Community Open letter to student-athletes, the University of Guelph, and the Canadian running...

    Open letter to student-athletes, the University of Guelph, and the Canadian running community

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    We are writing this letter as a group of alumni from the University of Guelph Track and Field team to express our concern that the systemic issues that publicly came to light following the termination of head coach Dave Scott-Thomas in the fall of 2019 have not been properly investigated and addressed. We are deeply disappointed in the responses from the University of Guelph thus far and are concerned that the systems that enabled the health and well-being of many athletes to be harmed by individuals in positions of power are still in place. 

    The complaints and warnings that were provided to academic and athletic administrations at the University of Guelph were largely ignored, which led to over a decade of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse until details were exposed in a Globe and Mail article. Following the release of the article, we were hopeful that the University would conduct a transparent and independent investigation to ensure all athletes’ experiences were documented. Our hope was that an investigation would help address the systems that enabled this environment to persist and lead to positive cultural changes in athletics programs. However, we were disappointed for the following reasons: 

    1. The University did not conduct a thorough review or investigation as advocated for by over 200 faculty members and others in the community. Instead, they engaged McLaren Global Sports Solutions (MGSS) to conduct a limited policy review and survey of current student-athlete experiences. The MGSS review failed to address allegations of abuse that occurred for over a decade at the University of Guelph (see the MGSS Final report)

    2. The University of Guelph excluded former athletes from participating in the MGSS review. 

    3. The University of Guelph refused invitations to meet with a group of alumni to discuss our concerns. After being unable to participate in the MGSS review, we sought out leading experts in restorative justice to help facilitate discussions between the University and alumni, and this opportunity for a dialogue was turned down by senior administration. 

    Our experiences as both student-athletes and as alumni have led us to feel that the University of Guelph did not take accounts of abuse and maltreatment at their institution seriously, and that this pattern of ignorance persists. Based on these experiences, we have little confidence that athletes’ health and well-being are a priority and that meaningful action is being taken to ensure that similar circumstances to those described herein do not repeat themselves. The inability to be heard by the University has prompted us to reach out directly to the community at large to outline our experiences and the actions we have tried to take to enact meaningful change. 

    We also wish to direct this letter to those whom we ultimately hope to help:

    Current and future student-athletes. We want to make athletes aware of patterns within athletics programs that can be harmful and to empower them to advocate for themselves. 

    Complaints to the administration and concerns raised with coaching staff were often ignored. We have had the time to reflect upon our experiences at the University of Guelph and develop an understanding of the systematic mistreatment that occurred on our team (see this article by a fellow alum). In hindsight, we are able to identify that we were convinced to accept certain harmful behaviours and situations as “normal.” The inability to identify the toxic culture that existed was in large part due to the consistent ostracization of those who attempted to speak up. 

    Some individuals among us expressed concerns about the team’s toxic environment to multiple individuals within the athletics department at the University of Guelph during our time as athletes in the 2010s, before the information regarding Dave Scott-Thomas’s conduct dating back to the early 2000s was publicly released. These concerns included public and private humiliation, withholding communication and attention from athletes, encouraging or in some cases requiring athletes to train and compete while coping with injuries, neglect of mental and physical health including eating disorders, labelling outsiders and detractors as “crazy”, and inappropriate behaviour. 

    While in some instances representatives of the department met with us individually, the meetings ultimately did not result in meaningful changes, and repeated requests for updates on how our concerns would be acted upon were met with no response. Those who approached the athletic department during their time on the team did so in hopes that future athletes would not endure similar harmful experiences. Many of us were saddened to hear of accounts of abuse that led to Dave Scott-Thomas’s termination years after the department had been warned. 

    During our time on the team many of us felt a lack of autonomy over our health and confidentiality in how it was handled. There was an expectation that we were only to be treated by the integrated sports team (IST) that was predetermined by our coach. This medical team included several practitioners with close personal relationships with Dave, leading to the possibility of conflicts of interest in our care. We were often discouraged from seeking a second opinion from other health practitioners outside of the prescribed IST. In addition, there were instances where many of us were asked to run on injuries that had been diagnosed by health professionals. We feel that the lack of choice and separation between our coach and medical/therapy staff enabled the prioritization of performance over health. This environment prevented us from seeking unbiased care and led us to witness many teammates being pushed past their physical breaking points. We watched a large number of our teammates face injuries and in addition saw a large discrepancy between the treatment and attention given to those struggling with injury and those who were performing well. 

    Similar to many other institutions across Canada, there was a lack of female coaching staff present on our team. We felt the absence of female representation resulted in a bias towards the male experience, and ultimately contributed to a lack of understanding of the unique challenges for women in sport. This lack of balance in perspective from staff resulted in the feeling amongst many of us on the women’s team that complaints or dissent would be viewed as being a result of stereotypical traits associated with women, namely being too weak, too emotional, or too unstable, as opposed to being related to genuine problems with the program.

    In a sport such as track and field, with high rates of eating disorders that disproportionately affect women (although they also affect men), we had a lack of support to address medical issues on our team. Many of us requested more female representation and support in our year-end surveys, and despite some effort to fill this gap, very few women remained in coaching roles long-term. 

    The University of Guelph has not undertaken a thorough investigation. Following the publication of the Globe and Mail article, the University announced on 8 February 2020 that it would be hiring McLaren Global Sport Solutions (MGSS) to conduct an external review of its Athletics Department. The stated mission of MGSS is to “help their clients protect and enhance their brand, navigate difficult organizational issues, and inform strategic business decisions”. We were disappointed that the University did not hire an organization experienced in reviewing allegations of abuse and maltreatment. We were further disappointed to find that the final report published in November 2020 failed to address how an abusive environment was allowed to persist despite numerous complaints against coaching staff, many of which were backed with concrete evidence. The report instead focused on current university policy documents and survey responses from current student-athletes, of whom 28 (9.7%) were track and field athletes. Its primary outcomes included recommendations for more streamlined complaint protocols, as well as improved awareness and training on these protocols for coaches and student-athletes. 

    While this form of evaluation has some value, it fails to address the roots of the situation at hand, in which existing policy was inadequate or not enforced across several administrative levels over a span of many years, thus enabling Dave Scott-Thomas to continue coaching without reproach. The report makes reference to Scott-Thomas and the track team “situation” only once in its Executive Summary in the context of the “me too” movement, yet does not justify how its methods nor its conclusions address the purported “catalyst” for the report. By not considering the specific mechanisms that led to the abuses of student-athletes like Megan Brown and others, the report is incapable of proposing changes that would prevent similar situations from occurring in the future. We believe that the lack of a comprehensive investigation into these circumstances represents a lost learning opportunity for the University as well as the broader sporting community, where countless abuse scandals in elite sport settings have recently come to light. 

    Attempts to meet with the current administration were rejected. Our efforts to be heard and acknowledged by the University have been a one-sided effort on our part. As alumni, we reached out to the past President, Franco Vaccarino, to request to be involved in the MGSS review. We were informed we were not allowed to participate and share our experiences directly with the reviewers. Instead, past athletes that reached out to the University were directed to the University’s HR department who would be “summarizing our experiences” to provide to the reviewers. We felt that this defeated the purpose of hiring a third party to conduct the review. Some of us filed complaints with sports governing bodies outside of the University who then redirected us back to the University HR department. We felt that the consistent redirection to the University’s HR department to share our accounts was inappropriate and a conflict of interest because it hinged on members of the University’s staff providing feedback that may implicate members of their own institution. 

    Due to the exclusion of alumni from the MGSS review and absence of any confidential and impartial process to deal with accounts from alumni, the University remains without a comprehensive understanding of the treatment athletes may have endured at their institution and how to avoid these situations in the future. Because of this, we identified that the most effective way to be heard by the University would be through a restorative justice process. We solicited the help of two experts in restorative justice with the purpose of opening a dialogue with the University so that they could hear directly our experiences and suggestions for systemic change. During the Fall of 2020, we extended multiple invitations to the University’s senior administration. Each of these invitations were rejected. In her response to our invitation, the current University of Guelph president, Dr. Charlotte Yates, stated that it was not in the best interest of the University to engage with us in this way. Revisiting these conversations is exhausting and harmful to alumni who had negative experiences at the University of Guelph. Each time our efforts are refused by the University, we feel further denied an opportunity to be heard, acknowledged, and contribute to progress towards safer sport for all athletes. 

    We want to empower current athletes to advocate for themselves. Athlete-coach relationships have the potential to be life-changing in a positive way; however, the influence coaches have can be misused. Young collegiate athletes are at the precipice of their independent adult lives and face unprecedented expectations and pressures, and are therefore vulnerable to psychological and physical abuse in relationships with power imbalances. Without education about power dynamics, manipulation, and abuse, young athletes can easily find themselves unknowingly in harmful environments. Without access to unbiased mental health and counselling resources and reporting structures, it is likely that athletes exposed to these harmful environments will either: 1) not realize the environment is harmful and internalize the harm as their own fault, or 2) be unable to enact changes to stop the harm from happening and internalize this lack of regard for their well-being as deserved. 

    We urge athletes to check-in with their teammates. Many of us have recognized that we often sheltered our negative experiences from one another due to a carefully designed culture of fear and loyalty, ultimately leading to a sense of alienation from our teammates. We also urge athletes to place their individual health and well-being ahead of performance and to be relentless in advocating for the medical care they require and deserve. We want to make clear that athletes should not be afraid of their coaches. Despite the inherent power imbalances that exist within most institutions, fearing those in higher up positions is a strong indicator of abuse of power. We want to remind athletes that coaches are intended to enhance their experience, guide them to be the best version of themselves, and ultimately have their best interest in mind. 

    The University still has the opportunity to do better. The University of Guelph was a place where many of us experienced tremendous personal growth and made life-long friendships. Despite the problems that occurred, we hold the University to a high standard and still hope that they will take the right next steps. While they enjoy the successes of their programs, institutions must also demonstrate that they are accountable for their failures. The negative experiences of athletes on the University of Guelph’s Track and Field team are unfortunately too common in collegiate athletics. Many collegiate athletes, members of the running community, track clubs, and academic institutions are following the situation that is unfolding at the University of Guelph. We believe this is a critical moment in collegiate athletics and the University of Guelph has the opportunity to demonstrate how an institution can conduct itself in the face of these challenges – namely, how they can take the path that seeks to understand and own the problems that occurred in the pursuit of better systems to protect athletes. 

    We are calling on the University of Guelph to undertake an independent, comprehensive, and transparent investigation to determine how its existing policies failed to protect student-athletes from an abusive environment. We ask that this investigation be conducted by an external body and formally look into complaints and concerns brought to the attention of the University of Guelph administration since 2006. Finally, we ask that this investigation engage both current and former student athletes along with our restorative justice experts, and that its findings and methods be made available to the public.

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