Sheldon Kennedy and a Canadian Tragedy Revisited: A Comparative Look at U.S. and Canadian Jurisprudence on Youth Sports Organizations' Civil Liability for Child Sexual Exploitation

By Preston, M. Bradford | Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Sheldon Kennedy and a Canadian Tragedy Revisited: A Comparative Look at U.S. and Canadian Jurisprudence on Youth Sports Organizations' Civil Liability for Child Sexual Exploitation


Preston, M. Bradford, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law


ABSTRACT

National Hockey League player Sheldon Kennedy's 1997 revelation that his award-winning junior hockey coach had molested him for years created a national outcry in Canada. It resulted in the appointment of a special commission and declarations from the United States and Canada that this must never happen again. However, Kennedy was not alone; child sexual exploitation occurs at the hands of youth coaches across geographic and class boundaries and across individual and team sports.

Youth sports organizations, including schools, have approached the human and legal issues presented by child sexual exploitation in numerous ways. This Note analyzes the differences between--and strengths and weaknesses of--U.S. and Canadian courts' respective treatment of these organizations' actions both before and after sexual abuse is discovered. It also examines the degree to which youth sports organizations in both nations have acted to prevent future problems, specifically as compared to the recommendations of the commission formed in response to Kennedy's story. The Author concludes the Canadian judicial standard for youth sports organizations' liability ultimately is superior to the standard employed by U.S. courts.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  I. SHELDON KENNEDY'S STORY
     A. A Young Athlete's Predicament
     B. The Revelation and its Aftershocks
 II. PURPOSE OF THIS NOTE
III. BACKGROUND
     A. Youth Sports in the Twenty-First Century
     B. The Elite Level of Youth Sports
     C. The Elite Youth Sports Coach
     D. Child Sexual Exploitation
        1. Victims
        2. Perpetrators
        3. Confluence of Youth Sports and
           Perpetrators of Child Sexual Abuse
        4. The Elite Coach's Power Fosters An
           Environment for Sexual Exploitation
           to Occur
        5. Opportunity and Existence of Child
           Sexual Exploitation by Coaches
     E. The Players First Report
 IV. ANALYSIS
     A. Jurisprudence in the United States
        1. Public Schools in the United States
        2. Private Organizations in the United
           States
     B. Canadian Jurisprudence
        1. Public Schools in Canada
        2. Private Organizations in Canada
     C. Analysis of Differences Between U.S. and
        Canadian Jurisprudence
        1. Advantages of Each System
        2. An Example of the Relative Advantages
     D. Schools and Organizations: Responses
        1. Positive Change
        2. Organizational Shortcomings
        3. Potential Dangers
  V. SOLUTION: U.S. COURTS SHOULD ADOPT CANADIAN
     COURTS' USE OF VICARIOUS LIABILITY
 VI. CONCLUSION

I. SHELDON KENNEDY'S STORY

A. A Young Athlete's Predicament

In 1982, when Sheldon Kennedy was thirteen years old, he left his rural home in Elkhorn, Manitoba, and traveled nearly two hundred miles to attend a hockey school near Winnipeg. (1) One of his instructors at the camp was Graham James, (2) who one day would be named The Hockey News' Man of the Year. (3) During the school year, Kennedy played bantam hockey in Elkhorn, and his junior hockey rights were held by a team sixty-five miles away in Brandon, Manitoba. (4) James coached another junior team, the Winnipeg Warriors, and in 1982 James arranged to have Kennedy's junior rights traded to the Warriors. (5) After the trade, James invited Kennedy to Winnipeg for a visit. (6) The teenager did not get along well with his father, and he was excited to get out of the house for a few days. (7) During that visit, and through 1989, when Kennedy was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League (NHL), James maintained control of the teenager's hockey career and molested Kennedy several times per week. (8) James continued to sexually assault Kennedy as often as possible through 1994. (9)

For Kennedy, there was no easy way out of this existence. Canadian junior hockey is the pre-eminent feeder system for the NHL, as Canadian universities do not offer hockey scholarships, and the junior season is viewed as the closest parallel to an NHL season. …

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