Laura Robinson at Lake Louise. Courtesy Laura Robinson.

In 2014, two members of the University of Ottawa men’s varsity hockey team were charged with sexual assault for an incident during a trip to Thunder Bay. Instead of disciplining the players involved, the university suspended the entire team for 15 months, and created a task force focused on creating behavioural guidelines. In a CBC News article, Allan Rock, president of the University of Ottawa, explained how the incident “disclosed widespread behaviour that was disreputable…” and suggested that there was “an unhealthy climate surrounding the team.” Among the experts consulted about the situation was journalist Laura Robinson. Robinson believes this ‘climate’ is not unique to the University of Ottawa. In her 1998 book Crossing the Line, Robinson investigated the phenomena of hazing and sexual assault in junior hockey. Since then, she has been actively involved in researching rape culture in sport.

The Varsity: “What did you contribute to the University of Ottawa task force?”

Laura Robinson: “I gave them a report particularly about best practices for gender equality in sport. Now, the CIS [Canadian Interuniversity Sport] does have a women’s hockey committee responsible for gender equality, but it’s almost all male. It’s incredible. The model the CIS is using is a professional sports model, which inherently favours established men. I don’t believe that university sport is meant to operate under that model, and I don’t know how it can, considering how many Canadian athletes go to the States. The NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] is so much bigger, and so much more money is spent promoting it; I don’t know why the CIS would even bother to try and emulate their model when it has its own wonderful qualities.”

TV: “In Crossing the Line you talked about a “locker room culture.” What is it and what effect does that have on players?”

LR: “The locker room subculture is a very dangerous one. It’s locked, it’s small, it’s inherently vulnerable, and it’s always highly charged because players are only in there before or after a game or practice. Anything can happen in a locker room, and often to stay on a team you have to go along with whatever happens, because if you’re a rookie it can only get worse if you don’t. I hope that these practices occur less often than they did when I wrote Crossing the Line, but I have little reason to believe that’s the case. I know initiations are outlawed, but of course that doesn’t mean they don’t happen. If you don’t go along with it, if you’re not the “bitch” for the week, then you don’t get to stay in that world. You constantly have to prove that you deserve to be a member. It’s also telling that the language [players] use is always feminizing. It’s clear that girls or women are lesser, because it’s an insult to be called a girl in this culture. It ends up helping to create a very misogynistic culture off the ice.”

TV:An anonymous survey referenced by the Task Force Report said that around 30 per cent of male students admitted that they might force a woman into sex if they knew they could get away with it. How relevant is that statistic to these incidents?”

LR: “There’s very little accountability in junior hockey, and one of the huge problems for anyone who stands up to the local team — male or female — is that the team is often owned by many of the most powerful men in the town. You’re not just up against the hockey team, but the town itself, and they can easily create a horrible situation for anyone who dares to challenge the team’s behaviour, no matter how appalling it is. Nowadays of course teams are marketing machines. One day players are luring teenagers into basements at parties, and the next they’re singing Christmas carols at an old folks home. “Aren’t our boys wonderful, here they are doing things for the community, and carrying the whole town on their backs when they play hockey, how could they ever have done anything like this. What’s wrong with this girl?” Even convicted offenders can be given second chances from Canadian universities; there is the example of Jarret Reid in my book. Hockey has never admitted a rape culture, and it’s never been forced to.”

TV:A lot of hockey fans still characterize so-called “accusers” as money-grubbers with nothing to lose. Is this actually the case?”

LR: “Virtually every female I talked to who was courageous enough to charge a hockey player or team with sexual assault had to leave their community, and a number of them had to leave Canada. Almost all of the girls have to change schools, quit their jobs. They get completely ostracized, and no one would go through that just to “get back” at an ex. On top of that, there’s no money in criminal trials, for heavens’ sake!”

TV: “The Task Force recommended an initiative including extensive consent education. Can that effectively penetrate the cycle of peer pressure young players are exposed to?”

LR: “I think it’s helpful, but it’s not sufficient. The culture is too deeply entrenched. There has to be a greater understanding of the sociology of sport, they have to understand how it happens. There are solutions outside of simple education. For example, hockey players need to understand that the sport they play doesn’t make them exceptional. The rowing team is talented, the badminton team is talented. They don’t have a history of a rape culture in those sports. I also really believe that all CIS competitions should, in a manner of speaking, be co-ed. Track and field, swimming, rowing were always organized so both the men’s and women’s events were held at the same time so the teams would travel together. What happened in the case of the U of Ottawa team was that those guys allegedly got a girl isolated in a hotel room. That would not have happened if the women’s team [were] on the same floor.”

TV:Do you support the University of Ottawa’s decision to suspend the entire team rather than just the implicated players?”

LR: “It’s a difficult decision, especially for those who had nothing to do with it. I can believe that maybe even a majority of those players didn’t know what happened. However, usually what I found when writing my book was that a minority of the guys commit this behaviour, but the rest of them are paralyzed by the learned instinct to keep their mouths shut. There are lots of male players, who would like to speak out, but the culture of secrecy is so ingrained, and it travels with the team 24/7. However, I think [U of Ottawa president] Allan Rock made the necessary decision. The responsibility of the team is to represent the school, and no matter the culture, allowing things like this to happen without saying anything is unacceptable.”

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