1 Introduction

Julie Stevens

Welcome to Safe Sport: Critical Issues and Practices!

I am excited to share with you this book on safe sport. Comprised of 18 chapters from 21 contributors across academic and professional realms, the book offers current and insightful commentary that addresses athlete, governance, human rights, legal, coaching, and officiating issues.

The creation of this open education resource (OER) was driven by a compelling necessity to ensure safe sport experiences for all athletes within all contexts. The organizers of the 2021 Safe Sport Forum hosted by the Centre for Sport Capacity at Brock University took this athlete-focused approach seriously. During our planning and staging activities, we were unified around two key priorities: First – that athletes be at the forefront of the discussion and second – that the discussion would continue beyond the Forum!

The Empty Chair

The first priority manifested in the Forum name – Athletes First: The Promotion of Safe Sport in Canada, an athlete panel to launch the program, and the positioning of athletes as the central beacon for shared discussion among attendees. The sessions applied various perspectives to address the harassment and abuse of athletes, and the lack of administrative action in these instances which have been highlighted in recent cases in the media and the courts. Most importantly, the Forum acknowledged that the long-term negative ramifications of a failure to ensure safe sport for athletes at all levels of the Canadian sport system is a significant issue that requires discussion and action.

Photo by USAG- Humphreys on Flickr

As someone who has held several roles in sport, including scholar, volunteer, coach, official, parent, advocate and most importantly, athlete, I have tried to cultivate a safe and respectful environment when I engage with others through sport. Finding a way to keep this focus at the forefront was a personal endeavour. But during a recent strategic planning session I attended, I learned about a perspective that Jeff Bezos has implemented in Amazon for a very long time – aptly described as the “One Empty Chair Rule.”[1] The rule ensures that an empty chair is placed at the table in order to make certain the customer is top-of-mind at every company meeting.[2] Bezos refers to his mantra as “customer obsession”.

The “Empty Chair” approach resonated with me and stirred thoughts about how it might guide safe sport innovation within the Canadian sport system. The lens made me think of ways a consistent positioning of the athlete – which in sport is the central stakeholder – at the forefront of decision-making might enhance safe sport. What if an empty chair is placed at the table at every meeting where sport leaders make decisions in order to ensure the athlete is top-of-mind?

Athlete-centredness is not new to the sport conversation. In the 2000s, criticism grew over the excessive bureaucracy, corporatization, and results-based orientation of the Canadian high- performance sport system. Calls for change, such as the introduction of athlete-centred initiatives have been made within the Canadian sport system.[3] The discussion has expanded into various areas of sport, such as anti-doping policy, and beyond the Canadian border to engage a global dialogue[4] and competition at the international level.[5] Further, arguments for a ‘deliberate democracy’ lens were raised as a concept that might counter power imbalance within the sport system and open the door for athletes to engage in decision-making.[6]

Photo by Major Tom Agency on Unsplash

Extending upon the notion of power, the politics of athlete-centredness in a sport system has been examined in the context of performance enhancement drugs resulting in claims that anti-doping policy development fails to include athletes as policymakers.[7] More recent work connects athlete input with sustainable elite sport in relation to coaching, holistic perspectives, and the co-creation of an athlete’s overall development.[8] Interestingly, a review of athlete representation within the decision-making forum of major sport event properties has revealed that Paralympic athletes have a vote through the International Paralympic Committee Athlete Council, whereas the voting representation of Olympic Games and Commonwealth Games athletes is not as evident.[9]

While these works demonstrate how athlete-centredness has been addressed over the past 20 years, the difference now is momentum – the sport community seems far more resolute about hearing from athletes with respect to their view of a safe sport experience.

Hence, this book about safe sport begins with the athlete voice!


In Part 2, Erin Willson and Georgina Truman (AthletesCAN) share powerful insight about the athlete experience in relation to safe sport. The research they address demonstrates the importance of gathering athlete voices, including voices at the lower levels of the sport system, expanding our individual awareness and building our collective awareness about safe sport. It is critical to communicate and implement safe sport policies in ways that align with the level of the athlete.

Video 1.1 Julie Stevens: A Summary of the Athletes’ Voices Panel

Video provided by Brock University Centre for Sport Capacity. Used with permission. [Transcript]

Part 3 includes three chapters that draw upon different perspectives to examine how athletes are positioned within a larger sport system. Bruce Kidd examines the historical struggle for safe sport within a system fraught with contested terrain. Peter Donnelly critiques the long-standing autonomy of sport and argues that reengineering the way sport organizations operate will increase safe sport accountability. Finally, Leela MadhavaRau and Talia Ritondo propose encompassing a human rights framework into the broader context of safe sport and discuss how safe sport can be achieved.

Video 1.2 Julie Stevens: A Summary of the Governance and System Re-Engineering Panel

Video provided by Brock University Centre for Sport Capacity. Used with permission. [Transcript]

Part 4 provides an exceptionally comprehensive five-chapter account of safe sport legal considerations. Hilary Findlay and Marcus Mazzucco examine key legal issues that arise from the creation of an independent body to oversee the implementation of the Universal Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport (UCCMS) and ensure the fair, transparent and effective management of reported cases of maltreatment. They break down the role of the new independent body in relation to four phases – jurisdiction, investigation, dispute resolution and enforcement. Understanding the legal aspects of the UCCMS as it becomes a mandatory element of the federal sport system, and possibly provincial/territorial and local levels of sport, is critical for students, researchers, professionals and other stakeholders within the Canadian sport system.

Part 5 offers two “from-the-field” exemplars from sport organizations that have effectively developed safe sport policies and practices. Kasey Liboiron and Karri Dawson (True Sport) champion the True Sport values-based approach to sport as a fundamental foundation for the intentional integration of effective safe sport policy by stakeholders throughout the sport system. Ellen MacPherson and Ian Moss (Gymnastics Canada) offer an insider account of the initiatives Gymnastics Canada completed in order to develop, support and foster safe sport throughout the organization.

Photo by Rowan Simpson on Unsplash.

Part 6 shifts the focus to coaches where two chapters address the role a coach plays in a safe athlete experience. Michael Van Bussel and Kirsty Spence outline how a care-driven model and relational risk management plan offer a constructive guide for safe sport relationships among athletes, coaches, and administrators. Isabelle Cayer and Peter Niedre (Coaching Association of Canada) explain the culture shifts that have impacted the safe sport movement and various actions to offer and promote training and coach education across the country.

Part 7 highlights sport officials as the lesser known yet essential stakeholder of the sport ecosystem. Spanning two chapters, Lori Livingston and Susan Forbes address the purpose of rules and their role in creating safe playing environments, and outline the role of officials and how officials have been historically maltreated by spectators, coaches and athletes.

Part 8 concludes the book by looking ahead to what needs to happen in order for the UCCMS to be realized. In one chapter, Gretchen Kerr explains why the UCCMS represents only a first step in the safe sport journey and suggests next steps must include the need for independent complaint and adjudication mechanisms, and extending the notion of safe sport beyond the prevention of harms to include optimization of the sport experience. In a second chapter, Michele Donnelly offers a summary of where we currently stand in this safe sport movement, and an important perspective on what steps need to be taken next to put the UCCMS words into action.

In conclusion, the wealth of information in this book offers ways we can counter challenges of structure in order to commit to safe sport values and enact these values through policies and programs. One resounding theme the authors have communicated in their own unique way is that safe sport requires effort from a variety of stakeholders (including you) at every level of the sports system. My hope is to build upon this initial edition by adding new chapters that respond to the evolving conversation about safe sport in our communities.

I am excited to share these insightful scholars and professional accounts from across the sport system, and to work with you to build ways of keeping the “Athletes First” focus at the forefront of our ongoing and collective safe sport efforts.

Yours in safe sport,





42 Courses. (October 16). Jeff Bezos’ one empty chair rule. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from https://blog.42courses.com/home/2018/10/16/jeff-bezos-one-empty-chair-rule.

Anders, G. (2012, April 4). Inside Amazon’s idea machine: How Bezos decodes customers. Forbes. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/georgeanders/2012/04/04/inside-amazon/?sh=ec2d00461998

Ciomaga, B., Thibault, L., & Kihl, L. (2017). Athlete involvement in the governance of sport organizations. In M. Dodds, K. Heisey, & A. Ahonen (Eds.), Routhledge Handbook of International Sport Business. London: Routledge.

Dolsten, J., Barker-Ruchti, N., & Lindgren, E. C. (2019). Sustainable elite sport: Swedish athletes’ voices of sustainability in athletics. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 13(5), 727-742. DOI: 10.1080/2159676X.2020.1778062.

Grigaliūnaitė, I. & Eimontas, E. (2018). Athletes’ involvement in decision making for good governance. Baltic Journal of Sport and Health Sciences, 3(110), 18-24. https://etalpykla.lituanistikadb.lt/object/LT-LDB-0001:J.04~2018~1579623660997/J.04~2018~1579623660997.pdf

Jackson, G. & Ritchie, I. (2007)Leave it to the experts: The politics of ‘athlete-centeredness’ in the Canadian sport system. International Journal of Sport Management and Marketing, 2(4), 396-411.

Kihl, L., Kikulis, L., & Thibault, L. (2008). A deliberative democratic approach to athlete-centred sport: The dynamics of administrative and communicative power. European Sport Management Quarterly, 7(1), 1-30.

Koetsier, J. (2018, April 5). Why every Amazon meeting has at least 1 empty chair. Inc. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from https://www.inc.com/john-koetsier/why-every-amazon-meeting-has-at-least-one-empty-chair.html

MacIntosh, E., & Weckend-Dill, A. (2015). The athlete’s perspective. In M. Parent & J. L. Chappelet (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of Sports Events Management. London: Routledge.

Thibault, L. & Babiak, K. (2005). Organizational changes in Canada’s sport system: Toward an athlete-centred approach. European Sport Management Quarterly, 5(2), 105-132.

  1. Anders, G., 2012.
  2. Koetsier, J., 2018.
  3. Thibault, L.& Babiak, K., 2005.
  4. Grigaliūnaitė, I. & Eimontas, E., 2018.
  5. Ciomaga, B., Thibault, L., & Kihl, L., 2017.
  6. Kihl, L., Kikulis, L., & Thibault, L., 2008.
  7. Jackson, G. & Ritchie, I., 2007.
  8. Dolsten, J., Barker-Ruchti, N. & Lindgren, EC., 2019.
  9. MacIntosh, E. & Weckend Dill, A., 2015.


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Safe Sport: Critical issues and practices Copyright © 2022 by Julie Stevens is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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