Athletics departments need to be wary of keeping things behind closed doors

Matt Scace
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Cultures of silence don’t end well.

We learned as much last winter when The Globe and Mail published an expansive investigation into Guelph University’s cross country and track coach, Dave Scott-Thomas, who had sexually and emotionally abused an underage athlete, Megan Brown, in the early 2000s.

Shielded by his University administration when the athlete’s father submitted a complaint, the coach—who’s arguably Canada’s most successful distance running coach in history—was thereon given runway to create the culture he wanted: in this case, a women’s team described as “one big eating disorder.” Many left the program with bodies in a state beyond repair.

Twenty years later, we’re only left to imagine the parallel universe where Guelph nipped Scott-Thomas straight off the jump.

We’ll never know for certain why Guelph failed to act as it did. But in Canadian athletics, good PR is the golden goose, and bad news reaching donors could be the very thing that kills it.

Whether or not this was the case at Guelph, the inherent qualities of Canadian university athletics lay the groundwork for history to repeat itself. By lacking significant revenue sources outside donations and student fees, pleasing alumni is paramount.

Within the realm of dealing with public issues, Queen’s hasn’t always been an upstanding citizen. In 2018, former Queen’s football player Donovan Hillary penned a letter describing the homophobic culture that festered in his year on the team, ultimately leading him to leave and play elsewhere.

Queen’s Athletics never publicly addressed Hillary’s story, perhaps because it never broke the stratosphere of crisis that has hit at other points in the past.

The Journal has also dealt with its share of roadblocks from Athletics. In the fall, our sports desk wasn’t granted a single phone interview with a coach, an issue which was only recently resolved. In 2014, Athletics took away all but one of The Journal’s press passes for reporting on a controversy surrounding Queen’s team of the year selection.

These events present the risks silence can have on athletes. By leaving issues unacknowledged, current and future athletes have no reassurance they’ll enter a safe space when they choose to play for Queen’s—particularly those more likely to be discriminated against. Worse, we have no knowledge of whether Queen’s made any efforts to change the team’s culture.

While Athletics can control its message as it pleases, it should be careful; the deeper the desire for good PR goes, the deeper the hole you have to climb out of. Good journalism should—and will—hold them accountable, but getting ahead of the game is also an admirable strategy. No one likes getting caught with their tail between their legs when it was preventable.

Queen’s recently initiated a third-party review of the Athletics department—let’s hope we get more than a 100-word press release when the review closes.

It’d be encouraging to see universities show they owe sole responsibility to their athletes, not the ones holding the chequebook.

Matt is a fifth-year English student and The Journal’s Managing Editor.

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