In the room of Canadian university athletics, it would seem, only the elephant remains.
Two years ago this week, the biggest and most salacious sports misconduct story in Canadian university athletics history broke on none other than front page of our putative national newspaper, the Globe and Mail. The now infamous story—written by former Canadian Running Magazine editor turned investigative journalist Michael Doyle—documented in painful specificity the sexual exploitation by her coach, Dave Scott-Thomas, of a then 17-year-old Megan Brown, a local distance running standout and, eventually, prize recruit to Scott-Thomas’ burgeoning powerhouse cross country and distance track program at the University of Guelph. But beyond the tragedy of Megan Brown, her stolen athletics career, and her subsequent mental health struggles, Doyle’s months-long digging uncovered evidence of an ongoing culture of systematic, performance-driven abuse and neglect of student athletes, to which several current and former team members, some speaking under their own names and others choosing to remain anonymous, were willing to attest in some detail. Indeed, a couple of weeks later, in a follow up piece in Huffpost Canada , recent Guelph alum Samantha Beattie would confirm the accuracy of Doyle’s portrait of the program, coming as close as legally possible to exposing the identities of Scott-Thomas’ key enablers within the program’s “integrated support team” (IST). But even this would turn out to be the only part of a much more sordid tale of abuse and neglect, one that appeared to implicate the upper reaches of Guelph Athletics administration.
In the days and weeks that followed, many secondary stories appeared in local and national media, including those of the firing and eventual banning from the sport entirely of Dave Scott Thomas; my firing from Queen’s University for unauthorized “public commentaries” on Dave Scott-Thomas and the University of Guelph; the call by hundreds of Guelph faculty for a full investigation of the university’s apparent failure to act on knowledge of Scott-Thomas’ abuse of Megan Brown as far back as 2005; and, Athletics Canada’s apparent knowledge and implicit condoning of Guelph’s non-handling of Scott-Thomas affair (indeed, “rewarding” may be a more accurate descriptor, as Athletics Canada (AC) continued to hand him ever greater resources and power within the sport, all of it indirectly benefitting his principle employer, the University of Guelph, even after gaining full knowledge of his highly questionable past– a time-bomb that, for reasons known only to it, AC was willing to leave ticking underneath its whole operation). In the spring of 2020, and in spite of the looming COVID-19 pandemic crisis, the forces of what could end up being a powerful wave of change within Canadian athletics were gathering.
But the anticipated wave never broke. To date, there has been no further inquiry of any kind into what happened at Guelph and within Athletics Canada, no public statements of accountability, and no professional sanctioning, symbolic or otherwise, of anyone in a position to have enabled or ignored the actions of Dave Scott-Thomas while he remained, for 14 years after his abuse of Megan Brown, the most powerful and influential figure in the Canadian distance running, if not in Canadian athletics itself. Indeed, revelations posted a year later by a group of women alums that Guelph athletes had consistently raised concerns, both formal and informal, about Scott-Thomas and his program were met with complete silence by a larger media that had only a few months prior dined out on this story, and with complete indifference within the online community of Canadian athletics. Even public demonstrations of solidarity by current Canadian university athletes provoked not even boilerplate statements of concern from the relevant administrative mouthpieces. Silence was the new order of the day.
Thus, two years on, the elephant of the Guelph scandal remains squarely in the room of Canadian athletics in general and university athletics in particular. In fact, the beast has only grown, having been fed by a steady stream of come-and-go scandals, followed up by the usual policy-speak platitudes and P.R. happy-talk. Except that now “the room” seems empty of all but the elephant; there have been fewer and fewer people with each passing month willing to acknowledge its presence, let alone take its measure.
So, what have we learned?
With the aid of a cascade of similar scandals both here and in the US involving abuse of the vulnerable and dodged accountability by the powerful, the failure of the Guelph/Scott-Thomas affair to produce meaningful change in the culture of Canadian athletics offers lessons big and small to those willing to receive them, including:
- When it comes to promoting top performance, abuse works.
Thanks to the courageous sacrifices of a few whistle-blowers within the world of elite sport, and to the willingness of some mainstream media to cover their stories, the general public has learned what those of us who have spent our entire lives within this world already knew well: That the abuse of athletes can sometimes drive competitive success– success that can then help to build a wall of protection from accountability for abusers and their enablers.
Stories such as that of American junior distance star Mary Cain’s abuse and humiliation at the hands of supposed super-coach Alberto Salazar; University of Oregon coach Robert Johnson’s “science-driven” inducement to dangerous weight-loss practices among his student athletes; and the Canadian synchronized swimming national team program’s weaponization of financial support to compel its athletes to meet arbitrary weight-loss targets, never mind the decades-long example of East European sport practice, clearly shows that the abuse of athletes by coaches and their support staffs, while morally reprehensible, is not, at least from the point of view of promoting top performance, a “mistake”. In many situations, the abuse of athletes is integral to a development style designed to compel individual athletes to do things in pursuit of victory, or even just a spot on the roster, that they would not otherwise contemplate; things such as continuing to train when injured or sick, forcing their weight below healthy levels, or enduring forms of psychological manipulation in order to remain part of the team or program. When successful, the performance-driven abuse of athletes is often also its own system of coverup. When abusive systems succeed competitively, they attract the support of fans, financial backers, and various professional careerists, including ancillary specialists, creating a unified community that any potential whistle-blowing victim must be willing to confront in order to be heard. Winning programs at the same time create a core of successful athletes, current and former, who can be counted on– often because they have been successful in running the gauntlet of systematic abuse where others have not– to stand in support of the team or program when their teammates speak out. It’s no surprise then that in its latest rebrand, which comes in wake of its most successful Olympic Games in almost a century, but also in close proximity to revelations of questionable conduct by its own CEO, Athletics Canada chose to double down on its efforts at promoting a culture that elevates winning above all else, rather than openly addressing its inability to properly deal with the toxic behaviour that such a culture tends to encourage and excuse.
Dave Scott-Thomas’ sexual exploitation of Megan Brown, while it was the act that drew the interest of the media, and riveted non-expert members of the public to the larger story, was clearly not a “performance-driven” form of athlete abuse. It therefore seems possible to see it as entirely isolated from, and perhaps even anomalous in relation to, his professional role as coach– as, in other words, a “mistake”, or lapse in judgement. But the kinds of coaches who are psychologically capable of ignoring athletes’ competitive self-harming and moral stunting in pursuit of victory are, it stands to reason, also more likely to be comfortable abusing athletes in other, non-performance-driven ways. As it happened, at the same moment that a younger Dave Scott-Thomas was sexually exploiting a vulnerable 17 year old athlete, he was also beginning to learn that it was possible to succeed in coaching and program-building through means other than, or in addition to, simple skill and knowledge. He was also learning that competitive success could be a powerful prophylaxis against the critical scrutiny of one’s methods, both inside and outside the program. And so contrary to the inclination of some of his supporters (and, in fact, he himself) to view Scott-Thomas’ coaching success in isolation from his sexual exploitation of a young athlete (and then lying about it when directly questioned– an important detail), and thus as a form of tragedy for both parties, Scott-Thomas actually achieved what he did in coaching via the same ethical vacuity that enabled him live seemingly comfortably with what he did to a young Megan Brown. It was all of a piece, the sexual abuse of Megan Brown and the performance-driven abuse of other athletes– and the beneficiary was always, first and foremost, he himself; but also, importantly, the University of Guelph.
And there can be little doubt that the unprecedented success of Scott-Thomas’ programs is the reason the University of Guelph’s senior administration was willing to protect him as long as it possibly could, just as it is the reason it has been willing and able to withstand two years of withering public pressure to reveal what it has surely long-known about the human costs of this success. It is not unreasonable to assume, furthermore, that Guelph admin has read the relative silence of the Guelph sport community, including financial donors and program alumni, as enduring support for Dave Scott-Thomas’ legacy, however qualified for some. Perhaps they themselves viewed him as some kind of flawed genius, and see his outspoken victims as– as some of his supporters have anonymously avowed, and as many social media defenders of Alberto Salazar have openly suggested about his victims– really just disgruntled losers too weak to cope with his “uncompromising style”. Or, perhaps they have convinced themselves that they, or Guelph athletes alone, are responsible for the success of the programs Scott-Thomas led– that is, in spite of the fact that his signature is indelibly etched on every detail of these programs, and in spite of the vital work he and his staff did to assemble and prepare the athletes who did the actual competing and winning (and, of course, team titles in cross country and track and field depend first and foremost on successful programming, including the assembling of talented athletes through a competitive recruiting process– a job that falls primarily to paid staffs orchestrated by head coaches). In any case, ironically, if it is the case that the success of Dave Scott-Thomas’ programs have protected University of Guelph administration from demands for greater scrutiny and accountability lo these past two years, it ultimately failed to shield Scott-Thomas himself. To date, he has born 100% of the shame, and all without uttering a public word about who within his inner circle knew what, when.
- Sports administrations won’t save us.
Indeed, from top to bottom, the people and systems ostensibly charged with regulating sport in the interests of athlete health and other virtues appear to be on the side of abuse and abusers– at least up to the point where public scrutiny and pressure make it impossible to cover up ugly truths (but even then, their impulse is to obfuscate and avoid real accountability).
For examples, one need look no further than the International Olympic Committee and World Athletics themselves, whose egregious examples make for the lowest imaginable ethical bar for the administrative rungs beneath them.
In recent years the IOC has moved beyond its mere customary tacit support of toxic nationalism and violent authoritarianism (see the Berlin, Mexico, and Beijing editions of the Games)– defended, with bitter irony, in terms of liberal internationalism and anti-politics– to outright attacks on the integrity of sport, public health, and the human rights of athletes themselves. In just the past 8 years, the IOC has: Defended the right of Russia to continue to participate in and exploit the Games for propaganda purposes, in spite of voluminous and incontrovertible evidence that its sports federations have systematically and repeatedly violated international doping regulations, including while acting as hosts of the Games themselves!; acted against the overwhelmingly expressed wishes of the people of Japan, who asked that the 2021 Games be postponed or cancelled to protect the country and its health care system from the massive outbreak of COVID-19 that it feared hosting the world’s athletes, diplomats, and press for several weeks might trigger; and, actively participated in the bizarre cover-up by Chinese authorities of the disappearance of tennis star Peng Shuai, following her public accusation of sexual assault by a senior Chinese Communist Party official. Meanwhile, for its part, World Athletics (WA, formerly the IAAF) is today led by a figure (Sebastian Coe) who, for 7 years, stood second-in-command to a leader (Lamine Diack) who went on to be convicted of trading bribes for exonerations from active doping violations. During his years working closely with a man he claimed to have viewed as a “spiritual leader”, Coe claimed to have seen absolutely no evidence of corruption, despite Diack’s apparently minimal attempts to hide his behaviour, just as he claims today to have been unaware of the extent of Russian doping in athletics over the past 10 years.
Lower down and closer to home, here in Canada there is little reason for optimism when it comes to the inclination of top leadership to properly bring abusers and abusive systems to account, in spite of some official recognition of the extent of the problem. In response to a steady stream of abuse scandals across multiple sports– including the resignation of Canadian Olympic Committee President Marcel Arbut himself in the face of accusations of sexual harassment throughout his tenure– the federal government announced the creation of a new investigative agency empowered to take and act on complaints of abuse and other forms of misconduct within the sports organizations that operate under its broad jurisdiction, with the promise that this agency would be replicated at the provincial level, creating the possibility that school-based sports programs, and interuniversity programs in particular, would one day face outside, independent scrutiny. But, as the Globe and Mail revealed in the course of its investigation into abuse within Canadian Synchronized Swimming, even this plan contains a provision that makes the whole enterprise seem like just another exercise in P.R.-driven obfuscation: National sports organizations must first consent to being investigated; and, even then, can demand that investigative reports be submitted to the relevant CEOs before public release! It would not be too cynical to suggest that such a “solution” to the problem of abuse in sport amounts to a tacit admission at the highest levels of sport funding that some degree of athlete abuse is integral to, or at least to be expected within, elite sport in particular– an uncomfortable truth that the tax-paying public presumably cannot handle, and from which it must be shielded. How else to explain a system ostensibly designed to expose and punish abuse from which potential abusers and their enablers have the right to opt out!?
A rare bright spot within sports admins’ otherwise dismal record of uncovering and punishing abusers is the US Safe Sport organization, which managed to resist the power of Nike (the virtual owner of the sport of athletics in the US, through its multi-year sponsorship of USATF, the national governing body) in banning Alberto Salazar, Mary Cain’s abuser and serial violator of WA/IAAF anti-doping regulations. But as the abovementioned scandal at the University of Oregon would seem to suggest, abuse in professional athletics is the tip of an iceberg the bulk of which lies submerged within the NCAA, which remains almost completely self-regulating when it comes to anything but the worst kinds of misconduct. As anyone familiar with that system can attest, the NCAA is far more concerned with enforcing its arcane recruiting and eligibility regulations (designed reinforce the fiction that its sports are “amateur” in nature) than it is with protecting the health and safety of athletes. To date, there have been no sanctions whatsoever imposed on the University of Oregon, or on the University of Arizona for an even more scandalous pattern of long term athlete abuse and neglect.
As for individual university administrations, the U of Guelph scandal has been revealing of the extent to which they can and will simply brazen-out exposure of even the most damning evidence of negligence, complicity, and outright cover-up when it comes to athlete abuse. University admins have other tools at their disposal when it comes to weathering periods of negative publicity, such as sham, privately contracted “reviews of policy and practice” of the kind exposed by the protesting Guelph alums in their open letter linked above; but, in the case of very successful coaches and programs, such as those at the U of Guelph and the U of Oregon, the cheapest an easiest option seems to be to rely on the speed of the news cycle and the ability to wait until any students courageous enough to speak out against the issues have burnt themselves out, or have left in favour of a new, less-personally connected cohort. When it comes to scandals, university administrations have learned that, because very few mechanisms exist for students and staff to hold them accountable, time is always on their side.
- Administrations fear athletes’ words:
It is clear that abusive sports teams and programs, when they are competitively successful, are protected by a build-in mechanism that divides them between the majority of “winners”– those who have survived or even thrived within the program– and the “losers”– those deemed unable to cut it. Nevertheless, athletes who have summoned the courage to speak out about their experiences of abuse have tremendous power and moral stature. As the reaction to stories such as those of Mary Cain, Megan Brown, and the whistle-blower athletes at the University of Oregon show, the narrative of the talented, committed athlete whose desire simply to excel at her sport is abusively exploited by a win-at-all-costs coach or administration resonates deeply with the general public. In each of the above instances, and many others too numerous to mention, the mainstream readership of mass media became briefly united in outrage and moved to demand immediate action upon learning the often painfully intimate stories of physical and mental suffering at their centre. And understandably so. These are often stories of people abandoned by their team mates, broken by impersonal systems, ignored by those charged with protecting their interests, and left with no other alternative but to appeal to the understanding and mercy of a faceless and potentially hostile public. It has only been in these fleeting moments that the guardians of the systems that run and profit from sports have been moved to respond.
(In fact, my own efforts, in the form of a freedom of information request for documents related my dismissal from Queen’s University, exposed the fear of individual university athletics staff, expressed in their own, unfiltered words, of the specter of student- athletes speaking directly to media about issues of concern to them.)
In short, athletes, particularly non-professional student-athletes, have a credibility and a potential power that other potential sports whistle-blowers can simply never attain. The motives of even the most well-meaning, administrator, coach, or support staff never receive the unquestioned assumption of purity that those of athletes typically do, particularly when athletes have broken sport’s fourth wall to address the public directly, thereby making themselves vulnerable (as uber-gymnast Simon Bile’s Olympic collapse made so clear). Non-athletes involved in sport are never morally elevated in the minds of viewers or the general public in the way that athletes themselves so often are; only athletes, therefore, can mobilize the power of symbolically lowering themselves in humility and vulnerability to the level of the average spectator– an act that can provoke profound sympathy for figures usually assumed to be the least likely among us to need it.
But the power of athlete’s own words, as important as it has been in raising awareness of the systemic abuse in sport over the past couple of years, has been vastly underutilized. This is largely because of the reluctance of athletes in general to support each other in more than symbolic ways. Even the most powerful athlete testimonies are limited in their capacity to instigate real change in the culture of serious sport if they ask and receive only empathy from other athletes and not also their solidarity and commitment to sustained action. Public sympathy for athletes as mere victims is usually far too fleeting and easy for the powerful to ignore to itself force meaningful change.
- Administrations fear and respects athletes’ actions more than words:
Only sustained, collective action by athletes to transform their own conditions of play and work– including, and perhaps most importantly, by forcing those who run sport to account for their frequent failure to protect athletes from harm– can change sport for the better. Isolated individual or small group appeals to administration to fix endemic problems in sport are too often registered and addressed by leadership merely as public relations fires to be stamped out. Their response thus often amounts to the announcement of policy changes and new language to address problems, even when nearly identical policies and language are already in place (for example, the athlete feedback systems and complaint mechanisms that were fully in place during much of Dave Scott-Thomas’ tenure as Head Coach at Guelph– as they have been for more than a decade in every university sports program in the country). And, the policy changes admins are willing to cough up almost always focus primarily on the most lurid forms of abuse, such as the physical and sexual abuse and exploitation of athletes; they almost never seriously address more routine, performance-driven forms of abuse, such as implicit inducements to self-harm (e.g. caloric restriction and training or competing through injury) until those practices reach the stage where serious legal liability may occur (e.g. doping, or playing while concussed). What is clearly never up for serious discussion is the question of why existing systems failed and who was responsible for their failure.
But why are examples of real solidarity and collective action by athletes, particularly by student and other non-professional but still elite athletes, so rare? The answer is as simple as it is harsh: the individualized mindset of athletes is exploited by institutions such that they do not know how to act collectively when subjected to routine abuse by coaches and others in positions of power. In short, athletes are always active participants in sport cultures, good and bad, not simply the passive victims or recipients of these cultures. To be a committed athlete is all too often to take sport both too seriously and not seriously enough; to invest far too much importance in competitive success, particularly one’s own success relative to both team mates and opponents, and too little in the importance of sport to enrich (or impoverish) the lives of ALL participants. In so doing, athletes as a constituency open themselves up to division by coaches and others who value and make use of sport for their own often strictly pecuniary– and sometimes more nefarious– ends. Thus it is that individual athletes often learn too late that they have reinforced, by their mere participation, sport cultures that did real harm, moral and sometimes physical, to themselves and others in the name of competitive success, the ultimate value of which was usually fleeting or vanishingly insignificant in the first place. This painful realization often sets in well before advanced adulthood.
The lessons of the Guelph scandal and its failure so far to lead to a proper reckoning center squarely on a tragically missed opportunity for timely, unified action on the part of concerned members of the Guelph team, alumni community, and faculty, particularly after the Guelph Faculty Association signaled its willingness to join the fight for truth and accountability. With the full attention of the mainstream press and the support of the larger sport community secured, the approximately six weeks between the publication of the Doyle expose and the first pandemic lockdown offered an opportunity to bring unprecedented and probably irresistible pressure to bear on an almost certainly internally divided Guelph administration. But that pressure would had to have been led by the affected athletes themselves, past and current, armed with a plan and a set of tactics based on anticipating and resisting administration’s inevitable strategies of defense– deflection of criticism and anger onto the “one bad man” and stalling for time with the promise of a future review– all of which it telegraphed clearly in its early response to the story. The question is: Why didn’t athletes act when the situation was clearest and the chances for success greatest? And also: Is it still possible for Guelph athletes to succeed in their demand for a full accounting of what happened to them under the leadership of Dave Scott-Thomas and his IST?
The answer to the first question is that Guelph athletes, like athletes from all competitively successful but ultimately abusive programs, were divided against themselves; it’s almost certain that not even close to a majority of past and present athletes were open to the suggestion that their vastly successful program was built on a “toxic”, win-at-all costs culture, because that could not have been the immediate experience of the majority, just as Mary Cain’s experience was not the experience of a majority of athletes in the Nike Oregon Project. And, successful programs being full of successful athletes, a significant minority of athletes almost certainly dismissed criticism from within as betrayal or jealously on the part of those who lacked mettle. Still other groups of athletes, while concerned about the negative accounts of the program coming from some of their team mates, not to mention about the fact that their university evidently continued to employ– and empower– someone it knew had had an inappropriate relationship with a very young athlete, probably invested faith in the power of the university system to fully explain itself and fix whatever problems remained within the program. And then, of course, some athletes who had themselves been victims of abuse had probably long since resolved to just move on with their lives. Others may have been indifferent either way to the experiences, good or bad, of team mates they perhaps barely knew (and athletes in individual sports like cross country and track and field, where “team” performance is a mere mathematical construct, are often oblivious to all but their own performance). Finally, there is clear evidence (e.g. athlete testimonies and the mostly-female makeup of the remaining dissenters) of a critical division by gender within the program at Guelph, whether the result of early design by the coaching staff or the evolution of the team culture under a leader with a, one might say, “troubled past” where coaching female athletes is concerned. This division has almost certainly worked against the creation of strong support links between the average male athlete and the mostly female victims of the program.
In the end, and in short, what has been critically lacking as the damning evidence about the program’s past has accumulated is a willingness amongst a sufficient number of Guelph athletes, past and present, to believe one another and to actively, publicly, support one another– to not just privately commiserate or empathize, but to act in solidarity in pursuit of the truth and against the University of Guelph— regardless of their personal experience within the program. It is one thing to offer emotional support to suffering team mates and friends; it is another thing entirely to actually name, and to pledge to help fight against, the agent of their suffering. In this instance, the agent, or agents, of this suffering could not be more clear.
Since there has never been a scandal of this breadth and depth in Canadian athletics, it is impossible to say if this fatal lack has been unique to the program at Guelph. But, those familiar with the program and its leadership over the decades might conclude that it, probably not unlike many other “dynasty” teams and programs , was an almost perfectly designed vehicle for the incubation of– then the denial and concealment of– the kind of hyper-masculine culture of performance-driven abuse that is all too often defining feature of so-called elite sport.
To answer the second question, as two years have passed, it is almost certainly too late for those athletes, past and current, who continue to actively seek transparency and accountability from University of Guelph. The moment of larger community attention and concern is well past, and Guelph admin’s strategy of isolating and drawing into closed-door discussions any remaining dissenters appears to be working as designed– and its overriding concern from the beginning has simply been to shut down open discussion of the affair as quickly and completely as possible. At this point, only something as dramatic as a “withdrawal of service”– a strike, or boycott– by current athletes, acting in solidarity with abused alums, would reengage the larger sport community and Guelph administration alike. But if such a thing was unlikely in 2020 or 2021, it is almost unfathomable in 2022.
But the lessons of the Guelph scandal and others like it remain for athletes and coaches in other programs, current and future, to absorb. In the most general, practical terms, they are as follows:
As participants in sport, as in society at large, we need to learn, or perhaps re-learn, how to act collectively in response to abuse perpetuated by those in power before it happens. As things stand, our focus on individualism encourages people to “stay in their lane” and ignore the plight of others until it’s too late to act effectively.
You, as an athlete or coach, will eventually suffer if you let competitive success cause you to forget the real value of sport– not least because, in very short order, no one will really care who won and who lost, particularly if there was no honour in the winning.
Stand up for what’s right; believe and support one another even if it costs you something. (In fact, that it might cost you something is the best indication that it is worth doing.) Your “team spirit” means nothing if it falls apart when it matters most.
You are allowed to celebrate and take credit for a healthy team culture, but only if you are prepared to be accountable for an unhealthy one, and all that follows from it. And, yes, in sport as in life, you can be both a victim and an accomplice at the same time (we all are). Only taking responsibility redeems you.
Never entirely trust anyone who makes a living administering something you are willing to do for free; their values will never be completely aligned with yours, and they will ultimately not protect you if it costs them something. When forced to choose, they will protect their livelihoods and those of others like themselves, not you.