A critical and comprehensive exploration of sexual assault in Canadian sport

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Maddie Brockbank
McMaster University


Curtis Fogel & Andrea Quinlan
Sexual Assault in Canadian Sport
236 pages, hardcover
Vancouver, BC: UBC Press 2023
ISBN 978-0-7748-6913-3

In Canada, professional athletics is currently grappling with an ongoing reckoning related to sexual assault. Hockey Canada is often located at the epicentre of this dialogue, largely due to the current media coverage in an emerging trial of an alleged 2018 gang sexual assault involving five national players, and the concerning implications of the organization’s documented history of settlements paid to victims of sexualized violence out of court. Sexual Assault in Canadian Sport by Curtis Fogel and Andrea Quinlan begins here with this case study, necessarily drawing out attention to the interconnected web of institutional protections, ranging from local police to Sport Canada, that sought to cover up these cases and prevent them from being publicly known. However, the authors importantly expand on this example to discuss a myriad of cases involving sexual assault within all levels of Canadian sport, pointing to shared themes and experiences of athletes related to ignorant leadership, cultures of silence, institutional normalization and tolerance, and, ultimately, social isolation for the athletes who are victimized.

This book offers an impressive and critical exploration of the sociolegal landscape of sexualized violence in sport, with particular focus on the harms that perpetuate and exacerbate the issue within institutional responses. Namely, Fogel and Quinlan identify the dynamics that render athletes as isolated via athletic institutional responses to sexual abuse, whereby they find themselves stuck between the criminal legal system and their respective sports organization(s). By examining over 300 cases of sexual assault in news media and legal files spanning 1990 to 2020, the authors aptly state that a central and overarching theme among these cases is that reports are often met with “silence, inaction, and tolerance within sport organizations and often in the Canadian criminal legal system” (p.5). On an interpersonal level, athletes often feel betrayed, invalidated, and pushed out of their sport, while their perpetrators expose an ongoing pattern of an absence of accountability as they often continue to have thriving careers in athletics. On a systemic level, such unethical praxis within institutions undermines sexualized violence prevention and trauma-informed care to instead facilitate, promote, and normalize harmful behaviours largely within hypermasculine sports.

What I found quite significant was Fogel and Quinlan’s shift away from hyperindividualistic discourses that are so often applied to perpetrators – often framing them as “bad apples” or “sick” individuals – to instead acknowledge the structural and systemic factors that facilitate and sustain this issue.

Fogel and Quinlan organize the book well in six chapters. The first as an introduction introduces the pervasiveness of this issue, the need for this kind of critical review, and the scope of what they seek to accomplish over the course of the book. What is particularly compelling in this introduction is the authors’ nuanced, thoughtful, and deliberate explanation of their language choices and the discourses attached to popular terminology for sexual assault. In my experience, I had not seen literature on sexualized violence in sport so readily contend with naming the carceral or criminal legal system as a significant consideration for how this issue continues to be mishandled and perpetuated. There is often a reluctance to do so; however, Fogel and Quinlan acknowledge the concerning statistical realities of under-reporting of sexual assault in sport and how people are rendered as victims often through the (re-)traumatizing processes of criminal legal system involvement and/or institutional and internal methods of redress within their sports organizations (e.g. investigation, adjudication, etc.). In this, they also acknowledge that the breadth of sexual assault cases that we know of does likely fail to capture just how pervasive this issue is across all levels of sport.

Protests against the president of the RFEF Luis Rubiales, for sexual assault against player Jenni Hermoso. (Shutterstock/OSCAR GONZALEZ FUENTES)

The remainder of the book is organized to explore shared themes and key differences among relevant categories, including: (1) cases of athlete-perpetrated sexual assault against women and girls, (2) athlete-perpetrated group sexual assault, (3) sexualized violence and hazing, (4) sexual assault perpetrated by coaches and other authority figures in sport. The cases that the authors discuss are difficult; I often found myself having to take a break to process the feelings of anger, disappointment, and grief that I experienced when learning of the violence that was perpetrated and the institutional responses that harmed survivors, protected perpetrators, and actively resisted accountability that could be healing for all. Fogel and Quinlan cover a breadth of examples while also sharply drawing us to shared themes. For example, regardless of the category of sexual assault in sport divided by chapter, the authors emphasize shared characteristics among perpetrators that are directly linked to social privileges that place them in proximity to whiteness and precarious hypermasculinity, thus facilitating a sense of entitlement and a need to emulate and perform violence to remain in power. This dynamic is then bolstered and worsened by the institution’s impulse to protect these perpetrators through denial, victim-blaming, and covert processes that allow perpetrators, even if they are initially arrested and/or face conviction in the criminal legal system, to quietly continue with their careers with little to no interruption. What I found quite significant was Fogel and Quinlan’s shift away from hyperindividualistic discourses that are so often applied to perpetrators – often framing them as “bad apples” or “sick” individuals – to instead acknowledge the structural and systemic factors that facilitate and sustain this issue, including social power dynamics in sport between people of different social positionings and who sit differently in sport hierarchies.

The last chapter ends on a thoughtful and hopeful note about the interconnections between these forms of sexualized violence, the need for comprehensive prevention efforts, and how we can pursue safe sport. Of consistent emphasis in the book is how victims of sexual assault are continuously harmed through the violence and in the subsequent processes of redress. In the institution’s efforts to protect the perpetrator, victims are often robbed of support and care. Stemming from this commitment to victims and their stories, the authors offer several tangible recommendations for how sexual assault policies, prevention programs, and methods of redress when violence happens should be approached at the individual, institutional, governmental, and multi-systemic levels. Importantly, Fogel and Quinlan also emphasize the significance of alternative avenues outside of the criminal legal system to offer victims agency in pursuing justice that is meaningful to them, being able to safely continue in sport if they should choose to, and avoid the (re-)traumatization that can happen within carceral or formal methods of redress.

Overall, I found this book to be an important contribution to analyses of sexualized violence in sport. I only hope to see this work taken up by those who are involved in all levels of sport; in my personal work as a public educator outside of my role in academia, I see incredible merit in this book in supporting the development of anti-violence initiatives across athletics.

Copyright © Maddie Brockbank 2024


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