Last week I linked to Samantha Beattie’s article in the Huffington Post from my Facebook page, which detailed her experience training with and competing for the University of Guelph cross country and track and field teams. Beattie’s story is significant and needs to be highlighted again so that it is not lost in the events of the past week, which I will get into later.
In recounting her time at Guelph, Beattie describes a toxic team culture in which women were pressured to train and race while injured, encouraged to lose weight, and then neglected when they inevitably broke down physically or mentally. In Samantha’s own words: “My experience was one of microaggressions and indifference that cut me down over and over again until I believed I was so fundamentally flawed that I shouldn’t be on the team.” While reading the article I was struck by the similarities between Samantha’s and Mary Cain’s experiences within toxic and abusive running programs. In both the Guelph/Speed River and NOP programs, races and titles were won at the expense of the physical and mental health of female athletes. The collateral damage was athletes who suffered from eating disorders, injuries, and mental illness. These athletes were then gaslighted into believing it was their fault for not being good enough.
Samantha was not alone in her experience at Guelph. Her article, as well as Michael Doyle’s expose that broke the story of Scott-Thomas’ sexual abuse of Megan Brown paint a greater picture of irresponsible and unethical coaching practices as well as psycological abuse of student-athletes. Many of us who were outside observers saw patterns of distance runners, particularly women, in that program losing weight and/or racing injured. Some of them became too broken to continue in the sport. As stated in Doyle’s article, “one former student described the women’s team as ‘one big eating disorder’ that Guelph and Mr. Scott-Thomas struggled to manage.” It is clear that there was abuse, toxicity, and unethical behaviour within the University of Guelph/Speed River program that has not yet come to light. It is also clear that people in leadership positions other than Dave Scott-Thomas helped perpetuate and enable this toxic culture.
It is important that we speak publicly about the abuse and toxicity that happened in Guelph, even if it is difficult, painful, and uncomfortable to do so. We need to hold individuals and institutions responsible for their complicity. We need open discussion about why this was allowed to happen and what can be done to prevent it in the future. Based on the lack of response by the University of Guelph and Athletics Canada in 2006 and the refusal of both to take responsibility when Megan Brown’s story broke earlier this year, one could assume that institutions and organizations are more interested in protecting their public image than they are in having this important conversation.
This brings us to Queen’s University and the firing of cross country head coach Steve Boyd. I will not list the medals and titles that the Queen’s Cross Country team won under Steve Boyd’s leadership. In this context, it does not matter whether Boyd coached a winning team or not. What does matter is that Boyd built a distance running program at Queen’s that succeeded because it was the opposite of Guelph’s ‘win at all costs’ culture. Boyd consistently prioritizes athlete physical and mental health over results and encourages a culture of open and honest communication rather than silence and neglect. This positive team culture that he has built over the past ten years at Queen’s fosters healthy long term athlete development and empowers athletes to continue to enjoy the sport long after their collegiate years.
In his strong advocacy for safety and fairness in sport, Boyd does not hesitate to condemn abuses of power in any form. He and other Canadian coaches repeatedly and over the span of several years called out Guelph and Speed River leadership for unethical actions and abuses of power. Doing so subjected Boyd to (mostly anonymous) attacks on his credibility, yet he persisted because it was the right thing to do. Staying silent, while easier, was incompatible with his drive to protect the integrity of our sport and the athletes involved in it.
Earlier this month, the most egregious example of abuse in Guelph was brought to the attention of the public when Megan Brown spoke on record to the Globe & Mail. While Queen’s University administrators and others in the media have attempted to present Megan Brown’s story and Steve Boyd’s firing as completely separate and unrelated, this way of thinking is at best misguided and at worst disingenuous. Less than a week before Boyd was fired, he was given a verbal warning by the Queen’s Athletics Director Leslie Dal Cin. In Boyd’s words, “she said I couldn’t talk about Dave Scott-Thomas or the University of Guelph in any matter – I could think about it, and that’s about it.”
Indeed, Athletics Ontario issued a policy reminder yesterday* in light of the events of the past month: “On top of these unfortunate events there has been a trend to engage in expressing opposing opinions on various social media platforms, in a negative manner.” Athletics Ontario warned its members to “refrain from public criticism of other members of the athletics community.” Timing and context is important here; Athletics Ontario issuing this statement in the wake of Megan Brown and Samantha Beattie detailing the abuse (sexual and psychological in Megan’s case, psychological in Samantha’s) they suffered while at Guelph could be interpreted as an attempt to muzzle attempts by athletes and coaches to call out abusers publicly. Throughout the #MeToo movement, abusers have been outed largely through news media and social media. Survivors used these channels as a means of speaking out and naming their abusers precisely because the existing system of reporting had failed them.
Megan Brown’s story shook the Canadian running community and led to public outcry not only over the abuse she suffered, but also how the University of Guelph and Athletics Canada saw it fit to protect her abuser, to the detriment of her running career and mental health. In making our sport a safe place for all athletes we can require coaches to be educated, certified, and screened, but we also need to get these transgressions out in the open and vocally condemn all those responsible, perpetrators and enablers alike. Yet the response by multiple institutions and organizations suggests a desire (to paraphrase Megan Brown’s coach Hugh Cameron) “to sweep it under the rug.” They couch it in language of policies and codes of conduct but the intent is clear.
Stifling discussion in order to protect the reputations of institutions and people in power will only make it more difficult for victims to speak out and come forward. The inaction of the University of Guelph and Athletics Canada over Dave Scott-Thomas’ abuse and the attempts by Queen’s University and Athletics Ontario to stifle an honest dialogue on the subject cannot be understood as separate; they are two sides of the same coin. Their actions all reflect a propensity to avoid negative publicity, even when doing so causes harm to athletes.
*Note that the original post on athleticsontario.ca was removed, then replaced with a different statement on February 26th, presumably after criticism from AO members. I felt it was important to save and post the original wording of the policy reminder.