greatest dream as a young ice hockey player was realized when
he was just 14 years old. The Canadian from the western province
of Manitoba was recruited to play junior-level hockey —
the first stage in becoming a professional hockey player.
But it wasn’t long before that dream turned into a
private nightmare. While his family and friends celebrated
his achievements, Kennedy was suffering from terrible abuse.
Years later, he made the difficult decision to share his
nightmare with the world. In 1997, the former professional
ice hockey player disclosed publicly that for years he was
sexually abused at the hands of his ice hockey coach, Graham
James. James controlled Kennedy’s hockey career and
his life from the time he was 14 to 19.
“The coach is so respected,” says Kennedy. “Your
parents send you away and say, ‘Do what he says.’
At that age, you listen — it’s the first step
if you want to play pro.”
It was Kennedy’s testimony against his former coach
that helped end the silence about the physical and sexual
abuse of athletes. James pleaded guilty and was sentenced
to three and a half years in prison for sexually assaulting
Kennedy and another unidentified player. He is banned for
life from coaching in Canada.
“I’m sure the sporting world was hoping that
my story was going to be an isolated case and the issue would
go away,” says Kennedy. “But it didn’t go
away and it wasn’t an isolated case.”
Statistics illustrating the prevalence of abuse in sport
are shocking. In Canada, studies show that up to 50 per cent
of sport participants have experienced mild harassment to
abuse. More than 20 per cent of elite athletes have had sexual
intercourse with people in positions of authority in sport.
In a study of high school students, over 40 per cent identified
sporting environments as places of harassment.
After Sheldon Kennedy roller-bladed across Canada to raise
funds and awareness for the issue of sexual abuse, he got
in touch with the Canadian Red Cross and its RespectED Violence
and Abuse Prevention programme. RespectED aims to stop the
cycle of abuse and violence that destroys lives.
“We had been offering a volunteer-driven workshop for
sport called ‘It’s More Than Just a Game’,”
says Judi Fairholm, the national technical director for RespectED.
“Around the same time, the Supreme Court of Canada
ruled that organizations were legally responsible if a young
person was found to be unsafe while in their care. The combination
of Kennedy’s disclosure and the ruling threw the sporting
world into chaos.” Kennedy went on to donate the proceeds
from his skate — over US $900,000 — to RespectED.
Interactive RespectED presentations tackle issues relating
to all forms of abuse — physical, mental, emotional
and sexual — as well as relationship violence, bullying
and harassment. Delivered by highly-trained volunteers, It’s
More Than Just a Game is designed to give coaches, trainers,
parents and sports administrators an understanding of these
issues and how to protect children and youth in the unique
context of the sport environment.
“In my case, I believe there were a lot of bystanders,”
says Kennedy. “A lot of people knew what was going on
and didn’t know what they could do or just put blinders
on. These issues scared people — we needed to eliminate
Fairholm approached Hockey Canada, the governing body for
amateur ice hockey in Canada, on how they could work together
to safeguard young athletes.
“We realized we needed to address these problems head
on,” says Todd Jackson, the senior manager of safety
and insurance for Hockey Canada. “We put together a
group of experts including the Red Cross who came forward
with a number of recommendations. One was a workshop for coaches
on how to prevent abuse in the future.”
The Red Cross helped develop the “Speak Out: It’s
More Than Just a Game” workshop and trained hockey facilitators
across the country to deliver it. Today, 120,000 hockey coaches,
trainers, officials and volunteers across Canada have been
Jackson says the programme has had significant impact in
raising awareness about what is acceptable and unacceptable
behaviour in the hockey world. “We now see that coaches
are coaching differently and using positive approaches,”
says Jackson. “The programme has grown significantly
over the last ten years and has helped make the environment
safer for kids.”
Kennedy and business partner Wayne McNeil wanted to take
this approach one step further. In partnership with the Red
Cross, they developed Respect in Sport, an organization that
offers a series of online training courses to assist coaches,
parents, volunteers, officials and youth in identifying and
dealing with issues of abuse, neglect, harassment and bullying.
Much of the content deals with the attitudes of coaches and
how they can either positively or negatively affect their
athletes. “We wanted to use technology to simplify the
message, make it consistent and reach the masses from coast
to coast,” says McNeil.
The three-hour course can be taken at the coach’s
own pace. The audio- and animation-based programme applies
to all sports and is designed to be an identical experience
for the user — whether they are using a low- or high-speed
Internet connection. And thanks to technology, Kennedy and
McNeil say their programme has the potential to reach all
stakeholders in sport across the country and around the world.
“We realized that every sport was struggling with delivering
positive, values-based training,” McNeil says. “Because
this programme is online, we can reach the masses in their
own homes — they don’t have to go to a classroom
Launched in 2006, Respect in Sport is already having an impact
across the country. Gymnastics Canada is the first national
organization to make the online training programme mandatory
for all of its coaches. More than 3,000 gymnastics coaches
have been trained so far with another 3,000 in progress.
Recently, Sport Manitoba, the principal agency for amateur
sport in the province, made the programme a requirement for
all of its coaches. Janet McMahon, director of provincial
sport development for Sport Manitoba, is pleased with the
quality and the progress of the training.
“The online component was attractive compared to asking
coaches to come to another training session,” says McMahon.
“The package itself was appealing too. The fact that
it’s audio- and animation-based means that it will stay
McMahon sees this as one component in their continuum of
risk management tools. “We’ve had a very good
response to the training,” she says. “Coaches
are telling us they feel more confident in knowing what to
do if potential situations arise.”
Keeping children safe
The Red Cross also operates a free phone service for sporting
organizations in two provinces. The support staff help callers
by letting them know where they should go with their complaints
or by offering advice.
The Canadian Red Cross, Respect in Sport and Hockey Canada
have high hopes for the impact their work will have on the
lives of children.
“Together we want to reach every coach, referee and
parent in the country, ”says Fairholm. “Now hundreds
of thousands of children and youth will be safer because the
adults around them are taking responsibility for creating
and maintaining safe environments.”