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Are we waiting for another scandal?

McGill Athletics and sexual violence after 2013

Content warning: sexual assault

The Hunting Ground, the groundbreaking movie on campus sexual violence in the U.S., opens with various shots of football players, looking hideous and sinister underneath their black helmets and shoulder pads as an ominous soundtrack plays in the background. The narrative of the sexually violent student-athlete isn’t unfamiliar to anyone who follows discussions of campus sexual assault. Male student-athletes tend to dominate the headlines and conversations. It’s only logical to wonder: do athletes rape more often?

We don’t even have to look too far for evidence. From the termination of the football season in 2005 over brutal hazing incidents to suspension of multiple players charged with sexual and domestic violence in the past few years, McGill student-athletes – particularly football players – have been consistently in the news due to Athletics’ poor treatment of sexual violence. This is while student-athletes make up a tiny proportion of the overall student body.

It’s been almost four years since the storm that took over campus about McGill’s treatment of the reports of a sexual assault by three R*dmen players, and a few months since the passing of McGill’s Policy Against Sexual Violence. So I had to wonder: how much has changed in Athletics since?

Why is sexual violence prevalent among student-athletes?

Since 1992, numerous studies have shown that male student-athletes are indeed more likely to commit  sexual violence. According to a review of the literature on college athletics and sexual assault by Kristy McCray of Otterbein University, male student-athletes are grossly overrepresented in official campus rape reports and are more likely themselves to admit potential or past sexually abusive behaviour than their non-athlete peers. Moreover, athletes are also self-identified as assailants by survivors of sexual violence at disproportionate rates.

The research McCray reviews attributes this violence to a variety of factors, such as the increased likelihood for athletes to be physically and sexually aggressive. Immersed in a male-dominated environment, they are more likely to feel the need to prove their masculinity, display misogynistic attitudes, receive and cave into peer pressure, have a sense of celebrity entitlement and believe in rape myths – false and widely held attitudes about rape. Athletes’ impunity is not baseless: often, athletics departments and universities do their best to protect their star athletes from criminal allegations or charges, as has been the case at McGill.

Last year, a study published in Violence Against Women showed that recreational athletes often display the above attitudes and behaviours seen in varsity athletes. In fact, the study found no significant difference in rape myth acceptance, attitudes toward women, and sexual coercion between the two types of athletes.

The study found no significant difference in rape myth acceptance, attitudes toward women, and sexual coercion between the [varsity and recreational] athletes.

All this research, however, is almost exclusively conducted in the U.S., and the similar studies in a Canadian context are scarce. Even the 2016 independent investigation funded by the Government of Ontario – considered as offering some of the most comprehensive findings  in Canada – barely mentions the unique nature of Athletics and the abusive dynamics that often exist in its culture. Now, unlike the U.S., Canadian university life is not centered around athletics and R*dmen particularly do not enjoy the same status and prestige of their American counterparts.

But I think this is exactly why we need to pay more attention to athletes’ sexual violence in Canada. It is in the absence of such athletic prestige that, time and again, R*dmen’s sexual violence has dominated headlines and galvanized the student body. If, in the absence of empirical data, our own university is to be a lesson for others, it is clear that something is wrong with the culture of Athletics at McGill, and it’s important to actively acknowledge and address that.

McGill R*dmen after 2013

In 2014, Ian Sheriff was employed at McGill’s sports summer camp for 6 to 15 years-old children while still undergoing investigation for the sexual assault with a weapon of a female Concordia student. This was the third summer Sheriff was working at the summer camp following his arrest. His hiring would have been censured by the guidelines of Quebec Association of Certified Camps, but McGill wasn’t affiliated with that association at the time.

The CBC revealed the news about Sheriff’s employment on July 23, 2014. Drew Love, the executive director of McGill Athletics at the time, was quoted by the CBC as saying that all new employees undergo background checks. However, he added, “We are bound by the presumption of innocence, and by an accused’s right to due process.”

The next day, Anthony Masi, who was  Provost of McGill at the time, chimed in to disagree. The hiring of Sheriff was now, according to Masi, a “lapse in judgement.” He also told the CBC about his call for a  “thorough review of the circumstances that led to this hiring at the sports camp and a full and complete examination of employment procedures at McGill Athletics and Recreation.”

This report, however, was never released to the public, and the administration did not respond to my request about these investigations.

Those of us who have been around long enough still remember the storm that took over campus when it was revealed that Sheriff, along with Brenden Carriere and Guillaume Tremblay, had been allowed to remain on the R*dmen’s roster and stay at McGill after being charged with sexual assault with a weapon and forcible confinement in 2011.

Even if the University doesn’t want to “comment on any individual case,” […] it ought to make the general conclusions and ramifications of these investigations public.

At the time, Deputy Provost (Living and Learning) Ollivier Dyens told the Montreal Gazette, “It didn’t happen on the McGill campus and she wasn’t a McGill student […].” He claimed to have been unaware of the charges. However, the Gazette claimed to have contacted McGill after the attack in 2011, and the then football head coach Clint Uttley was informed of the arrests in 2012. The publicity crisis resulting from Dyens’ comments, Uttley’s knowledge of the charges and the overall lack of transparency about the situation led to the athletes’ suspension.

In 2014, star athlete Luis Guimont-Mota was charged with domestic violence against his wife. This wasn’t Guimont-Mota’s first criminal charge: he had previously been been sentenced to ninety days of jail time – served on Sundays to avoid interference with his athletic career – and 240 hours of community service after pleading guilty to assaulting a man in 2010.

This time, the administration seemed to have learnt its lesson. “In line with the University’s varsity athletics guidelines,” read a statement released by Dyens, “effective immediately, this player is suspended from the football team pending resolution of his case by the Court.”

To be clear, according to my correspondence with Dyens about the Guimont-Mota case, there is no such clause in the “University’s varsity athletics guidelines.” This claim is likely an interpretation of section 21 of the Student Code of Conduct: students can be excluded from university premises if there exists  “reasonable grounds to believe that the student’s continued presence is detrimental to good order, or constitutes a threat to the well-being of others.’”

Dyens also told CBC news, “[Guimont-Mota] should not have come to McGill University. We take full responsibility for this.” Similar to Masi in the 2013 case, Dyens is reported to have called for an inquiry, this time into Guimont-Mota’s recruitment. He said, “We want to know who knew what, when and how.” According to Guimont-Mota and Uttley, the administration was aware of the charges at the time.

I requested an interview with Athletics’ eligibility officer, Caroline James, current football head coach, Ronald Hilaire, executive director, Marc Gélinas as well as Dyens regarding this investigation and the ramifications for future recruitment and background screening.

James and Hilaire never got back to me, Gélinas told me to talk to Dyens and Dyens told me that he can’t discuss the investigation. Let me reiterate: in response to publicity crises, the University’s senior administration reported the launch of investigations about the University’s most high-profile sexual assault cases. Now that everything has blown over, the University refuses to publish these findings, and puts a gag order on anyone else that may dare to speak of the incidents.

I believe that is important to be transparent about Sheriff’s employment at or Guimont-Mota’s recruitment to McGill. Even if the University doesn’t want to “comment on any individual case,” as Dyens told me, it ought to make the general conclusions and ramifications of these investigations public. This is not only because the University made a promise, but because, as students, we deserve to know.

Guimont-Mota, needless to say, was reinstated in early 2015 once the charges against him were dropped. This is while Dyens had said his recruitment had been a mistake in the first place. Guimont-Mota went on to play for R*dmen for the next season, as well.

McGill’s response to sexual violence in Athletics

In the Senate meeting of September 17, 2014, Dyens said that he won’t be institutionalizing consent training for athletes; he was “not going to target one group of students.”

In some ways, Dyens has changed his mind. He told me in an email that, since 2014, the University has offered consent and bystander prevention workshops to coaches. Athletes themselves, in collaboration with Consent McGill, have produced a consent video and other “educational information.” But that’s it.

That’s all that McGill’s accountability with regards the sexual violence committed by male athletes has consisted of: workshops for coaches, and making videos. In an article titled “#ThisIsNotHelping” published in The Daily last year, I have outlined the shortcomings of consent education in depth, particularly when used as the sole measure to combat sexual violence, and it seems to be the case at Athletics as well.

However, my skepticism of consent education’s effectiveness does not hinder me from believing that such training can indeed do some good in the case of McGill Athletics. Uttley, after all, was fully aware of Guimont-Mota’s conviction and the charges against Sheriff, Carriere and Tremblay. He just didn’t think it was important to do something about it. Perhaps if he had received some consent training – empirically shown to change attitudes about the gravity of sexual violence – he would have thought otherwise. But what if coaches are abusive themselves?

Let’s talk about the coach

There has been a lot of conversations on our campus about professors’ abuse of power to groom and sexually harass or abuse their students. Perhaps due to the disconnect between Athletics and the wider campus community, not much discussion has revolved around similar abusive dynamics between athletes and coaches.

The focus on changing coaches’ attitudes about sexual violence, as seem to be McGill’s focus, may prevent Uttley-like coverups in the future. However, attitude change can only take you so far, particularly when men are set on abusing their authority. No study has, to my knowledge, shown that consent education leads to long term behavioural change. Understanding this has serious ramifications for the role of coaches in sports and athletic environments.

Perhaps the most high-profile case of coach misconduct in recent memory is that of Penn State: in 2011, Jerry Sandusky, former coach for the school’s football team, was convicted of 52 counts of sexual abuse and sentenced to 442 years in prison. In the nearby City of Wesmount, it was only last month that  a class action suit against against the city representing the child abuse victims of the city’s former hockey coach, John Garland, was settled.

Attitude change can only take you so far, particularly when men are set on abusing their authority.

In a study published in Canadian Woman Studies, one in five athletes among the 1,200 Canadian national team athletes surveyed (ninety per cent of whom are female) reported having had sexual relations with people who held positions of power over them. Moreover, in the survey, the female respondents wrote four times as many accounts of harassment and abuse involving coaches (48, to be precise) than others.

What this all means that, coaches are likely to abuse the responsibility and power they are entrusted with. They are not always potential “active bystanders,” but potential abusers. And as others in position of authority over students, they ought to be subject to regular reviews and subject to an accountability process that prioritizes students’ safety over the University’s reputation.

On second chances

I’d like to end this piece with a note on second chances. Uttley resigned over Dyens’s statement that Guimont-Mota should have never been recruited. Uttley defended his choice of recruitment by saying that the University was aware of Guimont-Mota’s charges. He also said, “I believe in rehabilitation.”

I’m also of the unpopular belief that people do deserve second chances. However,  reintroducing or keeping an abuser in the community poses significant challenges and responsibilities to community leaders. Wrongdoings require meticulous investigation, monitoring and counseling. This form of rehabilitation also requires full transparency about the situation with the wider community – in this case, the football team, other varsity teams, McGill’s student body – and always keeping the safety of the victims and the community as a priority.

This is not what Uttley did. McGill, as well, has kept the results of its investigations confidential and neglected to introduce any meaningful measures to change Athletics culture or hold abusive students and coaches accountable.

A policy […] that doesn’t seek transparency about past and present negligences or addresses the special dynamics at work in Athletics, isn’t enough.

When I asked Dyens about the measures in place to increase transparency about male student-athletes’ criminal activity and holding them accountable, his first instinct was to remind of the existence of the Sexual Violence Policy. The policy, according to Dyens, demonstrates “McGill’s firm and ongoing commitment to increasing awareness of, and responding to, sexual violence across all parts of our campuses.” But does it really?

A policy, particularly one that doesn’t seek transparency about past and present negligences or addresses the special dynamics at work in Athletics, isn’t enough. You’d think that with such a troubled history, McGill Athletics may have learnt its lesson. Perhaps we need another scandal to get McGill to spring into action.