Chapter 15 And the Beat Goes On…

Registrations rapidly declining, clubs running on thinning margins, the future of the game in doubt – how could it possibly get worse for lacrosse in Ontario?

June is a busy month for lacrosse – the time when the season is just ramping up, house leagues are winding up, minor tournaments are in full swing, the junior and senior leagues are sorting out the playoff races. June is the ideal showcase month for lacrosse in Ontario.  Except…

It’s early July now and if you Google ‘Ontario Lacrosse’ the news links include racist remarks made to an indigenous player in Six Nations, a referee getting beat up by a team trainer at a minor tournament, and games being cancelled as referees stage a wildcat strike to protest safety issues. There are even news stories about a provincial official using nepotism to give lucrative government jobs to his lacrosse buddies. Not a good month to promote the game to the general public!

Excluding the nepotism, the first three incidents – the racist remarks and the situations with the referees – are all related. They reflect directly back to the leadership in the OLA and they reflect badly.  June has been an unmitigated disaster for lacrosse in Ontario and there is no ducking out of it this time.

Firstly, the late-May incident during a game Six Nations where a Brampton player made a racist remark and gesture toward an indigenous player on the Six Nations team and received a 3-game suspension. This player is a repeat offender and the last time he made racist remarks towards an indigenous player, he was given a 4-game suspension.  According to a Six Nations team official:

“Even for offences not of this nature, when you’re ruling on discipline, very seldom to never do you get a case where someone that is ruled as a repeat offender or second offender is given lesser discipline than the first time they did it.”

No kidding.  Of course, if the person meting out the discipline has no clue as to the seriousness of such a remark, which amounts to a dog-whistling threat of racial violence, they ought not be involved in a sport that includes teams from indigenous communities. Especially when a current hot topic in the country is truth and reconciliation with indigenous people.  Perhaps the Jr. A Commissioner was unaware of a similar incident in the National Lacrosse League this past winter.  The NLL’s response was swift, decisive, and left no doubt.  The OLA’s response to this incident in one of their leagues has been… nothing. Silence. Crickets. And therein lies the problem.

Then again, the Arrows team could have filed an OLA Code of Conduct charge against the player, the Brampton team, or the league commissioner.  The Arrows did put out a memo and they did get their story in the news.  A black eye for the sport and the OLA’s public response has been zero.  It’s like the problem doesn’t exist if you don’t talk about it.  If you are not disgusted by that kind of response, you should be.

Then again, the Brampton team seems to catch all the breaks when it comes to threats of violence, and the incident from the Minto Cup last year leads us to the stories about the referees this year.

Firstly, we have a referee-in-chief of a minor tournament assaulted after a June 14th, Friday night game in Orillia. This incident was of such gravity that it was carried in national news media the next day.  However, the OLA did not release a statement until two days later on the 16th and when they did, one news outlet reported it as “…a statement condemning the assault on a lacrosse referee this past Friday…” No kidding. Despite the statement sounding so tidy as to come off as sanitary, at least they made a statement.

Rumour has it that the perpetrator of this incident, who has since been charged by the police, was known to have been a hot-head and had edged toward similar behavior in the past.  If this is so, then it would put him in the repeat offender category where one would ask, what happened the first time?  Even still, the OLA had an opportunity to act swiftly and decisively, and they did not. They had a responsibility to address the circumstances plainly, to clearly state their position on such things, but instead we get this:

“Reports of misbehaviour and/or abuse are investigated by the OLA and may result in sanctions…”

No doubt the OLA Board of Directors carefully considered the incident, mulled over the details with an eye to getting by it while controlling the damage to their brand.  And no doubt their lawyers were consulted before any cleverly crafted official statement was issued. Cold comfort for the referees, who were already on edge from the Minto incident from the year before!

Two weeks later we are back in Six Nations where a Senior B player for the Six Nations Rivermen loses his mind and goes after a referee in the parking lot after the Friday night game.  Again, local police were involved.  Of course, this was the last straw for Ontario referees and they staged a wildcat strike in the following days, resulting in the cancellation of some games.   Two days later the OLA issues another tepid damage-control response.

“Reports of misbehaviour and/or abuse are investigated by the OLA and may result in sanctions…”

Good God.

Is this the first time someone has confronted a referee in the parking lot after a game? No. Is this the first time a member of a team has assaulted a referee? No. Is this the first time that a racist remark or gesture has been made toward an indigenous player? No. In the past, we would hear stories about such things, rumours, firsthand accounts. This folksy gossip may have been part of the insider charm back in the day, but the cat is out of the bag now, its national news.

Does anyone believe that stories about racist remarks or violence against referees is going to attract new players, or new referees to lacrosse? One of the articles about the Orillia incident included the fact that the game included player expulsions for brawling. I can’t image any parent wanting their child to be apart of a sport that allows this sort of behavior.  If they Google ‘Ontario Lacrosse’ what they see isn’t going to be very attractive.

Sure, hockey, soccer, baseball, etc., all have their ugly incidents to deal with, but we are not talking about a popular youth sport, we are taking about a sport edging to the margins, fading back upon its own niche. The response from the OLA – that old, traditional, ingrained response – doesn’t cut it in the 21st century.  Wishy-washy, middle-of-the-road responses to serious incidents are no longer enough.  Splashing a little antiseptic on a deep wound is not going to heal it.  The OLA Board of Directors are so mindful of their carefully curated image that they are bogged down with it. This isn’t about the image anymore, people are being harmed or put in harms way.

If it can happen to Owen, it can happen to you.  If it can happen to Gord or Jon, it can happen to you.

Lacrosse is a rough and tumble sport, it is not for the faint of heart; but it is not about abuse and yet, here we are.  Again.

Something must change.