The Canadian women's rugby sevens team returns to action on home soil this weekend, almost a year to the day that coach John Tait stepped down in the wake of an independent review into a complaint from current and former players.
The investigation by Win Win HR Solutions Inc. found no breaches of Rugby Canada's harassment and bullying policy but concluded Tait's position at the team's helm was untenable.
Jack Hanratty, the Canadian team's third interim coach since Tait resigned, will be in charge when the home side takes the field Saturday for the HSBC Canada Women's Sevens in Langford, B.C.
Tait, who is unable to comment due to non-disclosure agreements, has since become technical director of B.C. Rugby with almost all of his staff from Rugby Canada also moving on.
The women's sevens side, which won bronze at the 2016 RIo Olympics, finished a disappointing ninth at the Tokyo Olympics last summer with several veterans retiring soon after. After four of six events on the World Series, the Canadian women stand eighth overall.
The player complaints, along with the men's 15s team failure to qualify for the World Cup for the first time, prompted Rugby Canada to commission a separate review into its high-performance culture.
That 17-page report, released last month, paints a damning picture of a dysfunctional organization at odds with its athletes, staff and supporters.
"The culture of Rugby Canada and the high-performance program is described as 'empty' or 'non-existent,"' the report states. "In this vacuum of culture and leadership, bad behaviours take hold across all areas of the program. The high-performance program is described as unhealthy or unsafe by many.
"Current players and high-performance program alumni confess that they are not proud to wear the Rugby Canada jersey."
The unhappiness of the women's sevens squad is documented in detail in the earlier report into the Tait complaint. Citing privacy issues, Rugby Canada has not released that report, instead summarizing its finding and announcing Tait's resignation in a six-paragraph release on April 26, 2021.
The Canadian Press has obtained a copy of the investigator's report, with an 11-page executive summary and more than 130 pages of complaints from 37 past and present players.
And while the investigator concluded Tait had not violated Rugby Canada's harassment and bullying policy, he said the coach had "lost credibility in the eyes of the athletes in the program, just as he has lost his trust in those same athletes."
"It is also clear the respondent could not go back to being the head coach of the NSW7s (national women's sevens) program. It is now a poisoned environment he would be returning to if he did return. The genie is out of the bottle and it is impossible to get it back in … The harm is done. The trust and credibility are lost."
It is essentially a 'she said, he said' split, with one player after another weighing in on what they call a toxic environment under a coach whose moods swung wildly and whose treatment of players varied depending on their place in the pecking order.
Players complained of a "culture of fear, control and punishment," marked by body-shaming, ageism and discrimination against same-sex couples in the squad and those wanting to play both 15s and sevens.
"Before joining the team, I did not have any mental health issues," wrote one player. "However, within 1.5 years of full-time training in the program, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety."
"Our environment was driven by fear on and off the field," wrote another.
"John has developed a fear-based, each-athlete-for-themselves bullying mechanism disguising it as high performance," said another.
"On any given day of training, we never knew what version of Mr. Tait would show up," said another.
"I don't believe John is a bad person but I do believe that his need for absolute power and control paired with his inability to take player feedback has perpetuated years of player maltreatment," wrote another.
But the investigator saw things differently, saying witnesses did not back up specific complaints.
"It is the conclusion of this investigator that John Tait did not bully athletes as per the definition in Rugby Canada's policy," he wrote. "Athletes may have felt or perceived they were bullied and there is no question that this was their reality. However it is the specific wording in the definition that must be examined."
The investigator also concluded that "the complainants have shared their stories with one another," saying the same phrases had been used in some instances — citing "pinning one athlete against another" as one such example. He said he made the point not to minimize the player complaints but to determine what actually took place, saying he could not focus on second-hand stories.
"In some instances what John Tait allegedly said to the athletes has been misconstrued, or at worst misrepresented, to put him, in a bad light," the investigator said.
He cited an allegation that Tait had called one of his players a Mexican. The investigator accepted the coach's explanation that the comment was made at a training session where some players were playing the part of the Mexican team, which the Canadians were preparing to meet.
As for complaints that Tait swore and yelled on the sidelines, the investigator said other witnesses failed to back up such behaviour.
And as for the allegation of playing one athlete against another, the investigator concluded "that this is the nature of trying to make the top 12 players in the NWS7s team."
On the issue of Tait's alleged moodiness, the investigator said the 48-year-old coach, a father of three daughters, said he had experienced some tough times, suffering from depression.
"Being moody is not bullying," the investigator wrote. "Having a fear of being cut from the team is the reality of not performing at a world-class level."
In his report, the investigator cited the backdrop of the pandemic, its effect on the Olympic and World Rugby Sevens Series schedule, as well as the COVID protocols it prompted in the centralized player environment. He noted other complainants referenced the Black Lives Matter movement "and its impact on the team."
The postponement of the Tokyo Games meant players had to spend more time away from family and friends.
"It seems that John Tait became the lightning rod for all the frustrations that had built up amongst some of the players," the investigator said. "The respondent and some of the witnesses are of the view that one or two of the complainants have it in for John Tait and have convinced the other complainants to rally around them."
The report pleased no one.
"I was not surprised that the investigation, which I had requested to be initiated, concluded that the complaints were all unfounded & did not breach any of (Rugby Canada) policies," Tait said a short statement in April 2021 when he stepped down. "Regardless, I no longer desire to continue as the national team head coach or in the role of high-performance director and have therefore decided to resign."
In a statement released at the time by then-captain Ghislaine Landry, the players said: "The national team athletes have shown true courage in coming forward to shine a light on what they have experienced in an effort to bring about meaningful change to their sport. We followed the procedures outlined in Rugby Canada's policy, which was put in place in 2013. We feel that this process failed to protect us and did not acknowledge the abuse and harassment that we believe we suffered.''
The women's sevens side is an important part of Rugby Canada. As bronze medallists in the 2016 Rio Olympics, the sevens women received nearly $10.5 million in funding from the Own The Podium in the (five-year) quadrennial leading to the Tokyo Olympics.
In contrast, the men's seven team, which failed to qualify for Rio, received $130,000 from OTP over the same period. The men did qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, finishing eighth.
The complaint process started with a "letter of concern," sent by members of the sevens team to Rugby Canada at the end of November 2020.
Tait, arguably Rugby Canada's most successful coach having won bronze at the 2016 Olympics, silver at the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens and gold at the 2015 Pan American Games, was essentially put on administrative leave at that point. Stunned staff were told via email that they were not allowed to communicate with the players or Tait.
Under Rugby Canada's guidelines, there is an opportunity for mediation. That failed to produce a solution so the players' complaint became formal on Jan. 31, prompting the independent review.
Three sources with knowledge of the program believe Tait did not get a fair shake. They were granted anonymity because of concerns that speaking out may cost them in the small Canadian rugby world.
The sources say the players' complaints were unknown to staff, despite regular opportunities for feedback. Players were given a chance to complete an anonymous survey after every tour and training block as well as at the end of the season.
Such feedback was reviewed by the team manager and mental performance coach and then the head coach. Once reviewed, there was a discussion with the players' leadership group. All three sources said nothing in that feedback reflected bullying or harassment by the coach.
Rugby Canada approved an updated safe sport policy manual in March 2021.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 28, 2022.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press