Why do we refuse to protect our athletes?

The systematically abusive environment of Canadian sports culture

Written by Sara Escallon-Sotomayor, Sports Editor

Design by Drea Garcia

Imagine you are a rookie varsity athlete. You arrive at the field to begin pre-season training at a brand-new university. Your hands tremble as you lace up your cleats for the first time as a McGill athlete. Suddenly, your hands stop shaking as you jog onto the field: You’ve made it. You’ve earned a coveted place on a university team, and it’s bigger than you: You’ve made your family and friends proud, and you’re determined to continue doing so. After all, how else could you justify the years of sacrifice? The countless hours of work, the late nights in the gym, the expensive club fees, the time spent driving you to training, the missed social events? Ever since you were in middle school, and you were told that the beginning and end of your elite sporting career was to play at the university level. Yet, nothing could have truly prepared you for what would come next.

This was my exact experience. Despite starting soccer at five, I only began to play at an elite level when I was 13. All I ever wanted was to play the sport that I love at the highest level for as long as possible. Everyone assumed throughout my youth soccer career that I would play in university. When I began exploring different schools and their programs, I was eager to find a place where I could thrive academically and athletically, leading me to McGill. I gave it my all, jumped in head first, and put my faith in the institution, expecting support and protection should anything turn sideways. It never occurred to me to ask questions about coaching philosophy or team culture—I just wanted to play.

Preseason started as planned in August 2021, and I made my debut as a varsity soccer player. Despite always playing at a competitive level, I had never been in an environment outside of youth soccer. I did not know what to expect. More importantly, I didn’t know how the coach-player relationship evolved with age. In our initial team meeting, the coaches gave a presentation about the upcoming season. The first thing they said to us was: “We don’t owe you anything.” Over time, my experiences showed me just how deeply they meant those words.

I entered the season aiming to keep my head down and earn my playing time as a rookie. Almost instantly, this proved to be impossible. Yelling was a central feature of our coaches’ philosophy, and I soon found myself a common target, to the point where teammates would regularly ask if I was okay at the end of practices. Putting on my shin pads during a team talk or losing focus at any point during a 40-minute video session resulted in public castigation as if I were a child having my knuckles rapped by a strict school teacher. These circumstances made me anxious about the team, but I loved my teammates and I loved playing. Besides, I was a strong, tough varsity athlete, not a quitter. Also, despite being a rookie, I was playing a lot. It never occurred to me to leave.

Gradually, I began to obsess and feel anxious about making mistakes out of fear of getting yelled at. The constant berating made me lose confidence. My teammates and I spent hours discussing the team and our experiences, but these conversations were all overshadowed by what I now recognize as a general state of malaise.

This anxiety transferred over to the field. Practices were marred with uncertainty and unease. Receiving the ball would often result in yelling, no matter what decision I made. I began to accumulate painful muscle injuries, requiring extensive physiotherapy. I no longer felt the same unbridled joy on the field. I blamed myself. The public yelling and humiliation was justified because I was making mistakes. I believed that if I worked hard I could earn more play time, respect, and would enjoy playing again.

After a difficult winter filled with injuries, I was excited to compete at the start of my third year. Unaware I was at risk of being cut, I was led to believe I was competing for a starting spot on the field, not on the roster. In late August, a few days before the start of the season, I had my start-of-season meeting. Immediately upon entering, I was told my career as a varsity athlete at McGill was over. I was completely stunned. Never in a million years would I have expected this to happen to me.

As in previous meetings, they took every player who could potentially play in my position, went through the list, and asked me if I thought that I was better than them: A coaching tactic all too familiar to those who followed Mike Babcock’s stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Many of my teammates were my good friends—I am ashamed to say I let them get to me and said I was better than a number of them. Their reaction was to tell me, then just 20 years old, that I was “delusional.”

Panicking as the opportunity to play varsity soccer was suddenly taken away from me, I asked about where else I could play soccer in Quebec that fall. I was told there were no other playing options for me except McGill. They suggested they could assist with a school transfer, yet the new semester was just a few days away, and I was not even eligible for a transfer. They suggested that I could train with the team in winter and try to join as a walk-on. Their advice to “treat this like a long-term injury,” was out of touch and insensitive at best, and at worst callous and cruel. There was no offer to help me collect my gear from the changeroom, nor any display of genuine sympathy. Only an offer to get in touch with the team's mental performance coach for a single session. My world was rocked, and I have not seen the coaching staff since. While I am happy to say I recovered quickly in both my sporting career and personal life, it took me a long time to understand what had happened to me: I was in a toxic environment that caused me significant harm.

Abuse in sports

My experience was not an isolated incident but rather reflective of what many varsity athletes experience. Derek Silva, an associate professor of sociology at Western University and the Eakin Visiting Fellow at McGill for the Fall 2023 term, studies abuse in Canadian sport. He describes instances of abuse within sporting organizations not as outlier cases, but as characteristic of the Canadian sport system.

“The culture of coaching and varsity sports plays into this, the culture of coaching from youth to professional, gives coaches so much power over athletes,” Silva said in an interview with The Tribune. “There’s very little if any accountability structures, structurally speaking, there are very few [independent] boards that you can go to be like ‘this happened to me, and therefore that person needs to be investigated.’”

Silva outlines the role of status coercion in ensuring compliance. Coaches have control over playing time and membership within the team, as well as having the potential to harm future opportunities through their network of contacts. Punishment and coercion are normalized to ensure that athletes comply, but also ingrains the belief that they deserve abusive treatment.

Steph Yang, writing for The Athletic in 2021 about abuse in the National Women’s Soccer League, emphasises how major sporting tenets such as accepting authority and prioritizing winning over all else socializes athletes into accepting exploitative and abusive behaviour. Many athletes, subjected to this behaviour since childhood, come to believe that it is justified. Yet, when placed in any other academic or professional setting, this accepted sports behaviour becomes unimaginable. This fosters a paternalistic culture where coaches keep athletes in a “perpetual state of adolescence.” In this environment, they justify punishment and coercion as necessary for the pursuit of victory. Normalizing such behaviours, especially from a young age, can seriously impact how players perceive their future relationships with people in power in the workplace, and in their personal lives.

In Billy Hawkins’s article for the Law and Political Economy project, he outlines how university officials and coaches use language romanticizing varsity sport. They refer to athletes as “privileged” to detract from the physical labour they participate in for their university. Especially in Canada, where few students receive scholarships or bursaries for sports, the “amateurism” of sport is emphasized, implicitly undermining players’ claims to protection.

At McGill

In conversation with several McGill athletes, they all shared similar experiences, bringing forward allegations of verbal and psychological abuse including gaslighting. These tactics led to players feeling isolated, insecure, and disrespected by their coaches.

Each athlete I spoke to stressed how much they loved their teammates, and how they found some of their best friends on their team. However, they also felt that these connections were undermined by a persistent feeling of insecurity perpetuated by actions of the coaching staff.

Sara Reardon played for the women’s soccer team from 2021-23, described the isolation she felt from the very beginning. She “walked on” to the team, however, her status was unclear to her despite starting an in-season game. After asking explicitly if she had made the final roster, she was told that the coaching staff would not be telling players if they were on the team because this may undermine their “hunger.”

She also explained how coaches would often tell her their personal opinions of her teammates during one-on-one meetings. She described it feeling as though they were “trying to pit us against each other, and make us feel insecure in our team, and in our relationships and friendships with the people who are on our team.”

Bria Labella played for the McGill women’s soccer team as a goalkeeper between 2021 and 2023. While the coaches gave her largely positive feedback, she felt they were dishonest with her and disrespectful about why she was not given opportunities to perform.

While the coaches constantly asked for feedback, both Labella and Reardon said they would become defensive when any criticism was brought up. Labella said there was no “reciprocity” in the relationship, input from players was ignored and derided, and much like my experience, both players blamed themselves.

(Lack of) Accountability at McGill

McGill athletes mentioned to The Tribune the inadequacy of feedback structures at the university. They did not feel comfortable bringing up concerns to coaches because they felt they would be ignored, and coaches would be defensive rather than receptive to criticism. While athletics distributed end-of-season feedback forms, they began by asking how many minutes the player has played. Players recounted feeling invalidated if they had grievances, and said there was no follow-up to the feedback submitted on the form.

The structure of university sports is characterized by high player turnover as athletes typically graduate within four years. This dynamic means that athletes often leave the environment by the time they mature and become empowered to make their own decisions. They are then replaced by a new class of rookies. Varsity athletes are inherently more vulnerable and have fewer formal protections than professionals.

The lack of accessible structures for reporting any issues to do with coaching make this profound lack of accountability abundantly clear. The hazing scandal in 2005 resulted in McGill’s 2007 Policy on Hazing and Appropriate Initiation Practices. This failed to prevent another hazing incident in 2017. Since then, student athletes undergo mandatory anti-hazing training each season and are encouraged to report any behaviour that violates any league, regional association, or university rules and/or breaches of the Varsity Guide to their head coach, the Director of Sport Programs who oversees all varsity teams at the University, or Executive Director, Athletics and Recreation. According to McGill’s media relations officer Frédérique Mazerolle, if a player’s allegation(s) relate to hazing or the use of banned substances, it is then immediately brought to the attention of the Deputy Provost, Student Life and Learning. The Varsity Guide outlines conduct for players and details potential repercussions related to athlete behaviour. However, it lacks detail for coach conduct around players, and it does not provide information on avenues of redress if a player takes issue with their coaches’ conduct. While under USPORTS and the Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec (RSEQ), the governing bodies of McGill sports, behaviours deemed unacceptable by coaches are more explicitly stated, there are not enough mechanisms for athletes to recognize harmful situations and apply these policies. While a local wellness advisor was hired full-time in 2023 to “act as a resource for student athletes who need some extra support,” the current structures for addressing athletes who have issues with their coaches remain insufficient.

The question still stands: What does a McGill athlete do if they have an issue with their coach? If at a team dinner the coach comments on their weight? If their coach yells at them, humiliating them in front of the entire team, and brings them to tears?

What next?

McGill Athletics is failing its athletes by not ensuring a safe, secure environment for performance. It is necessary that McGill not only improve its accountability structures to protect athletes but also engage in capacity-building programs. This will empower athletes to create sporting environments where they can thrive and feel they can turn to both their coaches and McGill for support.

After all, who is actually on the field playing? Who is sacrificing their time and energy and putting their bodies on the line to represent their school? Coaches are protected by unions, contracts, and networks of support throughout their institutions. Athletes don’t have those luxuries.

People perform best and are at their most creative when they are happy, safe, and secure. Success in sport is not ensured through physical prowess: It is achieved through creativity and environments of mutual support where teammates stand up for each other.

McGill must do better by its athletes in creating a sporting culture we can be proud of as representatives of this institution. Current policies and structures are unacceptable and insufficient. There is an opportunity to be innovative and at the forefront of an athlete-centric, collaborative model that does not yet exist in Canadian varsity sports. Otherwise, McGill will continue a legacy of harm and shame where athletes continue to be put last.