Queen’s cross country team, threatening exodus over coach’s firing, demands answers

In wide-reaching interview, interim provost addresses Steve Boyd’s firing

Image by: Tessa Warburton
Pressure is mounting on Queen’s administration to reinstate Steve Boyd.

More than half of Queen’s cross country running team could quit if Steve Boyd, the recently-fired head coach, isn’t reinstated, The Journal has learned.

Boyd was dismissed on Feb. 19 after complaints filed by Guelph alumni, among others, who took issue with comments made by Boyd under a Facebook post by Guelph track alumni Robyn Mildren, who had written a statement about her time spent under now-disgraced Guelph University running coach legend Dave Scott-Thomas.

The University disputes that Boyd’s firing was over his criticism of Guelph’s handling of allegations of abuse, instead pointing to the former coach’s online posts, some recent and some dating back a number of years, as the reason for his dismissal.

In a wide-reaching interview with The Journal, Interim Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) Tom Harris said the University has no plans to reinstate him.

According to multiple Queen’s runners, as many as half or three-quarters of the cross country team could quit the program in favour of transferring elsewhere or running exclusively on Boyd’s Kingston-based Physi-Kult club team if he isn’t reinstated. Both of his assistants, Steve Weiler and Leslie Sexton, say they stand in solidarity with Boyd as well.

Harris said that multiple athletes have already begun the process of transferring to other schools. 

A petition for Boyd’s reinstatement, started by the team, had garnered more than 4,100 signatures at the time of publishing, and the cross country team also staged a sit-in at Principal Patrick Deane’s office yesterday.

Boyd’s firing happened just two days before the OUA Championships. In interviews with The Journal, runners say the team is in disarray, and that the administration has left them out to dry.

According to runner Miles Brackenbury, several have had to access mental health counselling in the wake of the firing.

Boyd told The Journal the complaints over his Facebook comments were the final straw for Athletics & Recreation. He had already met with Athletic Director Leslie Dal Cin on Feb. 3 concerning his online presence on the running forum, Trackie.

Dal Cin had requested the meeting with Boyd the day before. The subject line of the email, obtained by The Journal, was “Immediate meeting”, and an attachment contained a screenshot of one of Boyd’s posts, made a day previous.

In the Trackie post, he questioned whether Guelph had been planning to cover up a new sexual misconduct allegation in the same manner they allegedly did in 2006, when their investigation into Dave Scott-Thomas resulted in just a one-month suspension. (Guelph alleges Scott-Thomas lied to them throughout the investigation, and stated that he would have been fired in 2006 had he not misled them).

In that meeting, Boyd says he was told by Dal Cin that the post was “inappropriate,” and that he must immediately refrain from commenting on the Guelph scandal on Trackie and to the media.

On Feb. 10, Boyd made comments on Mildren’s Facebook post about the Scott-Thomas scandal. In them, he compared Guelph runners to “prisoners of war” for how they were at once “collaborators” and victims. He also suggested that Guelph vacate their many provincial and national championships earned after 2006 while Scott-Thomas was still leading the program.

The comments were condemned by the Guelph alumni commenting on the post, and drew the ire of many in the university running community. After a number of complaints that Harris declined to quantify, Dal Cin called another meeting with Boyd for Feb. 13.

In the meeting, Dal Cin contended the comments were a breach of their agreement about online posting made in the Feb. 3 meeting. Boyd countered that Facebook wasn’t included in that agreement. An HR representative at the meeting told Boyd that he wasn’t to comment on the Guelph issue whatsoever, and for an indefinite period of time.

“I used the word ‘gagged’ and she said, ‘No, no, no, not gagged, you have a choice. You have a choice between working for Queen’s and speaking about [the Guelph scandal],’” Boyd said.

Boyd agreed to the request, but Dal Cin still told him she wanted to have a follow-up meeting the next week.

In an audio recording reviewed by The Journal of Boyd’s firing at the follow-up meeting on Feb. 19, Dal Cin acknowledged the coach had complied with the posting ban since their last meeting, but that complaints had continued to come in.

“Mr. Boyd failed to heed repeated warnings from the administration to stop his reckless social media activities,” Harris wrote in Queen’s official statement concerning Boyd’s dismissal.

“Mr. Boyd’s comments follow a pattern of objectionable social media commentary spanning several years, about which he had previously been formally cautioned.”

“Mr. Boyd made numerous statements on social media berating and blaming student athletes who were themselves victims and which only served to re-traumatize them.”

Harris declined to provide specific examples when asked in an interview, although he said he was confident in the evidence. “I had the totality of the of the information in front of me,” he said, while also acknowledging the University had reviewed just the last two months of Boyd’s posts.

“We were focusing, on this case, the egregious behavior [..] around the last posts around shaming and calling out former student athletes at Guelph.”

According to The Globe and Mail, which broke the news of Boyd’s firing, Guelph alumni were surprised by the firing, and they considered it “unwarranted.”

In the tape of Boyd’s firing, Dal Cin said the dismissal was about “[…] the fact that [Boyd was] repeatedly being told not to comment, and then all the complaints that we’ve received regarding that.”

Dal Cin didn’t cite the welfare of the former Guelph student athletes affected by Boyd’s comments as a reason for his firing. Harris denied that the volume of complainants played a factor in the firing.

As per whether there is a record of formal cautions to Boyd, Harris said, “This is a Human Resources matter, and we will not discuss it.”

Boyd denies he was ever given a formal caution: “No, never formally. There were discussions […] but there’s nothing formally, I’ve never got a piece of paper to sign. Nothing.”

Harris said there were a range of disciplinary actions at his disposal, but the “egregious” nature of Boyd’s comments compelled him to take the most extreme measure.

Boyd has since become a persona non grata in Ontario running.

Flanked by security guards who threatened to call the police, York Athletic Director Jennifer Myers demanded Boyd leave the viewing area at last weekend’s OUA Championship, citing its designation as private property.

The track is public, owned by the City of Toronto, and according to Boyd, he had been a quiet spectator for just more than five minutes when he was told to leave.

“It’s frightening to me,” said Queen’s star runner Branna MacDougall in a phone interview with The Journal. “It’s just, the whole reason the sexual violence was allowed to go on [at Guelph] was because [Megan Brown] was silenced and because the administration kept that silent.”

“You’re physically silenced, you’re not even allowed to be in a public area? It just kind of shows me that […] we’re not as far as we thought we are.”

Where Guelph running under Scott-Thomas’ leadership has been documented as a “win-at-all-costs” environment that suppressed athletes’ voices, many athletes say Boyd had attempted to do the opposite with his team.

“We did it the right way,” said Brant Stachel, the head coach at UBC who was Boyd’s longtime assistant coach at Queen’s until last summer. “We had women who weren’t afraid to talk about mental health issues, menstrual cycle issues, disordered eating, how they feel about being empowered in sports, and really just had an amazing atmosphere that was protective and empowering young women.”

“I look back on my time at Queen’s with Steve and that team and, through all the provincial titles and national team members and individual performances and stuff, I think the part that’s most meaningful to me is that atmosphere we provided and how we were able to empower so many young athletes, in particular women, in the sport to stay with it in a healthy way that was compatible with continuing on long-term in the sport.”

Boyd was at the forefront of the fight to get women and men’s cross country teams running the same distance in competition—the 2016 Queen’s Invitational that he organized marked the first time in Canadian history in which both genders ran the same distance (8 km) in an inter-university race.

At Queen’s Feb. 25 Senate meeting, Senator Jordan Morelli expressed apprehension about the broader implications of Boyd’s firing. “I’m really concerned about what chilling effect this might have on others coming forward within our community who either have experienced or witnessed sexual violence.”

In a statement posted on Facebook, Boyd said, “I wear my outspokenness – and indeed, my firing for it – as a badge of honour, not of shame.”

“If there’s one thing I would take away from my eight or nine years with Steve,” said Stachel, “It’s that you always got to do what’s right, and you want to be on the right side of history. And you want to leave this sport in a better place than when you got there.”

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

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