LETTER | “Shock and disappointment” towards UVic and Vikes Athletics

Letters Opinions

I read with profound shock and disappointment the articles in the Times Colonist and Martlet featuring UVic female rowers who came forward to complain about the alleged  verbal and mental abuse suffered under the current women’s rowing coach at UVic, and the subsequent lack of action by the university athletic department.  

As a former national level rowing coach, and former UVic rowing coach, I realize that by remaining silent on this issue it may appear as though I condone this style of coaching. I most emphatically do not.

 Although I am still very connected with the rowing community, this was the first I had heard of the alleged abuse which had its roots over 15 months prior. When I dug deeper, I realized that I knew most of the players in the story — including some of the athletes, the coach in question, the assistant coach and both the Athletic Director and his assistant.

 The more I read, the more disappointed and angry I became with how badly the University of Victoria Athletic Department dealt with the allegations of abuse. I have decided to speak out for several reasons. First, this is my university — UVic is where I started rowing, where I began my coaching career, and where I got my degree. Second, and more importantly, I wish to go on record as stating that I do not support this treatment of athletes — from coaches, or from the administrators who oversee these programs. 

 My coaching career spanned over 45 years, and during this time I coached at every level of the sport, from high school teams to national teams competing for Canada, including Pan American Games, multiple Under 23 World Championships, World Championships and the Olympic Games. I have also coached at the national team level in four other countries beyond Canada. My crews have medals to prove their success and have won the most prestigious events at the most prestigious regatta in the world, including the Grand Challenge at the Henley Royal Regatta in the UK.

So, I feel that I can speak with some confidence and authority when I say that there is no place for a coach who uses bullying, harassment, or mental and physical abuse of any type. In sport, or anywhere in life, no one deserves to be treated like this. Period.

UVic, I feel, you have fumbled badly, or in rowing terms ‘caught a boat-stopping crab.’ You have failed the students involved, failed their parents, failed the coaching staff, and the rowing community. I would have thought as an institution of higher learning, the University of Victoria would lead by example, designing the ideal model organization, combining academic theory and practical application, free of harassment and discrimination. A model with high non-comprising standards to protect the students, rather than hanging them out to dry.

I believe the athletic department and the university as whole missed an amazing opportunity of using a ‘teaching moment’ to resolve the situation at the start. If handled properly at the beginning, in a timely, open, and clear manner a positive outcome could have been crafted.  A mentoring coach could have been assigned to work with the new coach through his initial probationary period, providing needed support to both the coach and athletes. 

To deal with the broader issue, UVic should have been organizing forums, discussion panels, and talking proactively with their students and parents about healthy and abusive relationships, recognizing abuse, etc, and bringing in extra mental health trauma counselors for student athletes in crisis. I feel they had a responsibility to work with the whole university community. There has been an outcry of university students all across Canada, citing major mental health and suicide crises on campuses – UVic could have taken a national lead here, to deal with this issue publicly and educationally.  

However, it is clear to me that the university did not provide the athletes an environment that was safe or conducive to high performance sport or higher learning. There is, for example, currently still no Coaches Code of Conduct to provide standards for coaches to follow [Editor’s note: UVic says they are working to create a Coaches Code of Conduct for the fall of 2020]. To me, this is fundamental. How can a university operate without guidelines and apparently also without a clear, transparent, and timely process for resolution — or at the very least, a mechanism to protect students from abuse?

The perceived inaction from UVic’s athletics department was, in my opinion, pathetic, and gave the appearance of supporting the coach over the athletes who had been victimized. This view is supported by the fact that no action was taken until after the coach had completed his eight-month probationary period and had safely secured a permanent position as UVic’s rowing coach. 

Research on bullying and harassment tell us that for every person who comes forward to complain, there are five more who will not. In total, six persons have formally complained about their abusive treatment by the coach, and six others have gone to the press. Based on statistics, I have to conclude there are a lot more rowers who are choosing to remain silent. 

When you have victims physically hurting themselves or considering suicide, you have a crisis. This should have been dealt with immediately, and any and all required levels of support given to the students involved. This did not happen here at UVic.

It appears there is a complete lack of concern for these athletes. Victim support at the university, I am informed, has been non-existent. The issue was ‘resolved,’ coach reinstated, and the athletes involved were asked to sign a gag order to ensure that they would not speak publicly on the outcome, on threat of disciplinary action. The message is clear: the university is more important than the mental health and well-being of the athletes. As well, the threat of disciplinary action for going public with their complaints is, by definition, more bullying.  

According to an article in the Martlet, in a team meeting on Oct. 16, 2019 the supposed offending coach apologized to the team for his actions, in the presence of Athletic Director and Associate Director of Sport. 

 In my opinion, this is an admission of guilt, although not a complete acceptance of responsibility for his actions. The second point and most important, is that this apology was apparently extended to only those at the meeting and did not include those victimized rowers who left the program and UVic due to his alleged actions.

At the same meeting, the Assistant Director of Sport commented that “people need to be challenged and pushed in a certain way, other people that doesn’t work for them.” It sounds as though management supports the alleged abusive techniques and have not taken the allegations seriously. 

The fact is this situation not been satisfactorily resolved in over 16 months is now having negative effects on fundraising for the program and athlete recruiting for the women’s and men’s programs.  I was told by one parent that their son has decided on UBC instead of attending UVic for rowing because of what he has observed. I have conversed with several other alumni who feel as I do: they will no longer be financially supporting UVic’s rowing program until there is a satisfactory outcome. Perhaps now that this issue has become a financial liability for the university, we can hope to see a more responsible outcome. 

As a coach on the outside looking in, one major element that has been missing from the UVic program is fun and enjoyment of the sport.  Enjoyment affects motivation and motivation influences performance. While motivation comes from within, a coach’s role is to develop ways to cultivate and focus the motivation into a powerful and unbeatable force, primarily by developing positive goals and outcomes. Have the athletes work hard, yes, but make the experience enjoyable and positive. 

 A former Canadian national team rower recently said to me, “When I first started rowing at the Gorge RC, you and Craig (Craig Pond, UBC women’s coach) taught me how much fun the sport could be, and that’s what kept me going on those long days of training with the national team.”  

I am concerned about the legacy of UVic’s once fine rowing program, but more importantly, I am concerned for the victims who have been left without support. I have not seen any rebuttal to any of the alleged complaints. As far as I am concerned this issue alleged coaching abuse has not been resolved. I am not prepared to stay silent until it is. 

To the athletes brave enough to step forward, I want to say: I believe you. You did not deserve this treatment. You did nothing wrong.  And I will stand by you to speak out against abusive behaviour in sport.

To the Athletic Dept: Please drop the secrecy and make sure the issue of abuse is resolved to the satisfaction of all the athletes and parents.

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To the university: I challenge you to take the lead. Initiate a public process. Develop a model approach to solve coaching abuse (or even the broader issue facing us all today).

These students are your clients, they pay! They deserve to be treated accordingly.

I am prepared to volunteer and assist in developing updated coaching standards to prevent abuse and harassment and provision of victim support. 

I want to be proud of my university and its rowing program once again!   

Respectfully

Doug White

Retired Rowing Coach