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Ontario Volleyball Association pushing the envelope in battle to protect athletes

Ontario Volleyball Association OVA The OVA’s members include more than 14,000 players, coaches, referees and club officials - Ontario Volleyball Association

Ontario Volleyball Association (OVA) chief executive Jo-Anne Ljubicic received an unsettling tip one day last summer about a local contractor with links to her organization.

The tipster told Ljubicic that a former high school teacher named Zuby Shaikh had been leasing beach volleyball courts from the OVA for several years in Pickering, London, and Barrie to use for his Scarborough-based club Invado Volleyball and that he wasn’t someone with whom the OVA should be doing business.

Shaikh had been found guilty of professional misconduct by the Ontario Teachers College in 2017 after a female high school student alleged that he had told her she was beautiful, that if he pointed her out to his friends, he would “rate her a 10,” and that “he had to try hard not to look at her butt” while she was making a presentation, according to a ruling by the college. 

Shaikh was suspended by the college for six months. Following his suspension, he did not renew his teaching certification.

Invado’s summer program was already in progress when Ljubicic learned of Shaikh’s history. She allowed the company to finish its contract, so long as Shaikh’s wife took over on-the-ground management of the program and Shaikh agreed not to attend events in person. 

“I wanted to protect the kids in the program and also not take away their chance to play,” Ljubicic said in a series of interviews in recent weeks with TSN. “When that summer session was over, we ended our business relationship with Invado.”

Under Ljubicic, a former accountant, the OVA has become an outlier. It has developed a screening process for prospective coaches and volunteers that goes well beyond a typical criminal background check. It requires elite coaches to participate in in-person training about how to prevent and deal with athlete maltreatment. And it is one of the few provincial or national sports organizations in the country that makes public the names of people who have been found guilty of misconduct and who are either under temporary suspension or permanently banned.

“The subject of athlete safety should not be hidden in the shadows,” Ljubicic said. “It needs to be out in the open… The work is stressful, and we have hard decisions to make. We are hearing more and more stories about abuse, and I think there’s a lot of skeletons that are going to come out as more survivors come forward. But when you do this work, you also end up with backlash because the predator’s defence is to groom others to come back and attack the people who are trying to make a change.”

With 17 employees and an annual budget of $8 million, the OVA has oversight over 880 sanctioned volleyball teams at 75 clubs, modest compared to some of Canada’s national largest sports organizations. (Last year, the OVA’s members included 14,275 recreational and competitive players, coaches, referees and club officials.) 

In her first days on the job in 2014, Ljubicic inherited a complicated case dealing with athlete safety.

At the time, Stewart Arevalo, the former head coach of Niagara College’s women’s team, was reapplying to coach in Ontario after working in the U.S., Ljubicic said.

After an OVA screening committee refused his application, citing a suspension from USA Volleyball and a 2009 sanction by the OVA, Arevalo appealed the decision.

(According to a public list of suspended members maintained by USA Volleyball, Arevalo’s membership in that organization lapsed in July 2008 and he is not allowed to attend its events.)

Ljubicic asked USA Volleyball for Arevalo’s personnel file to use in his OVA appeal.

“USA Volleyball kept saying for more than a year that they couldn’t provide us with his information,” Ljubicic said. “We even sent them letters saying, ‘Look, this is where you’ve left us. You’ve left us with a coach that’s continuing to potentially harm our members.’ And I got nothing.”

Finally, after a prominent American coach named Rick Butler was accused of abusing and raping teenage athletes in the 1980s and USA Volleyball came under increasing public scrutiny, Ljubicic said the organization agreed to forward her a copy of Arevalo’s file and a police report about a complaint against him regarding an incident in Orlando in 2008.

“The complaints about Arevalo weren’t only about screaming at athletes,” she said. “He was not someone we wanted coaching in our organization.”

Arevalo agreed to voluntarily resign his OVA membership after an arbitrator in 2014 issued a decision that allowed him to resume coaching so long as Arevalo met specific conditions for one year.

“Mr. Arevalo shall have another adult present when interacting with any minor athletes,” the arbitrator’s decision says. “Mr. Arevalo shall not engage in any social media, email or text message exchange with any minor athlete without the written consent of that athlete’s parent or guardian.”

The decision also said that if Arevalo travelled to tournaments with athletes who were minors, he would be required to “keep his lodging arrangements at a reasonable distance from the lodging arrangements of the minor athletes…”

While he is no longer sanctioned by the OVA, Arevalo continues to coach and train players privately in Ontario.

Arevalo declined to discuss the specific complaints against him and said he was satisfied with the arbitrator’s decision.

“I’m okay discussing this with people who are close to me, who are not looking to cut my legs off because there are a lot of Stew haters out there,” Arevalo said. “The people I let in who bring their kids to me, who become like part of my family, and those people I trust, those people I talk to.

“When the one-year [sanctions] came back I was over the moon. I’m very, very much okay with [the arbitrator’s decision.]”

Ljubicic said the OVA has introduced education for its elite-level coaches that goes beyond online video modules. Provincial coaches are required to attend in-person workshops about safe sport run by Brian O’Reilly, who owns Human Potential Plus, a Bayfield, Ont.-based company that offers team-building exercises and communication training to organizations.

O’Reilly, a social worker whose son, Ryan, is the captain of the NHL’s St. Louis Blues, said he coaches role-play exercises, preferably in groups of 16.

“Learning in person there’s a greater level of accountability, a better connection with the material and greater self-evaluation of how you are absorbing the material,” O’Reilly said in an interview. “The knowledge you might learn online isn’t as important as what you do with that knowledge.”

In 2018, the OVA commissioned a video featuring former hockey player Greg Gilhooly and former competitive skier Allison Forsyth, both abuse survivors, to explain how abusers groom their victims. The video explains that fewer than 25 per cent of children who are abused will ever disclose it to someone and that 2 to 8 per cent of athletes who are minors will experience abuse.

“The hope is the alarm bells have gone off and you hope all organizations will do this,” Gilhooly said in an interview. “The volleyball people are definitely ahead of the curve. Too often people are afraid to step on the toes of volunteers… Sometimes we make a mistake in trying to protect the predator.”

The OVA’s legal expenses have eclipsed $100,000 in some recent years, Ljubicic said, adding that even though it is a provincial organization, the OVA has joined the new Office of the Sports Integrity Commissioner (OSIC), a federal agency which accepts and investigates abuse complaints related to Canadian amateur sports.

OSIC’s signatories mostly include national sports organizations. (Ljubicic said she’s aware of one case of an Ontario volleyball coach who has been suspended by the OSIC pending a misconduct investigation. OSIC has kept the coach’s identity secret. The OSIC has also said that it is conducting an environmental assessment of the OVA following a complaint related to "forms of discrimination." Ljubicic said she and her colleagues have not been given any details about the complaint and look forward to answering any of OSIC’s questions.)

Even after the establishment of OSIC, however, there is still no system in place for sharing information about bad behaviour that occurs in sports between teams and leagues, colleges and universities, and the regulatory bodies in Canada that oversee professionals who regularly come into contact with athletes.

The OSIC has yet to commit to making a registry of people banned from participating in Canadian amateur sports public, and while other organizations such as the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT) post some discipline decisions, they don’t make an effort to share them with relevant sports organizations. When Arevalo was suspended, for instance, no one from the OCT contacted Volleyball Canada or the OVA.

One of the reasons that information isn’t shared is because organizations are worried about legal liability, amid arguments from those who are sanctioned for bad behaviour that their right to privacy should trump the public’s right to know about the allegations against them.

“There is still a lot of secrecy in sports around the issue of athlete safety,” Ljubicic said.

The OVA is one of few provincial sport organizations that lists the names of people who have been permanently banned or who are currently suspended for bad behaviour.

The OVA’s website lists three coaches – Christian Tanguay, Thomas Grieve, and Arthur Yanamoto – who have been suspended for life. 

Tanguay, for instance, was suspended by the OVA for texting teenage girls shirtless pictures of himself, Ljubicic said. After his suspension ended and Tanguay was reinstated, Ljubicic said he texted with athletes again and told one teenager that he loved it when she wore a particular red hooded sweatshirt. Tanguay was then banned for life.

Two other coaches have been suspended through December 2023 and February 2025, respectively.

Most other provincial and national sport organizations still keep information about banned individuals a secret.

Volleyball Canada, for instance, said in a statement to TSN that it does not make the names of banned coaches public because its lawyers warn the organization could be sued by those whose names are disclosed.

“If we keep this secret, we allow these people an opportunity to keep doing what they do,” Ljubicic said. “If you look at the U.S. Center for SafeSport and USA Volleyball, they now have all of this information posted.”

The OVA has also become a forerunner with its screening form for prospective coaches, referees, and volunteers. 

While many sports leagues only require a criminal record check, that doesn’t do enough to catch people who shouldn’t be working with children and teenagers, Ljubicic said. 

The OVA’s screening form also demands candidates disclose whether they’ve ever been charged with a crime, have ever been sanctioned by a sports league or professional organization, or have ever been the subject of misconduct complaints.

“Are there any other matters in your past or present circumstances that may place your character or suitability for OVA/Volleyball Canada positions at issue?” reads the last of a dozen such questions on the screening form.

Volleyball Canada has adopted the OVA’s screening form for its own use.

Doing what you believe is right can come at a cost. In one case, Ljubicic has been named as a defendant in a $750,000 lawsuit filed by a former coach. After the coach left a club in London following a misconduct complaint, the coach applied to work for a club in California. When Ljubicic learned of his application, she contacted the club and informed them that he was not a suitable candidate.

Ljubicic said she doesn’t regret her actions. 

“If a complainant isn’t ready to go forward with a formal complaint, that doesn’t mean we can or should turn a blind eye,” she said.

In early 2020, another serious problem about athlete safety surfaced after an anonymous letter writer sent Jennifer Harkness, OVA’s director of finance and administration, a message via LinkedIn. The writer accused former York University head coach Michael Wahbi of sexually assaulting her sister.

After Wahbi was confronted with the correspondence, he identified a former student at Bishop Allen Academy, a Catholic high school in Toronto, who he said had made a complaint about him. Harkness then searched LinkedIn and sent a message to the woman she believed had contacted her.

“Jennifer reached out and said, ‘If this was you who was in touch with me, we would like to speak with you some more,’” the woman said. “I sent out a number of those anonymous letters to school boards and sports organizations. The OVA was the only one that responded.”

TSN has interviewed both Wahbi’s alleged victim and her sister. Both agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. The allegations against Wahbi, who is also the referee in chief for the USA Ball Hockey Federation, have not been proven and he has not been charged with a crime, although the Ontario College of Teachers is investigating him.

While the alleged victim declined at the time to proceed with a formal complaint, the OVA wound up reprimanding Wahbi because he had told the organization for more than a decade in his annual screening form that he had never been the subject of a misconduct investigation involving a minor. (The Toronto Catholic District School Board and Toronto police investigated the alleged sexual assault in 2009 but did not proceed because the alleged victim, then a minor, was not prepared to follow through with a criminal complaint.)

In a July 2, 2020, decision, the OVA’s independent discipline panel fined Wahbi $500 and required him during the next season in which he coached to have another adult present when interacting with any minor athlete. He was also required to complete the Coaching Association of Canada’s safe sport course.

Details of Wahbi’s reprimand and sanction were removed from the OVA’s website.

Ljubicic said she has lost a dispute with her legal team over keeping the names of suspended coaches posted after their sanctions are complete.

“I hate that we have to take that information down,” Ljubicic said. “It should still be up there. But that was one battle with our legal team that I lost. But you have to live to fight another day.”