Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

May 4, 2009

Sport's Vicious Cycle of Exploitation

Laura Robinson, who helped expose sexual abuse in Canadian hockey, talks to Gelf about the national game's dark side.

Garey Ris

Sheldon Kennedy spent eight seasons playing professional hockey in Detroit, Calgary, and Boston, but it was the abuse he suffered at the hands of a highly respected junior-hockey coach, not his National Hockey League career, that made headlines. In 1996, Kennedy revealed that he had been sexually abused more than 300 times by Graham James beginning at age 14. When Kennedy came forward, it helped others take that painful first step to disclose they were victims of abuse, too.

Laura Robinson, with John Cameron. Photo by Kelly Rogers.
"I was on the outside as an athlete and continued to be as a writer and journalist."

Laura Robinson, with John Cameron. Photo by Kelly Rogers.

In her 1998 book, Crossing the Line: Violence and Sexual Assault in Canada's National Sport, Laura Robinson looked into not only the abuse of junior players by team officials and the degrading initiations they endured, but also the rapes and assaults of young women at the hands of the players. The hierarchical structure of junior hockey, she wrote, allowed for sexual predators such as James to hide out and control a boy's dreams of a career in the NHL. She also sought to answer how Canada's much-beloved national sport has been corrupted at the junior-hockey level, leading to the shameful treatment of young men and young women.

Gelf Magazine's interview with Robinson, a Canadian freelance writer who has competed in cycling and Nordic skiing and currently coaches cross-country skiing, was conducted by email, and has been edited for length and clarity. Robinson spoke about the challenges she faced in exposing abuses in Canada's national sport, and its homoerotic and misogynistic culture. She will read from her book and take questions, along with other hockey writers, at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, May 7, at the JLA gallery in DUMBO, Brooklyn.

Gelf Magazine: Hockey is considered a religion in Canada. How hard was it to shed light on the abuse that had been going on for decades, abuse that most Canadians weren't aware was happening?

Laura Robinson: It was easy and very hard. I was told about an alleged gang rape of a learning-disabled girl in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, in 1989 while doing another story in that province in 1992. When I got there she was just getting out of counseling. Her lawyer gave me a great deal of information not only about the case, but about the culture of small-town Canada and the worshiping of hockey. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer who had been taken off the case (he had expertise in sexual assault, and the powers that be did not want his expertise) told me he had to live there so he had done as much as he could, but that I had to do the story. He told me hockey was like the church. He said, "I'm doing investigations that are decades old. Just take the town's population and divide by the amount of churches."
Either Swift Current was one sick little town or there was a cultural disposition in junior hockey for a rape culture. It turned out it was both. I put the word out through my network that I was looking for stories of sexual abuse on junior teams. Many people got back to me, and I was able then to go to Guelph, Windsor, Sault Ste. Marie, Saskatoon, and Chatham, and do those case studies, too. I was also working with CBC-TV's the fifth estate on this story as a documentary and doing a big magazine piece, so there was a budget for travel and court transcripts. I knew, because it was hockey, that every quote would be scrutinized and I better get as much as possible from sworn statements.

"These men are stuck in dead towns, stuck in their families, stuck in their overweight bodies. The boys are everything they are not."
But the hockey brass soon figured out what I was up to, and while I had press accreditation for the 1993 Memorial Cup, it was very difficult to get press accreditation after that, even for the Women's World Hockey Championships. They would not fax me info they said they would, would not return phone calls, etc. Sheldon Kennedy's agent would not connect the two of us together. While Sheldon had disclosed that his coach in Swift Current, Graham James, had sexually abused him and others, he had not yet disclosed that the players were doing the same thing to girls. When I told his agent I wanted to look at the cyclical nature of sexual abuse in hockey, I think he knew this was going to be a huge scandal if a connection was made between being abused and becoming an abuser, which is so often the case with males.
I had been an outspoken female athlete before I became a journalist. I was part of the team that took the Blainey case to the Supreme Court of Canada when a 12-year-old girl named Justine Blainey was not allowed to play on the boys' team she had successfully made. We won this case, but it put us on sport's blacklist. Soon after this I spent three years fighting for equal prize money for women cyclists in Toronto. We won this case, too, but at a great cost. When I started writing in 1990, I was the first journalist to write about sexual harassment and assault in sport in 1992 in Canada. As a female athlete, I saw lots of it and had to stay arm's length away from plenty of coaches and sponsors. the fifth estate and I did a documentary on this issue, and a woman from the national basketball team put it best when she said, "I didn't let him pat my ass and he sat me on the bench the whole time. He told me I wasn't a 'team player.' "
So I was on the outside as an athlete and continued to be as a writer and journalist.

Gelf Magazine: In 1996, NHL player Sheldon Kennedy revealed he had been abused more than 300 times by his former junior coach, Graham James. It was an explosive story across Canada and in the sports world. Was this the impetus behind your writing this book?

Laura Robinson: I started investigating in Swift Current in January 1993, three years before Sheldon disclosed the sexual abuse he endured, and I was investigating the alleged gang rape by the team, not the sexual abuse of the team by the coach. I interviewed Graham at that time and I was shocked by his language, because he knew he was talking to a journalist. He told me that he hung out with NHL players all the time and they could "fuck" any woman they wanted to wherever they were. He said they had a list of women for each city and called whoever they wanted. Then he said that girls in Swift Current called in the middle of the night for his players.
I thought there was something very strange about him, so three years later when he was arrested, I wasn't completely surprised. I had been researching the other teams by then, too, and it all made sense. So many of the boys were being sexually abused, not by their coach for years like Sheldon was (this I believe is rare), but by the senior players, owners, coaches, managers, etc., during initiations.

Gelf Magazine: It took courage for Kennedy to reveal the horrendous abuse he suffered, and how it affected his life. What if he hadn't taken that step? Would we still not know how serious abuse was in hockey?

Laura Robinson: Sheldon did a very courageous and heroic act by going public. I cannot imagine how horrific the years prior to his disclosure were. He was physically and emotionally abused by his father, and then, when Sheldon was 14, Graham got his hands on him. All the adults in his young life who should have rescued him were so deeply embedded in hockey, they became blind to the obvious signs he was demonstrating that screamed, "abused child." He pulled the plug, but so did others. Darren McLean, who played for the Broncos in 1994, after Sheldon had left, went to management because Graham was abusing at least one of the players, and was obsessed to the point that he wasn't coaching anyone else. Darren was joined by teammate Kevin Powell. The two held an all-night meeting with the team and one member of management, and in the end they were told Graham would be fired.
This didn't happen, and Darren questioned management. He was given his walking papers. When Sheldon's story broke, Darren revealed that Graham had paid them $50 to bring a girl back to his place and have group sex while he secretly videotaped it. Sheldon confirmed this in his own autobiography. Darren and Kevin were very brave, and so were the other young players in Canada who revealed what happened to them in initiations.
But none of these guys were any braver than the women I interviewed, along with the fifth estate, for our documentary in 1993 on the sexual abuse of female athletes by male coaches. They went on national television and revealed a systemic problem of abuse. People did not pay attention to the issue of sexual abuse in sport when women spoke about it. It only became real for Canadians when a "real" athlete spoke about it—a professional hockey player.

Gelf Magazine: You write about some men and women involved in hockey who, "while not assaulting players, live vicariously through their borrowed youth and sexuality." How is this different, or more prevalent, than in other sports?

Laura Robinson: I think the highly mediated culture of today—sports and non-sports—is all about living vicariously. I am amazed at how emotionally involved people are in the lives of other people who haven't a clue that they even exist on the earth. People talk about fashion models, actors, and athletes as if they are their pals. It is all very strange to me.
But there is something particular about hockey in small-town Canada. These towns are like American small towns—very conservative, very provincial, very Christian, and very sexually repressed. I argue that the worship of maleness that organized religion is all about has been transferred to the stadium and arena, with all of the zealousness intact.
I believe that there is a powerful love/hate relationship between the male fans who would never miss a junior-hockey game and devote themselves to "their boys" and how they resent, at a very deep level, the promise of young virility. The boys have what they never had—talent, the possibility of greatness, and the ability to get out of town. These men are stuck in dead towns, stuck in their families, stuck in their overweight bodies. The boys are everything they are not. They need to "borrow" their sexuality. They speak about the girls the boys have sex with big knowing smiles, but also disdain. They are 45 or 50, but the presence of junior-hockey players allows them to be 14.
These relationships are very complicated and subconscious. Junior hockey is a highly homoerotic culture, but also very misogynistic and homophobic.

Gelf Magazine: You compare sports institutions with religious ones, in that both have power bases that until recently didn't have to answer to those outside those organizations. It's no wonder, then, that abuse went on for decades in hockey circles just as it had in religious institutions. Is that why it was so tough to get complaints of abuse investigated in hockey?

Laura Robinson: Definitely, the powerful people in religion and hockey still put a lid on disclosure, no matter what their policies say. This is without question and I would debate anyone from Hockey Canada who argues otherwise.
But I think the main reason for few disclosures is because of the stigma of homosexual sex or sexual activity in such a homophobic culture. As I say in Crossing the Line, rookie players are the "designated females"—"the bitch" of the senior players when they arrive. I am not saying all teams are like this, but there is a very gendered hierarchy in hockey that depends on females being denigrated. After all, there is no junior-hockey league for girls—no dream for them to go pro. This is not because women can't play hockey—they play great hockey—but because the story that the male fans need to be told over and over cannot be told through the strong bodies of girls and women. This is all about performing masculinity, and the performances are not for the girls who imagine themselves as girlfriends, but for the older men—the father figures, as former hockey player Scott McLeod says in "Baptized A Hawk," the chapter on initiations.

"The worship of maleness that organized religion is all about has been transferred to the stadium and arena, with all of the zealousness intact."
Gelf Magazine: Sexual abuse and violence against women was another major theme of your book. But the disturbing thing was that these problems weren't taken seriously, and even players convicted of abuse were given short sentences; still treated as sports gods; and in many places still played hockey, made all-star teams, and were given awards. Is this why many players have an elevated sense of self-worth, of entitlement?

Laura Robinson: This part of the equation is so very frustrating because the homoerotic/homophobic culture treats women and girls like shit. Literally in so many small towns the only connection a girl can have to "the national dream" is by giving a team blowjobs. The girls learn through the highly gendered, conservative small-town culture that they are only adjectives to describe boys.

Gelf Magazine: Don Cherry is a very popular, bombastic commentator on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada who loves the violent side of hockey. He was skeptical when reports of abuse surfaced, saying hockey was "100 percent safe." Was he being naïve? Was he too close to hockey organizations to see any problems?

Laura Robinson: Don Cherry was an old pal of Graham James. I think of Don Cherry as the father of all the guys in hockey who have this homoerotic/homophobic obsession with hockey. I know many people just think of him as a clown, but I think he does serious damage because he normalizes violence as manliness.

Gelf Magazine: At the time the book was written, junior hockey was out of control: Underage drinking parties and derogatory hazing and initiation rites—including sexual abuse—by senior players against junior players were the norm, and may have contributed to two deaths considered suicides. Where were the adults setting the good examples for the young men they were supposed to be caring for?

Laura Robinson: I think junior hockey is very self-selective. Adults who question the relationship between violence, alcohol, drugs, sexual abuse, and hockey culture are no longer around. Parents who are concerned about these issues, or smart enough to make the connections between them, pulled their sons out of hockey well before they got to the junior level. Junior hockey in Canada is a huge, multimillion-dollar industry. It buys, sells, and trades teenage boys for their physical prowess. The CHL openly calls the boys their "most valuable commodity." Anyone who examines social-cultural connections deeply in their conscience isn't in that world, and, to be honest, there are a huge amount of really stupid people involved in hockey. Their world begins and ends at a Canadian hockey rink.

Gelf Magazine: Have things changed for the better since?

Laura Robinson: I think it is much easier for junior players to go to the police if they feel sexually threatened by a man in power now, but one-on-one sexual abuse is rather rare relative to the other kinds of sexual abuse in hockey, and that is the initiations and the gang rapes of girls by the teams. There is a zero-tolerance rule on initiations, but the teams still do it because the culture demands that there is a 24/7 performance of masculinity, and rookie players are at the bottom of the team's food chain.

But below the rookies are girls—puck bunnies as the players call them—and hockey in no way shape or form has even acknowledged this. It was clear in the David Frost trial from the testimony of four players that group sex of between two and six players with one female is the norm. They talked about it as a bonding experience. They also used derogatory language to describe the girls and women who end up in their hotel rooms. Clearly this is not about loving the female body, female sexuality, or females. In one of my op-eds during the trial, I wrote that the female body is simply another sheet of ice on which the players perform for one another. The sexual relationship is not male-female, but male-male.

Gelf Magazine: The abused players rarely received support from their leagues. Is this why the secrecy lasted so long? How has this changed since your book was written?

Laura Robinson: I think people are kidding themselves if they go to hockey looking for support as sexual-abuse victims. The secrecy has lasted because the culture is so homophobic, and let's face it: A washed-up professional athlete has limited resources. His name and what he represents is what he can trade on. Few have any education. If his name is associated with child sexual abuse, even if he was the child, the chances of him being allowed to stay in the business, from signing hockey sticks at the mall to coaching kids, are very slim.

Gelf Magazine: Is the lack of respect boys have toward girls greater in hockey than in other sports, or is it that boys today are being raised to disrespect women? It must have been horrendous for those girls who were forced to move after no one believed their stories of sexual assaults and beatings.

Laura Robinson: I coach a regional cross-country ski team and the atmosphere in cross-country skiing and in cycling, where men and women frequently train together and race at the same venue, is so profoundly different from hockey. But cross-country skiing is a "silent sport." The athlete isn't "performing" for anyone, rather he or she is alone in the woods skiing at two heartbeats below his or her anaerobic threshold.

Gelf Magazine: It's unfathomable that the Western Hockey League, and the team James coached, went into damage control from the point of his resignation up until he pleaded guilty to more than 300 counts of abuse against Kennedy and 50 against someone else. One lawyer says abuse in the WHL went as far back as the 1960s.

Laura Robinson: It is unfathomable until you understand what is at stake. The crowd at a junior-hockey game is rather frayed along the edges. The players are the little bit of dream they borrow, the way they can vicariously leave Swift Current, Sault Ste. Marie, or Sudbury for a couple of hours. They are emotionally very invested in this team.
But they are also financially invested. As I already argued, junior hockey is very lucrative. Sending James on to Calgary and allowing Sheldon, Joe Sakic, and Theo Fleury to help buy him a new team of boys got James out of Swift Current, which is all those in power at the Broncos wanted. These players I call Graham's pimps.
Hockey is just like the church in this respect, passing the priest or minister along to the next parish. I know from interviewing residential-school survivors for years that the most devastating thing and the most damaging to children is that no adults rescued them from their abuser—they let it happen. Just imagine what that must be like, to be a child and see that the adults who were supposedly there to protect you did not intervene and save you. No wonder the victims cannot escape the past. It is so very tragic.

Gelf Magazine: A 1997 "Players First Report" included recommendations such as screening for Canadian Hockey League employees, volunteers, and anyone who has contact with players. What has happened since that time? Are players safer? Are girls safer from assaults by players? Is there any outside oversight?

Laura Robinson: There is definitely no outside oversight, and the CHL made sure of this. It is a closed shop. I think the chances of a sexual predator in junior hockey as a coach are very slim, and in this way the players are safer. But the initiations still occur, and girls are no safer from assault. The entire sports establishment in Canada has failed girls on this front, not just hockey.

Garey Ris

Garey Ris, a former copy editor and writer for the Ottawa Citizen, currently cowrites The Daily Fix for

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Article by Garey Ris

Garey Ris, a former copy editor and writer for the Ottawa Citizen, currently cowrites The Daily Fix for

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