The Blackhawks Sexual Assault Case: What Sports Organizations Need to Do to Create Safe Environments

As part three of a three-part series with Durant Barristers, this post was authored by Kelsey Gordon.


For more information, Durant Barristers and Gillian Hnatiw & Co. will be leading a webinar on Safe Sport on December 14, 2021 at 12:00 PM EST. Using the Blackhawks case as a starting point, this webinar will offer valuable insights into how we can make sports in Canada safer for all, as well as how to appropriately handle allegations of assault, abuse and harassment when these arise in sport or other forums. Sign up for the webinar here.


Learning from the Blackhawks’ Mistakes


The assault of a player by the former video coach of the Blackhawks took place in 2010. It is apparent from the Report of the Independent Investigator in the Blackhawks case that homophobia and stigma around sexual assault played a role in that case. A lot has changed in the wider cultural approach to sexual assault, abuse and harassment in the last eleven years. However, outdated, sexist and discriminatory attitudes are still present in our culture and in sport.


With this context, there is a lot to be learned from the Blackhawks case, and it serves as a useful starting point for what sports organizations today need to do to ensure the safe sport for all.


The following are just some of the mistakes that were made in the Blackhawks case, before, during, and after the investigation:


  • Lack of training on reporting procedures: It does not appear that the complainant was aware of any resources that might have been available for him to report this assault. It does not appear that players were given any information about sexual harassment or assault reporting. As a result, the complainant in this case made a partial disclosure of the assault to a coach who happened to notice that something was wrong.


  • Lack of follow through on reporting obligations/inadequate reporting policy: The coach to whom the complainant first disclosed did not follow the policies in place for reporting the matter immediately and ensuring that an investigation was conducted. This is likely because the policy in place for coaches and staff did not specify any procedure for the reporting allegations of assault or harassment. In the absence of any specified procedure, it appears the first disclosure coach simply told another coach who then brought the issue to the senior management.


  • Lack of due process for complainant: A few days later, when the second coach decided to speak to the complainant about the assault, he decided to abruptly call the meeting in the middle of one of the playoff games, and he decided to hold this meeting in a supply closet in the arena. This kind of abrupt meeting held in a literal closet is an entirely inappropriate way to engage with victims of maltreatment. Not only is this process likely to cause further harm to the complainant, but it can also potentially compromise the evidence required to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation.


  • Failure to address the allegations in a timely manner: When the Blackhawks senior management met to discuss the issue, no immediate action was taken by any member of senior management. Essentially, the senior management decided to prioritize winning in the playoffs over addressing this reported sexual assault, and they put the issue to the side until after the playoffs were completed.


  • Failure to adhere to existing policies: When the playoffs were over and the assault was finally reported to human resources, the Blackhawks policies requiring an investigation were ignored, and the perpetrator was permitted to resign in order to avoid an investigation.


  • Failure to connect the complainant with appropriate resources: It does not appear that the Blackhawks provided appropriate ongoing support to the complainant after the perpetrator’s termination. One of the coaches provided the complainant with some counselling afterward, though it is not clear that this coach was qualified to provide this kind of counselling. The complainant reported being told by this coach that he should not have put himself in the situation to be assaulted. This person who was designated by the Blackhawks to counsel the victim of an assault engaged in victim blaming. This highlights the importance of directing victims of maltreatment to appropriate resources to help them cope with their trauma.


  • Failure to provide a safe work environment: In addition, after the perpetrator was terminated and the matter was over from the Blackhawks perspective, the complainant reported facing ongoing harassment and homophobic remarks from other players. The report does not indicate that anything was ever done to address this ongoing harassment or the culture of homophobia that existed.


Creating a Safe Sport Environment


Creating a culture of safe sport requires the buy-in of all participants – including staff, coaches, volunteers, athletes, parents and spectators. Everyone shares the responsibility for safe sport. Organizations should ensure that this message is communicated to all participants.


Educations is one of the best tools available to prevent abuse. Organizations need to make sure that all staff, coaches, volunteers, and anyone under the authority of the organization are properly educated about the definitions of maltreatment in sport. In this respect, the Universal Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport (UCCMS) offers comprehensive definitions and is aiming to improve consistency across sporting organizations in Canada.


Organizations must ensure they have policies in place that address maltreatment and provide for reporting and investigative procedures. These policies should be clear about the procedure to be followed, so that no complaint falls through the cracks. Ideally, investigations should be conducted by an independent third-party to ensure they are impartial and without any institutional bias.


Importantly, organizations need to ensure that staff, coaches and volunteers are aware of and have access to all policies prohibiting maltreatment and dealing with the reporting, investigation, and follow up from any investigations that are conducted. It is equally important that all participants have access to and training on these policies so that they are aware of how to report complaints involving maltreatment and what to expect from an investigation.


Starting next year, the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC) will be serving as Canada’s Independent Safe Sport Mechanism. The Independent Safe Sport Mechanism will provide processes for preventing and responding to future cases of harassment, abuse, discrimination, and harmful behaviour. It will provide a forum for reporting complaints, for providing support to victims, for conducting investigations, and for conducting hearings.


In the meantime, Organizations should familiarize themselves with available resources for victims of maltreatment so that they can provide this information to complainants upon receipt of a report. For example, the Canadian Sport Helpline is a free service supported by the Government of Canada, which offers support to victims and witnesses of harassment, abuse, and discrimination. This anonymous, confidential and independent service allows complainants to share and validate their concerns, obtain advice on the process to follow and be directed toward the appropriate resources to ensure a follow-up. The Helpline has free resources available for organizations, including posters, flyers and business cards, that can be hung up or distributed at your organization’s sporting locations: https://abuse-free-sport.ca/helpline-promo-documents-tools/


More information about handling complaints, supporting complainants and the new Independent Safe Sport Mechanism will be provided during our webinar on December 14.