Chapter 6 Protect Yourself

My suspension was up on May 25th 2016 and I immediately returned to coaching with the Oshawa Intermediate team.  I was tasked with being a ‘co-coach,’ but my role was more that of an assistant coach and that is how I preferred it.  I highly doubt I will ever volunteer to be a head coach ever again.  That may suit a few folks very well, but it suits me far better.  Let’s call it a win-win.

To give you a sense of this side of the story, the head coach of the 2016 Oshawa Intermediate team was the father. He coached even though his son was not playing on the team.  He was dedicated enough, willing to spend his time with his club and his team, all the things I had been saying from the get-go.  His dedication to the sport and athletes was demonstrable.  The season came and went.

In 2017 I had a limited role in helping out Oshawa’s house league and had a great time. It was here that I had the opportunity to put my money where my mouth was and it worked out pretty good.  There are always stumbling blocks of course, always competing agendas, but when the spirit of the game is put in front, good things usually result.  Let’s just hope this is the right side of the foreseeable future.

It is the foreseeable future that is up for grabs, and the purpose of this post. First, however, one thing must be acknowledged: since publishing my story, the OLA has undergone changes including the addition of a couple of very useful policies that directly address some of the concerns that arose from my conflict with them.  That these policies are being added or revised is a very good thing and, one hopes, provide a level of reasonable consistency across the entire organization, for the entire membership.  (I will post about these policies in the near future.)

I never really had a problem with the OLA’s rules and regulations or policies per se, because they are written fairly clearly once you are used to how they are structured. Sure the entire rules and regulations could be revised and streamlined, let’s hope someone is on that, but overall they make sense.  What I had an issue with is the people administering them; people who could twist or ignore meaning and intent in order to justify their particular position or actions.  This is the single-most important threat to the OLA, as it is to any organization.

What happens when the rules are clear, but the person administering them clearly does not understand them, deliberately misconstrues them or, in some cases, completely ignores them? How is one to redress grievances about the process itself, especially when the process – if it even exists – is corrupted to the point that it causes others to be harmed?

This kind of reminds me of those frustrating disputes with referees, something practically every coach has encountered in one way or another.  You know, a difference of opinion or interpretation of a particular rule resulting in hard feelings.  It seems to happen often in sports.  What I am referring to however, is well beyond the training referees receive or even what is expected of them.  There are Zone RICs who can attest to this.

The first thing to keep in mind, with OLA administrators as well as referees, is that upon an infraction guilt is presumed, a penalty immediately assessed, and the right to appeal given as recourse after the fact. In a game where the threat of injury is real this is the right approach.  One can scream ‘natural justice’ all they want, but OLA administrators and referees are tasked with protecting vulnerable persons and there has to be a balance between harm and justice.  Everyone understands this, so the first thing you can do to protect yourself is know what the rules are and don’t break the rules.  A fairly straight forward notion of course, even a bit simplistic, especially in situations where you believe the discipline over-exceeds the actual infraction.  Let the punishment fit the crime as they say, but it would be wiser still for one to be familiar with the rules so as not to break them.  I repeat: know the rules and don’t break them.

In any disciplinary process that I am familiar with, it is incumbent on the accuser to prove their point. In other words, the burden of proof is on the person bringing the complaint, not on the person being accused.  It doesn’t matter if there is guilt or not, or if there is a strong sentiment toward guilt, the complaint must be convincingly proven with real evidence that can pass a smell test.  This may become difficult with eyewitness accounts of the infraction, but witness evidence, even though not always reliable, is still evidence.  Therefore, in order to protect yourself, the second thing I suggest is that you document everything.  And I mean everything.  Keep all documents, emails, records of conversations, notes from hearings, etc.

While the burden of proof rests with the complainant, you will still need to answer questions about your role in any infraction and, in the case that the complaint consists of circumstantial evidence, you will want to have any documentation or evidence that supports your position. You should not have to prove your innocence – ever.  However, the administrators are volunteers too and it could be very helpful to resolve disputes as easily and simply as possible if you have documented everything that you can.  (Another benefit of documenting everything is that you may be able to detect and prove patterns of behavior should the dispute move to a dispute about the process itself.)

The third thing to do to protect yourself is to know your rights.  The OLA is a registered not-for-profit corporation and they do have legal obligations, including how they treat their members.  The OLA is not a court of law and any disciplinary action they enact is under their own authority, given to them through the membership.  However, the OLA is held to a common standard of administrative law including natural justice/procedural fairness and this includes any appeals or discipline committees, tribunals, etc.  (The OLA acknowledges their duty of fairness with the following line from the OLA Code of Conduct, “The OLA endorses the principles of natural justice and due process…”) Essentially procedural fairness includes two important principles: the right to be heard and the right to a decision without bias.  Knowing the implications of these principles in what you have a right to is very important, even if those rights are not explicitly stated elsewhere.  For more details about what rights you have, see the following links:

The Rights of Athletes, Coaches and Participants in Sport

Procedural Fairness in Ontario, the Parameters of the Right To Be Heard, an Overview

So you’ve not broken any rules, you’ve documented everything, have become intimate with what your rights are, but yet there is still no resolution to your issue. Is this a scenario unique to me?  Not at all, in fact this past season (2017) I heard about two local incidents in which coaches were subject to a process that appeared to be biased and the hearings deliberately delayed as an extra form of discipline.  So a hearing is delayed, or an administrator is playing games, so what are you going to do about it?  Your answer to this question is key.

At this point, a review of what you want to accomplish and how much energy you want to spend on resolving your dispute is worthwhile. If your investment in the game or a particular season is light, you may be able to cut your losses and leave it at that. This appears to be the usual course of action for most, and who can blame them?  There are other sports to volunteer with, other things to do with your time.  You wouldn’t be the first to cut and run, and you wouldn’t be the last.  It’s not like the OLA is bleeding volunteers…

If, however, you believe your cause is worth fighting for, you have surveyed the situation and decided to go on, the next step is consult a good lawyer.  Well, let me qualify this: discipline or OLA decision-making at this level can be serious for those who have invested heavily into the sport, especially parents of elite rep players.  Lacrosse is not cheap and in some cases, the registration fees, equipment costs, travel expenses, etc., can approach the cost of hockey (without the ice fees).  In other cases, the decision making might affect others on a larger scale – for example, a routine decision that would now be called into question due to changing societal mores.  There are likely many good reasons to pick up the fight with the OLA on a bad decision, but do you have the right to?

At this point, I recommend you consult a lawyer because theirs is a certain kind of thinking that can be usefully applied when it comes to interpreting how OLA rules and policies play out in the larger sense of the OLA as a public organization that must adhere to applicable corporate laws. Lawyers can be expensive for certain, so before you consult one you will want to make sure you have enough information to provide them in order to receive sound legal advice.  Consulting a lawyer might may be good in helping you understand your dilemma from an alternative point of view, outside that of close family and friends.  There is also the possibility that your consultation will result in you cutting your losses and spending $500 to save $1000’s.  You may be the type that understands legalese and has no problem navigating legal issues, but consultation with a lawyer will only help in the long run.

Lawyer or not, if you are at the point that you wish to see your matter resolved no matter what, you will need to become familiar with the law, legal principles, and other organizational concepts that may affect your problem.  I highly recommend the following site as your starting point whether your dispute with the OLA is individual or organizational.  The Writings menu will take you to expert content about the most common legal issues in sport.

Sport Law and Strategy Group

Despite all of this, the confrontation, the unfairness, the assumption of guilt, one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself from the get-go is to operate in good faith even if the other side does not.  Why is his beneficial?

Good faith is a set of social rules which basically state, ‘I believe my intentions are good as I believe your intentions are good.’ This is also an important concept in contract law and since an OLA registration is a contract of sorts, it applies.  For example, in the OLA registration form there is a legal clause which basically states that by signing the form you are waiving your right to take legal action against the OLA in favour of the OLA’s dispute resolution process.  This is a binding clause that courts will be reluctant to strike down unless a minor is involved.  The OLA makes this waiver plain to see, it is good for them to offer it, and they offer it in good faith expecting you to do the same when you sign the form.

By and large, the intentions of the OLA – as an organization – are good. You can see this in the policies and rules they make, the programming they offer, and the successes they enjoy.  (Remember, the OLA is much more than a few people commiserating in a boardroom somewhere in Toronto.)  I doubt a rational person would sign their kid up for an organization that did not operate in good faith and I believe that most, if not all, OLA members sign that registration form in good faith.

The main problem stems from what every OLA members eventually becomes familiar with if they stick around long enough: politics. It’s there in every team, every club, and every association;  it’s there in every sport organization in the country and likely the world.  That says something about human nature, somebody always wants something more.  Outside of actual lacrosse, politics is easily the second most common game played in the OLA.  The trouble with the youth sport political game is that is likely the chief cause of people not operating in good faith and this inevitably causes disputes.

I would guess that the vast majority of disputes in the OLA are resolved in a fair and equitable manner with the persons at the table setting aside their differences long enough to operate in good faith and work towards a reasonable resolution. I would hope it would be this way, but as soon as one side decides to move outside the bounds of good faith, only bad things, which are harmful to the membership as a whole, can occur.

So good faith: be honest, play within the rules, don’t gossip or politic about your grievances, try to understand the position of the other, and understand that resolutions to disputes often require compromises. If you can been seen to moving forward in a principled way and your dispute must be resolved outside of the OLA, you will be doing yourself a big favour.  You will also be helping out the membership as well, even though most of them will never know about it.

So far we have:

  • Know the rules and don’t break them
  • Document everything
  • Know your rights
  • Consult a lawyer
  • Operate in good faith

It goes without saying that all of the above refers to disputes that are within the scope of responsibility for the OLA and that remain non-criminal. The OLA has an appeals process and when there is a dispute it should be used whenever possible.  In fact, in many cases the courts or tribunals will require you to move through the OLA appeals process fully before you can access these outside dispute resolution services.  However, should you be subject to blatant harassment, discrimination, bias, etc., where the appeals process itself has become corrupted or so broken that continuing with it will result in further harm, you may need to resort to another dispute resolution mechanism such as the courts.  It is highly recommended that before you make this decision, you consult with a lawyer or other legal expert as there may be other forms of mediation that are available to you.

Hopefully these five things will help protect you should you run into some nasty situation that could be harmful to your child, yourself or to the membership. Such situations do occur and may be a little too frequent for comfort.  However, if we all stick to trying to make the OLA the best sporting organization in the world, while we may never eliminate these kinds of disputes, you can make their occurrence rare.

Next: Chapter 7 Overtrust