Opinion Piece – August 2021

Is All Truly Equal in the Fight for Equality in Canadian Rugby? Draw Your Conclusions Carefully

Opinion by Lisa Cooper
posted August 6th 2021

In a surprise move late last year, complaints of bullying and mistreatment were alleged against the National Senior Women’s Rugby 7s (NSW7s) team head coach and high-performance director, John Tait. After an independent investigation, Tait was cleared of all wrongdoing but left with no choice but to step away from this formerly successful program. I believe this was a selfishly motivated campaign by a group of current players to remove impediments to their spot on the Women’s 7s team at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Members of the team coerced and harassed former and current players and created a toxic environment that eroded the program and team performance. The information released by Rugby Canada (RC) and the players has been a one-sided and/or mis-leading theme of unified rhetoric that the players were suffering abuse. John Tait was defamed and silenced and others within the RC community could not speak out publicly in his support amid a climate of fear of losing their own positions or of being called out as guilty by association. RC failed their handling of these events, and the rugby public has been sold a false one-sided narrative with negative implications for the future of Canadian rugby, the NSW7s program, and former coaching staff.

People who watched this story unfold from the sidelines, were fed pieces of information. This information was largely one-sided and skewed. The public was led to believe this was a David and Goliath fight against injustice and for the equality and empowerment of women in sport. It is a dangerous position to stand righteously in defense of a cause without knowing what is hiding on the other side, the ugly truths that may be revealed, or that a good person exists beneath the tale of a scary giant. If this is truly a fight for fairness and equality, then it would only be fair to consider that both sides are equally capable of manipulation for their own gain.

COVID-19 made 2020 hard on us all. People worldwide faced uncertainties and mental-health problems. Olympic athletes had the added pressure of uncertainties around Tokyo 2020. The games were postponed, and athletes were left wondering about their futures and positions in their sport. Maybe athletes felt that COVID restrictions in the training environment were too oppressive, or some saw the work-from-home model working out well for everyone else and wanted their coach to consider it for a centralized training program too? Athletes in their retirement year who wanted to go out in a blaze of glory in their last shot at a medal. Or some that had important sociopolitical messages to share on the world stage. Whatever the motivation, athletes wanted assurances. During this time of turbulence and upheaval, it is an understandable desire for guarantees, but in the world of high-performance sport there are none, that is, unless you make a calculated move to create one.

You may not know that players within the NSW7s team wrote a letter to RC CEO, Allen Vansen in November 2020. The letter expressed their unhappiness with their head coach, John Tait. A Resolution process began over the next weeks with an independent mediator from Sport Canada. The letter, endorsed and supported by some past and current members of the team, included an ultimatum that called for John’s immediate firing to be followed by a public announcement with their input (shaming). If these demands were not met the players would refuse to play. On the advice of his lawyer, John removed himself from the resolution process. He requested an independent investigation as he did not yet know the complaints against him. At that time, select past and present NSW7s players were contacted and asked to submit formal written complaints. These 37 statements, not all of which were complaints, formed the basis of the investigation. The statements were reviewed by the investigator against RC’s Bullying and Harassment Policy. During this time John was removed from his position as head coach and director of high performance. No further information was released to the public. The investigation concluded in February 2021. The NSW7s team travelled to Dubai with interim coaching staff for Olympic preparation events at the beginning of April. Later that month the results were released that found no breaches of policy, and concluded in agreement with both parties, that it would not be viable for John Tait to resume his duties as head coach of the NSW7s. John Tait subsequently resigned. From the submission of the letter, the remaining six of seven members of the NSW7s coaching and support staff resigned, were placed on leave, or moved to other positions at their own request.

They include:

  • Morgan Williams, Assistant Coach – Moved to another position within the program and subsequently resigned.
  • Callum Morris, Assistant Coach and Lead Analyst – Resigned
  • Kirsten Barnes, Mental Performance Coach – Resigned.
  • Nicole Crowley, Team Manager – Resigned.
  • Amarah Stobbe, Data Analytics and Sports Science – Changed programs at their own request.
  • Steve Mackinnon, Lead Sport & Conditioning Coach – Took leave, returned, and changed programs at their own request.

During the investigation former and current staff were called upon as witnesses. Many former staff provided witness statements or letters in support of John. NSW7s interim coaches (Sandro Fiorino, head coach of the women’s 15s team and Mick Byrne, a specialist coach with both New Zealand and Australia) also wrote letters in support of John. At no point during the investigation or since, were any of these people contacted by media or RC CEO, Allen Vansen to provide their accounts.

The NSW7s program has been largely funded by Sport Canada’s Own the Podium (OTP) program. As the performance and medal potential for Rio 2016 increased, so did the program’s funding. What started as a two person staff (coach and manager) and about 20 athletes centralized in Victoria, BC, grew to include staff and resources that would have been considered luxuries to Canadian players just a short time ago.  Players were paid via the Sport Canada carding program along with various top up performance funds from the Canadian Olympic Committee and from the Canada Legacy fund. The staff included specialist coaches, assistant coaches, performance analysts, physical therapists, nutritionist, and a mental performance coach. With the targeted government funding came absolute transparency. All training sessions from the past decade were recorded and the ‘Rule of Two’ (that an athlete must never be alone one-on-one with an unrelated person in authority) was strictly adhered to. The program is regularly monitored by an OTP high performance manager, who would often travel with the team on tours as well as observe them in training. Their job included reporting back to OTP leadership, with progress updates, program needs, as well as helping the program prepare for their annual funding review. OTP also required RC to contract a third party to conduct an extensive post-Rio review report, inclusive of confidential one-on-one interviews with all staff and athletes involved in the Olympic Games. The team manager uses anonymous surveys to solicit feedback from the players throughout the year, after tournaments, and the end of each season. There are monthly review meetings with leadership, including an elected players’ rep. At no point before (the letter) were complaints of this nature raised via these internal surveys or meetings, or confidentially brought forward to the mental performance coach, who regularly provides mental health resources, including specialized counsellors for the team.

If this program is subject to such scrutiny and the complaints that triggered the letter calling for John’s immediate firing were so egregious, why were they not submitted via any number of the available processes earlier? Why was a hard line drawn that John’s firing and shaming was the only way to resolve the issue? If the environment was so unsafe and these players faced enduring abuse and harassment, where is the evidence to prove it? Where are the videos, firsthand witness accounts, or otherwise? And why were the voices of those in support of John never actively pursued for comment by the RC CEO or the media?

Language matters. We live in a time where algorithms and hashtags disseminate our words and our messages to the world at a rapid pace. We connect instantly with people on a massive scale but somehow still feel disconnected and divided. We have limitless access to information yet are content with a system that encourages confirmation bias. Words can build us up and tear us down and they can create a movement for change or manipulate the masses. Whether we like it or not, our words have power.

Words such as abuse, harassment and bullying are heavily emotive. They can trigger equally heavy reactions. But one could argue that when taken out of context, from an overwhelmingly one-sided perspective, an imbalance of power exists. When fairly placed in the context of a high-performance athlete/coach relationship such as this, or considering the underlying motives of the complainants, we challenge the validity of the words.

The independent internal review concluded that while the complaints reflected the ‘experience’ of the athletes, it did not qualify as such under Rugby Canada’s Bullying and Harassment Policy. The ‘experiences’ were heightened anxiety, depression, racism, eating disorders, low self-worth, mental illness. One could also argue that the experiences of the athletes can vary greatly due to several factors. A few examples of this are: age, maturity, life/sport-experience, relationship status with teammates and those in authority.

If we are to consider the complaints from a fair and unbiased perspective, we must view them within the context of the high-performance athlete/coach relationship. I have included some of the complaints that have been revealed and provided more context for you here:

Body Shaming or Pressures That Resulted in Negative Body Image – The physical performance of all players was regularly reviewed. Athletes may have been asked to be fitter (aerobic capacity) or faster. When matters such as these were broached with players, the sport and conditioning coach was always involved as is their role and area of expertise. It was understood by all players that if fitness standards were not maintained that it could affect their playing time or inclusion in the team. This is a standard that is expected of any high-performance athlete, such is their job and the job of the coach to expect that these performance standards are met.

Threats & Fairness – Players or friends/partners of players seen as not getting enough playing time or being cut from the team due to not meeting performance standards.

Players were asked to follow directive for on field game plan and were told that playing time would be affected if they did not follow that directive.

Tardiness to training would affect inclusion in team training.

Athletes requested time away from program, which was granted, with the caveat that their position and role in team could not be guaranteed.

Mental Illness & Low-Self Worth – The nature of high-level sport is predicated on success. Athletes compete daily for a position at the top. In the case of the NSW7s team, 21 players from the entire country are included in the centralized training team, 13 players travel to tournaments, 12 on game rosters and 7 on the field. There is a lot of pressure to perform. When your self-image is built around being a top-level athlete, failure can be a devastating blow. There always have and always will be players that will be let down or let go, who are unlucky with timing or injuries, who aren’t the right fit with the team or the coaching style, and who just aren’t good enough despite their best efforts. These are the lows on the emotional rollercoaster that is competitive sport. Continually being told that you need to be the best is a heavy weight on any mind. No one is denying that mental illness among elite athletes exists, or that some of these athletes may have experienced it, but the resources to help the athletes were openly available. Accusing John Tait of being the cause of this is wrong.

In a statement released by RC regarding the NSW7s team leadership and the investigation conclusions, they stated that “The investigation was conducted in accordance with the policy in place at the time the incidents occurred.” Between the investigation ending in February 2021 and the release of its findings in April 2021, RC approved what it calls an “updated safe sport policy manual”.

People are hanging their hats on the fact that RC updated the policy since the investigation. This is mis-leading on the part of RC and the subsequent statements issued by the NSW7s players. This suggests that the reason that John was not found at fault was due to an outdated policy.

I strongly recommend that you compare the old Policy (in place since 2013) and the updated Safe Sport Policy (March 9, 2021). What I find is that the old policy was less encompassing and geared towards children and youth, while the updated policy is more inclusive of the ‘adult’ athlete and the ‘workplace’. This policy would have provided greater support to John (management) such as falls under the following Workplace Harassment Policy: “Workplace Harassment should not be confused with legitimate, reasonable management actions that are part of the normal work/training function, including measures to correct performance deficiencies, such as placing someone on a performance improvement plan, or imposing discipline for workplace infractions.”

Do any of the above noted complaints contravene legitimate, reasonable management actions? Was John Tait making unreasonable demands related to performance?

Further, what has since been revealed is that senior team members pressured junior members into signing the letter to remove their coach. This type of coercive behavior constitutes harassment under the same RC policy that the players made a claim to. The act of petitioning the letter put other players in a default position of choosing a side, with either having repercussions to their position on the team and creating a power imbalance among teammates and between coaching staff and players.

Members of the public have called for the release the report, but RC’s Policy, on which this investigation was based, includes the following regarding Investigation:

Record Keeping and Confidentiality
33. Rugby Canada recognizes the sensitive nature of harassment and bullying matters and in particular, the difficulties associated with coming forward with a complaint of harassment or bullying and with being accused of harassment or bullying. Rugby Canada recognizes the interests of both the Complainant and the Respondent in keeping any matter being dealt with under this policy confidential, except where disclosure is required by a disciplinary proceeding or by law.

RC is keeping this information in confidence as per policy. CEO, Allen Vansen immediately passed the complaint on to a Sport Canada mediator. He didn’t contact anyone who supported John for statements. See no evil hear no evil? The complaints made were based on the experiences of the athletes but were not in breach of policy (and less so under the updated policy). John Tait was left with no choice but to resign from RC. A few selfishly motivated players created a campaign to remove their coach and guarantee their spot heading into the Tokyo Olympics. They harassed players and used their own position within the team to make a calculated power move that pitted teammates against the coaching staff and each other. They used carefully crafted statements using language that made them appear as victims of abuse, silencing the real victims of harassment and bullying. The result was a fractured team void of leadership that greatly underperformed at the Tokyo Olympics. The poor performance of the team will amount to a substantial loss of funding when the program is reviewed this fall.

Before the turmoil in 2020, John Tait had a long and distinguished career in Canadian rugby as player and coach. In 2011, John became head coach of the National Senior Women’s 15s and the newly formed centralized women’s 7s program. In August 2019, he was also made the director of high performance for the NSW7s program. John led the NSW7s to a silver medal at the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens, gold at the 2015 & 2019 Pan American Games and bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics. John achieved great things as a coach. He is a fundamental part of changing Canadian women’s rugby from a struggling pay-to-play model to a fully funded, thriving program. John, wife and three daughters, have grown with the team and welcomed the athletes into their hearts and home. They acted as surrogate family and support networks to athletes that left theirs behind to join the program. They went above and beyond the formal athlete/coach relationship. Yet in a very short period those same relationships were reduced to shameful accusations, disrespect, and departure.

The role as coach at any level is hard. As stated earlier, how each player experiences events can be vastly different based on various factors, so we must also consider the experience of the coach. The pressure to succeed also weighs heavy on a high-performance coach. It is a job that is funded by performance and includes managing people, time, needs, wants and expectations. Pushing athletes to achieve greatness without breaking them is a fine balance on a razor’s edge. Add the heavy load of being the deciding factor in an athlete’s dreams and multiply that by an entire team. It should be acknowledged that John Tait successfully held this burdensome position for almost a decade.

A former player recently said to me, “John Tait was a good coach, but maybe just not the right coach for the women”. Based on John’s performance record as a women’s coach, I argue that he has been exactly the right coach for the NSW7s. To me, this mentality feels placating to a side and is a disservice to the argument for equality. We can’t expect that a position of coach or athlete be filled so it appears that all is fair and equal. True equality means that every person has equal opportunity to achieve. In the context of high-performance sport, that is predicated on and funded by success, the expectation is that through a fair system, the best person for the position will be there. We cannot ask to be treated equally, while at the same time requesting to be granted exceptions.

Canadian rugby has lost good people and is setting a course to lose more. Decorated members of Rugby Canada, players, and coaches, who dedicated years to our sport. These people were removed in haste by those who are angry with false enemies. A dangerous precedent has been set through this narrative, the results of which are a greater divide between a perceived ‘us and them’ situation. People within the rugby community are feeling guarded and defensive. We are now less inclined to give of ourselves out of fear. Leaders afraid to captain the ship for fear of mutiny. Teammates and friends afraid to speak out, in fear of what they will lose.

I conclude by saying that this perspective comes from the position of she/her, a former rugby player, and coach. I’m a mother to a daughter. I believe that the fight for equality and fairness is real and important, but that is not what this NSW7s tumult was about. In fact, this is the antithesis. The events that occurred over the past 8 months caused irreparable damage to rugby in Canada. A selfish few have managed to tear apart the fabric of this program and hurt the reputation and livelihood of good people in the process.

If February 2021, when asked if John Tait was involved in the complaint from NSW7s team, RC CEO, Allen Vansen hid behind RC confidentiality and said “Of course, matters of employment and confidentiality are really important to us. I would ask you to draw your own conclusions”.

Now you, Reader, have been provided another side to this story. Was this a fight for equality and fairness? Did John Tait act as the monster he was portrayed to be? Think about the complaints in context and without bias. Consider the motives of those who were given a platform and the position of those that were silenced. And with that, I would ask you to redraw your own conclusions.

Posted in Editorials.