OPINION | Recent News Shows Accountability Is Key When It Comes To Dealing With Abuse In Sports | CBC Sports


Creating and implementing educational programs and calling for accountability is urgent when it comes to abuse in sports, writes Shireen Ahmed. Establishing a culture of sport that is preventative — not merely responsive — is something that is necessary. 

That includes all involved being responsible for prevention

Shireen Ahmed · for CBC Sports

· Posted: Jan 31, 2024 1:18 PM EST | Last Updated: 40 minutes ago

All involved in sport – from national organizations to parents and athletes – must be responsible for preventing abuse. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)The past few weeks have been up and down for me with respect to the country’s most beloved sports on ice.

In the beginning of January, I read the news that shocked the ice skating world about allegations of sexual assault against Canadian ice dancer Nikolaj Søerensen. The news is never surprising to me, but jarring nonetheless. Despite the allegations, Søerensen is competing for Canada at the Four Continents tournament in Shanghai this week.

Last week, I spent a day in the nation’s capital enjoying a riveting PWHL game. The entire experience was phenomenal. But days before, the news of London police demanding the voluntary surrender of five players from the 2018 Canadian junior hockey team went viral. It is a reminder that the world of sport has many demons to reckon with and we should never be too comfortable.

Then there is the violence of years gone by and the victims of horrific transgressions that have been fighting for some type of acknowledgement and sense of justice. A former ex-coach in Canadian pairs skating was found guilty of crimes committed more than 38 years ago. To me, that is devastating. After a lifetime, an abuser in sport will finally face some type of accountability, but that is not comforting. That is not even possible for many victims of abuse in sport. 

As a sports journalist, these stories never fail to feel discouraging. There are moments when I wonder whether there can ever be peace in sports so we can, you know, focus on the sports. We know about systems of power and abuse, we know that there are ways to prevent systemic racism, sexism, ableism and other societal ills. Abuse (physical, emotional, psychological or verbal) darkens the space of sport that is meant to offer brightness and possibility. 

Irrespective of the scandal, how we navigate these issues is something that I think about often. Whose responsibility is it? Have the national sports organizations (NSO) dealt with issues of reported abuse sufficiently — or at all? Short answer: no. 

Shattered Trust: 83 coaches charged with sexual offences against minors in last 4 years:

Shattered Trust: 83 coaches charged with sexual offences against minors in last 4 yearsFour years ago, a CBC investigation found that more than 200 Canadian coaches had been charged with sexual offences against minors in their care. Since then, at least 83 more coaches have been charged. CBC Sports’ Jamie Strashin details the struggle the government and grass-roots sports organizations are having in keeping young athletes safe from abuse.

Have the media been reporting and covering stories responsibly? There has been so much reporting about abuse in sport and even the ways in which society and sports culture permits it to continue. I have always believed that sport is a connector of people and has a place for justice. But if the main actors in sports are not invested in said justice, then it’s hard to keep giving them excuses. 

There have been increased discussions about abuse in sport in the past five years, and the reality is that no matter what, abuse will continue. I would be naive to think that vulnerable children and athletes subjected to intense power dynamics would not be prey for predators. 

And as distasteful as it might be, no NSO will make a move that will satisfy the public. Skate Canada could not sever ties with Søerensen because of the restrictions of the legal system. But in the meantime, the presence of Søerensen and others who may be accused makes the space feel unsafe for teammates and, most importantly, those who have survived abuse and must relive trauma. 

It feels like no decision is a good decision, no social media post will suffice, and no action will be enough. The truth is that no NSO in Canada has a history of strong leadership in fighting abuse. I can’t think of a single NSO we can point to and say: “I am impressed with this leadership.”

But it can’t fall solely on the shoulders of an NSO when we are all responsible.  

This past December, federal Sports Minister Carla Qualtrough announced measures to track and identify factors in systemic abuse in Canadian sport. But how do we move forward as we face a reckoning? Is it possible? Accountability is essential to moving forward and was never entrenched in our sports culture. In addition to offering space for healing, we, as a society, must admit our failures. 

Have parents, coaches, staff and even athletes committed to being better? Have we committed to unlearning our biases and relearning fairness? Have leaders working with youth dedicated themselves to implementing ideas from anti-racism modules or anti-homophobia and toolkits that are free and available? 

Media must admit that we, too, have failed to report with harm reduction in mind even when guidance and expertise is available; the data is there. 

WATCH: Elite athletes want government action against abuse in sport:

Elite athletes want government action against abuse in sportElite athletes from multiple sports testified about abuse and sexual misconduct at the hands of coaches before a parliamentary committee. They say Canada needs a national inquiry into abuse in sport to protect the next generation.

I don’t enjoy feeling hopeless and I believe there is a solution. But we all must be prepared to take responsibility. Parents and educators must start taking apart enabling systems that can harm. And coaches should understand that it’s okay to learn about how to deal with abuse and create programs to prevent abuse.

My daughter’s U16 elite soccer team implemented a mom-on-the-bench program for her team so that the male coach had a woman present at all times, and he never met the athlete alone. This was his own idea and I think of how lucky we were to have him coach. It protected him and the girls.

CBC News and Sports have been investigating abuse in amateur sport in Canada. Read all of the reporting here.

We can’t stop learning. We can’t stop trying. The moment we cease to put in the efforts we have completely failed. Many hockey lovers have been invigorated by women’s hockey and have been drawn back by a league with no scandals, a fresh perspective, an inclusive space and damn good hockey.

But what’s more important is the attention to safety that the PWHL has already connected with leagues across North America with a platform to offer support with abuse or bullying. It is unprecedented. But that was part of the problem. 

Creating and implementing educational programs and calling for accountability is urgent. 

Establishing a culture of sport that is preventative — not merely responsive — is something that is necessary. 

There is no place for shame or lament. We don’t have time for self pity. We offer spaces and time for healing to survivors of violence. For the rest of us, moving forward is the only way. Sport has given us the answers. We just have to get off the bench, off the sidelines, and apply them. 

Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. If you’re in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911. 


Shireen Ahmed is a multi-platform sports journalist, a TEDx speaker, mentor, and an award-winning sports activist who focuses on the intersections of racism and misogyny in sports. She is an industry expert on Muslim women in sports, and her academic research and contributions have been widely published. She is co-creator and co-host of the “Burn It All Down” feminist sports podcast team. In addition to being a seasoned investigative reporter, her commentary is featured by media outlets in Canada, the USA, Europe and Australia. She holds an MA in Media Production from Toronto Metropolitan University where she now teaches Sports Journalism and Sports Media. You can find Shireen tweeting or drinking coffee, or tweeting about drinking coffee. She lives with her four children and her cat.

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