GTHL director: ‘We know we need to be better. We know we need to do more’

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The Greater Toronto Hockey League has released a portion of its in-house data related to in-game racial slurs to the public. (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

TORONTO — In the wake of continued criticism over its refusal to disclose data related to in-game racial slurs, the Greater Toronto Hockey League reversed course Friday and released a portion of its in-house data to the public.

The minor-hockey league disclosed the total number of gross misconduct penalties assessed for discriminatory slurs heard by on-ice officials during the past three seasons, as well as the number of incidents reported but not heard on the ice by referees. The total number of heard incidents was broken down into five categories: race, religion, sexual orientation, gender and disability.

According to the data, the league saw 197 such penalties assessed during the 2019-20 season, a sharp uptick from 51 in 2018-19 — though 87 per cent of that increase is largely the result of expanded guidelines for what is counted as discriminatory language based on gender. Five of those total incidents this season involved racial slurs, with 20 counted over the past three seasons in total.

Per GTHL’s release

However, the league doesn’t believe the data represents a true reflection of the experiences of players of colour in the GTHL, according to executive director Scott Oakman, given the statistics don’t account for discriminatory language not heard by referees during games.

“This only captures incidents that are penalized — there are instances that go unpenalized … (and) unreported, and we know that,” Oakman said, adding that the league’s work to address this issue began with a summit in 2019 focused on improving its culture.

“That was part of the discussions we’ve had going back as far as the summit, and… the outcomes of the summit that we had, in terms of improving culture, inclusivity and diversity in our organization. So, we were aware prior, too, that the data was not reflective of actual experiences, and we had identified that we need to work on improving that and making it so that we can eliminate discrimination and racist behaviour from the game of hockey altogether. So, we don’t look at the data as a true reflection of lived experiences.”

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The GTHL — which counts itself as the largest minor-hockey league in the world, with more than 40,000 annual participants — came under fire earlier this month after its refusal to disclose its penalty data was first reported by TSN’s Rick Westhead, along with critical comments from a number of GTHL alumni who’ve gone on to the professional level. Oakman said that initial decision stemmed from an existing policy related to publicly disclosing information about minors, but the hockey world’s recent period of reflection related to the impact of systemic racism has caused the league to reassess its stance.

“I think the policy we had in place for the last period of time around protecting information that’s connected to the children and youth we serve is a very important measure, and would be an expectation, I think, of families,” Oakman said. “But … we’ve listened to parents and we’ve listened to players and realized, given that this is a very important time in history and it’s a very transitional time in history, that (releasing the data) was the right thing to do.”

Asked why the GTHL chose to disclose only three seasons’ worth of statistics, Oakman said they were unable to provide more given the time needed to sort their data on discriminatory slurs into the five included categories, which suggests the league did not previously have its penalty data sorted to identify how many of its recorded uses of discriminatory slurs were based on race.

“We have the raw data of the total number of penalties — that’s captured electronically through our reporting system. What isn’t electronic is the categorization of the information. So, we actually (undertook) a manual process,” Oakman said. “…And we felt we had to balance between wanting to get the information and making that information available to people, and we thought it was important to examine not just the numbers in their totality but also the types of inappropriate language being used. So, it was trying to balance getting the information out in a timely way against the time it would take to go back on a greater extent.”

The league did not confirm whether or not it would continue that process of categorization and release further data about prior seasons. However, the GTHL did announce the formation of an independent committee that will assess how the league handles incidents involving racial discrimination and then recommend initiatives to improve its protocols moving forward — Oakman said the league will release more data regarding recorded incidents of on-ice racial discrimination if the committee recommends they do so.

While the data released Friday outlines the number of times on-ice officials assessed a penalty to a player for use of a discriminatory slur, it does not include information about how those incidents are subsequently handled, and the lengths of suspensions levied for the race-based incidents referenced in the data.

Elaborating, Oakman said: “If you’re looking at a player that has essentially no disciplinary history and this is a first offence for a player in all matters, you’d be looking likely at an eight-to 10-game suspension. If there are extenuating circumstances like a prior history of bad behaviour, you’d be looking certainly at a longer suspension, and if it’s a repeat offender, then you absolutely would be looking at a much more extensive suspension.”

The process by which that suspension is handed down following the initial penalty is the same one that applies to all five categories listed among the penalties for discriminatory slurs.

“The referee assesses the penalty in-game, the player is obviously removed from that game and immediately suspended indefinitely,” Oakman said. “The follow-up process … involves the submission of a report from the officials involved in the game, a submission or a letter provided by the player who was assessed the penalty providing their perspective on the penalty that they were assessed, the coach of the team is also required to submit a letter outlining his perspective as well as thoughts around the player involved. And we welcome any other additional documentation, which often includes letters from parents outlining their perspective.”

Noting that parents and teams often offer information about measures they’ve taken as well, Oakman said all of this is weighed before a suspension is settled upon, or an in-person disciplinary hearing is required to investigate further. Disciplinary panels consist of three members of the GTHL board of directors who weigh all the evidence and hear from the individuals involved before determining appropriate suspensions.

While the league has detailed protocols in place for dealing with recorded incidents, and Oakman notes that the GTHL has not seen any repeat offenders among those assessed penalties for use of discriminatory slurs over the past two seasons, recent comments from one player in the league suggest instances of in-game racial discrimination are still very common. As well, though the data disclosed Friday sheds some light on the current situation, it doesn’t offer a sample size adequate for judging whether the league is trending in the right direction in terms of making the GTHL a more inclusive space.

For his part, Oakman said the league has heard calls for it to improve its handling of racial discrimination, particularly in regards to providing anti-racism education for players who engage in discriminatory behaviour.

“We know we need to be better. We know we need to do more,” he said. “And it’s one of the reasons why there are discussions happening amongst the groups that are working on the summit outcomes. And to expedite it, we’ve asked the independent committee to also provide us with some direction on educational material that we currently have, and what else we should be implementing to address these matters.”

The GTHL also announced it will soon hold a virtual Town Hall for “players, parents, coaches and other stakeholders” to discuss their experiences and make recommendations on how the league can improve the processes by which it handles racial discrimination.

“We’re learning and listening,” Oakman said. “And we want to hear from people at the Town Hall. … And we want the independent committee that’s being formed to provide us with recommendations in that regard — there are a number of areas that we have current practices and processes, and we’re opening up ourselves to (having) people who have life experiences (different from ours) to look at what we do and provide us with recommendations on how we can do it better, or change what we do so that it’s better.”

How exactly the independent committee’s directions are implemented after its review is completed remains to be seen.

“At the end of the day, our board will hear the recommendations — obviously, it’s difficult to say without seeing recommendations what steps we need to take, because we do have some different processes depending on the nature of the change,” said Oakman. “There are some processes the board can simply implement, there are other processes that would require a vote by the membership. So, it depends on the type of change that’s occurring.

“But I do know that there’s a commitment from our board of directors to listen very closely to what the recommendations are and do what we can to implement the recommendations fully, so that we can make our organization what we truly want it to be. And that is an organization that has inclusivity and diversity that fully represents the population that we serve across the GTA.”

Per the league’s release, further information on the date of the Town Hall will be released in the coming days.

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