By Joel Wass
“[Rachel Zylka] broke the fourth and unspoken rule: What happens on the [rowing] team, stays with the team.” – The Nov. 3 issue of The Ryersonian
Typically, the topic of my column is inspired by a story that appears in our paper. This week is different. I have to comment on the “rule” in the above italicized sentence. It makes me sick to my stomach.
The statement appeared in last week’s Ryersonian in an article about Rachel Zylka, a former member of the Ryerson rowing team, and her decision to write a formal complaint to athletic director David Dubois. The complaint regarded alleged unsafe practices on the part of head coach Dominic Kahn.
In the article, Zylka was criticized by her former coach, teammates and even Dubois himself – “What goes on between the coach and athlete should be kept confidential…I’m disappointed in the player” – for making her health and safety concerns public. Expressing her opinion apparently breaks the team’s fourth and unspoken rule: “What happens on the team stays on the team.”
I hate – I’m using the word hate here – that rule, and for many reasons.
One: It violates students’ rights, as written in the 2004/05 Ryerson University Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities, to “complain without fear of reprisal” about anything that affects the security of students.
Two: The rule sounds eerily familiar to the complaint-muzzling tactic that the university used to keep cafeteria workers from speaking about their hazardous work conditions, including poor air quality and ignored safety inspections in the kitchen.
“The workers are absolutely terrified of speaking up,” is what Lynn Kaak, the worker rep for Ryerson’s Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee, told The Eyeopener last year.
Terrified of speaking up? Can such an environment exist in a North American society in 2004? OK, not including our neighbours to the south. Three: The rule’s mere existence could potentially ignite a dangerous debate.
If university coaches can implement a rule that bars students from speaking about what happens on a team, then why can’t professors initiate a rule preventing students from speaking about what happens in a classroom?
The list goes on. However, these points are all secondary to the main reason I find the “rule” nauseating: It makes me think that nothing was learned from the Sheldon Kennedy tragedy. For those who don’t know, or have forgotten, Kennedy, a former NHLer for the Calgary Flames and Detroit Red Wings, was sexually abused more than 350 times by his junior hockey coach, Graham James, over a six-year span.
It took Kennedy 13 years, from the time the abuse started, to come forward about the molestation. Why so long? Because James had an unspoken rule about keeping player-coach relationships private.
Whether Zylka’s complaints are legitimate or not is up to Dubois to decide. However, the authenticity of her concerns does not change the fact that she has the right to express those concerns – again, see the 2004/05 Student Guide. I agree that certain player-coach disputes, such as playing time or missing practices, should be kept within the team.
But the complaints of student athletes’ – ‘student’ comes first not only because it’s grammatically correct, but because it’s their most important role at the university – should be brought to the attention of a higher authority, especially if an athlete feels they cannot voice their concerns to their coach. If athletes are afraid to speak up because of bogus rules, it leaves the door open for Kennedy-like incidents to occur here at Ryerson.
After informing Kahn about my disgust regarding his team’s fourth unspoken rule, he denied its existence. If the only reason Kahn is singing a different tune this week is because it took him until now to see that creating a fear of communication has no place at a university, I don’t care. Just as long as he, and every other authority figure – yours truly included – is aware.
Later in my conversation with Kahn, he mentioned, on several occassions, that he is actually in favour of athletes voicing their concerns to both himself and, if need be, Dubois.
Huh? Encouraging students to speak their mind? Yeah, that sounds like a far worthier fourth rule.