Use independent investigations not probes by sporting bodies to protect athletes, judge says

Sports law conference in Dublin examines safety, ethics and regulation in sport

Investigations into allegations of maltreatment of athletes are best undertaken by independent bodies rather than individual sports organisations, a Canadian judge has told a top level sports law conference in Dublin.

Judge Graeme Mew, of the Superior Court of Ontario, said investigations in Canada had exposed abuse and harassment of athletes which had been covered up or not adequately addressed by their sporting organisations.

Canada has moved to address that situation via the introduction of rules at national level and the appointment of a Sports Integrity Commissioner, he said.

No matter how well-intentioned national sports organisations might be, the Canadian experience is that investigation, adjudication and sanctioning in cases of maltreatment is best undertaken by entities which are “truly independent”, he said. Policies have to be clear, there must be clear communications with all involved and delay is “the enemy” as the lifespan of an athlete is short.


Kate Hills, head of safeguarding, ethics and youth development at Swim Ireland, outlined a range of safeguarding measures put in place by the organisation

If Ireland had an independent sports integrity body, that would halve her workload and she would be able to concentrate on developing young people within the sport.

“We have come a long way in our sport, we know what happens if we don’t have the right processes, “she said. That can lead to the destruction of the lives of young people and their families and a destructive impact on the sport.

Although she is employed by Swim Ireland, her remit as head of safeguarding, ethics and youth development is as independent as possible for an employee, she said.

A statutory investigation into child abuse in swimming, which reported in 1998, has given Swim Ireland a foundation and unique insight and drive to make the sport as safe as possible, she said.

“Sport will never be safe, it will only be safer, but it is very much about putting the athlete first.”

Judge Mew and Ms Hills were among several speakers at a conference organised by the Sports Law Bar Association, a specialist association of The Bar of Ireland, in Dublin on Friday.

Speakers from Ireland, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada addressed issues concerning sports integrity, regulation and safe sport. The speakers included Neil Hallett, the newly appointed ethics officer for World Rugby, Jan Kleiner, director of football regulation with soccer’s world governing body FIFA and Liam Keane, chair of the GAA rules committee.

Judge Mew noted a parliamentary committee inquiry in Canada last year had found some $7.6m dollars had been paid by Hockey Canada out of a national equity fund, partially funded by player registration fees, to meet the cost of 21 sexual misconduct cases in the sport of men’s ice hockey since 1989. That lead to the loss of funding, sponsorship and advertising revenue.

Such cases show the damage that can happen when sport is not upfront in dealing with allegations of sexual abuse, he said. A recent report by a retired Canadian Supreme Court judge had exposed a systemic problem of sexual violence and “toxic masculinity” in Canada’s hockey culture.

There have also been multiple allegations of psychological, physical and sexual abuse of athletes at national level in the sport of artistic swimming by some coaches, staff or other athletes, he said.

He referred to studies noting, because of the culture of organised sport, sport tends to see itself as a central force for good which can only have positive outcomes for the benefit of children and youth, both in terms of physical health and mental character. That can lead to a refusal to see or admit problems in sport and, in some cases, to a culture of silence about inappropriate behaviour in sport, the mentality that “what happens in the locker room, stays in the locker room”.

There is also a culture of expecting unquestioning obedience from young athletes if they wish to progress in their sport and of sports organisations asserting their right to self-governance and exemption from intrusive oversight by government. These and other aspects of sporting culture can create an ideal context for abuse, he said.

In Canada, as in Australia, a national system to deal with safeguarding cases in sport is being set up, he said. That includes new rules and an independently appointed and government funded Sports Integrity Commissioner, in place since June 2022, with a remit to deal with maltreatment including administering a universal code of conduct to address that.

When there is an allegation of maltreatment, the national sports organisation will be required to turn over that complaint to be investigated and decided by the commissioner. A separate commissioner will deal with sanctions.

Federal funding will be cut from sports organisations who do not sign up to the system by next April, he said.

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times