase would be, ‘OK, let’s identify the gaps and decide how we want to fill those gaps.’” Indig says.
One key tool, says Indig, is ongoing education across an organization, “on how to be in a safe sport environment, also recognizing the signs of safe sport.”
With athletes, education on what’s OK and not OK is an important piece, he explains. “We’re finding a lot of times, particularly the younger people sometimes don’t recognize that what’s happening to them could be viewed as grooming or maltreatment.”
Additionally, “People in authority should be more aware of what they do and how they do it. How are they using social media? [When engaging with young athletes], are they always in the presence of a second screened adult or other certified representatives of the organization?”
When it comes to policy creation, Indig says there’s also a need to review policies regularly, plus make them widely available.
When approached by clients looking for policy help, Indig says, “I usually end up recommending somewhere between 20 and 30 policies depending upon the size of the organization.”
As for reviews, Indig’s recommendation is to try and review policies roughly every three years to keep them relevant.
Beyond the writing of policies, Indig says communication is also essential. “How are people supposed to know how to file a complaint if you don’t post your complaint policy? So we very much advocate for creating them and educating people that they exist. I think they should be on your website.”
While not strictly a mitigation step, speaking to an insurer about insurance coverage is recommended and can help a sport organization ensure funds are available to cover litigation claims or settlements (versus drawing on monies from membership fees). Indig says, “When [a claim] runs through insurance, the majority of times the legal fees are paid by the insurer, as is the settlement. But again, it really depends on the type of coverage that is included in the policy.”
And what if an organization receives an allegation? Canada’s Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner has a mandate to administer a code of conduct, and prevent and address maltreatment in sport. However Indig says, “There is still an obligation for the clubs and the province and the national bodies themselves to have mechanisms to deal with it.”
Timeliness in handling complaints is also crucial, he adds. “And of course, figuring out what the proper methodology is to resolve the issue. Whether it’s mediation, complaint management, investigation, arbitration, really gets dictated a bit by the allegation, the evidence that comes with the allegation and the possible sanction.”
Support for victims
Finally, Indig notes that, fearing repercussions, victims may still be wary of coming forward. “Our society and our culture within sport has to say ‘We are going to support you and not shun you for coming forward with that allegation.’ So I think the support that we can provide to victims will be crucial.” Ultimately, as Indig stresses, “to make a change in culture requires everybody.”