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OSIC facing external review after case of suspended Ontario volleyball coach

Matt Ragogna Matt Ragogna - Brock University

A new federally funded agency created to investigate allegations of abuse in amateur sports across Canada is facing an external review after the first case to go through its complaints process ended with parents and coaches angry and confused over the status of a coach who works with young volleyball players.

The case began in September 2022 when a misconduct complaint was filed against Niagara Rapids Volleyball Club coach and technical director Matt Ragogna, who is also the head coach of Brock University’s men’s volleyball team but is now on leave from that position.

The complaint against Ragogna was forwarded by the Rapids to the Office of the Sports Integrity Commissioner (OSIC), an agency created a year ago by the federal government to investigate allegations of abuse in Canada’s amateur sports system.

According to a 19-page case summary published on Sunday, an OSIC investigator determined that Ragogna took a 16-year-old boy into the bedroom of his home, where the boy lay down on the bed while the coach practised wrapping his feet with athletic tape and tickled him.

Ragogna was cleared by the OSIC to return to coaching in early September after apologizing to the boy and his parents, and completing a course about appropriate boundaries.

Since the Rapids announced Ragogna would resume coaching, at least three additional families have filed misconduct complaints with the Ontario Volleyball Association (OVA) in recent weeks about Ragogna’s interactions with teen players, three sources told TSN. 

After the OSIC quietly suspended Ragogna in September 2022 while it investigated him, Ragogna has now been suspended by the OVA. The provincial federation says the coach is the subject of a police investigation.

The organization that oversees the OSIC has commissioned an independent review of the policies and practices of the complaint process. 

Marie-Claude Asselin, chief executive of the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre (SDRCC), which oversees the OSIC, confirmed the planned review in an email to TSN on Friday. It has not yet been determined who will participate in the review or how long it might take.

“As a recently established program, translation from theory to practice always brings unexpected issues and untested scenarios,” Asselin wrote. “It also affords opportunities to reflect and modify based on user feedback. To this end, an external review by independent experts has already been commissioned to evaluate the Abuse-Free Sport complaint management processes and formulate concrete and actionable recommendations for the continuous improvement of these client services.”

The government created the Montreal-based OSIC after a number of current and former athletes and sports officials testified in early 2022 before the Heritage Committee in Ottawa that many people connected to sports have declined to report their abuse because of how poorly cases have historically been handled. 

The agency, still largely unknown to many athletes and their parents, began to accept complaints of abuse in June of 2022. The OSIC said it received 193 reports and complaints during its first full year, 66 of which were under its jurisdiction.

While the OSIC primarily handles complaints involving national team-level athletes, coaches and staff, it investigated the misconduct complaint against Ragogna because the OVA, which oversees sanctioned clubs in the province, is an OSIC signatory.

(The OVA is the only one of the 600-odd provincial sports organizations in Canada that has signed on with the OSIC.)

Ragogna was a rising star in volleyball coaching before the first misconduct complaint was filed against him in September of 2022.

As a Brock University student and volleyball team captain, Ragogna was an Academic All-Canadian, won a school award for leadership in the community, and worked from 2012-15 as an assistant coach with Brock’s women’s volleyball team, according to his profile on Brock’s website.

After completing his master’s degree in 2017, Ragogna was hired as technical director at the Niagara Rapids Volleyball Club, one of Ontario’s largest clubs, with programs for children from 11 to 17 years old. He coached a number of Rapids teams and also began to coach Brock’s men’s team in 2019-20.

When he wasn’t busy coaching, Ragogna ran his own “youth life coaching” company, marketing himself as a “certified life coach” for children as young as eight.

When the complaint about Ragogna was made to the Rapids, it was passed on to the OSIC, which commissioned Ottawa lawyer Jennifer White to investigate. While Ragogna was suspended from his position with the Rapids pending the results of the investigation, his suspension was kept secret.

According to the case summary published by the SDRCC, which was anonymized to protect the identity of the complainant and his parents, Ragogna first reached out to the 16-year-old boy via Instagram on July 25, 2022. When the boy did not respond, Ragogna emailed the boy’s parents and asked them to give his cell number to the boy, explaining he wanted to get together “for an hour or so and go over some things” related to the upcoming volleyball season.

In subsequent messages to the parents, Ragogna explained that he would pick the boy up and wrote he had “done it with a few already too.”

On Sept. 2, 2022, Ragogna picked the boy up at his home and they drove to Ragogna’s residence, the case summary said. After spending time in the living room discussing volleyball tactics, they moved to Ragogna’s upstairs home office area and watched game video on a laptop for about 40 minutes.

They then moved to Ragogna’s bedroom where he made comments about the boy’s “big hands” and proceeded to tape the boys’ wrists and both of his ankles, the case summary said.

“[The boy] had not mentioned any injury to [Ragogna] nor was there any therapeutic need to have the taping done,” the case summary says. “For the double ankle-taping, [the boy] was lying down on the bed and [Ragogna] was on [a] rolling chair… While taping [the boy’s] ankles, [Ragogna] ended up tickling [the boy’s] foot and making a comment about [the boy] being ticklish while he was working on the foot with the sock off.”

The report said that during the ankle taping, [the boy] noticed a camera on a shelf in [Ragogna’s] bedroom and asked about it. The camera was on and charging, but it was not recording.

After two hours, Ragogna drove the boy home where the boy “became panicked over what had just happened with his coach” and refused to leave his room.

The boy’s mother reported the incident to the volleyball club on Sept. 4.

Rapids coach Julie Orr, whose children also play volleyball at the club, said in an interview with TSN that Rapids president Beth Schulz did not inform parents, staff or athletes that Ragogna was the subject of a misconduct complaint and investigation. Ragogna also continued to coach at Brock during the OSIC investigation.

 “It makes me so angry,” Orr said. “We trust our kids in youth sports, and we expect their safety to be top priority for club owners. The whole Rapids club was failed by Beth. There was no communication when Matt stopped coaching. Nothing. We were just told he wasn’t coaching any longer. Parents with children in the program should have had information so we could talk with our children about if they had any incidents with Matt.

“While he was suspended from the club and he was still coaching at Brock, Matt was involved in a high-profile volleyball showcase event. My son was so desperate to go and play for Matt at Brock, and I allowed him to have an open communication with Matt about attending that showcase. If I had known he was suspended and being investigated, I would have made different decisions.”

Schulz declined to discuss specifics of Ragogna’s case in a statement sent to TSN on Nov. 21.

“The allegations together with the process outcomes that we have implemented in good faith have had a divisive impact on the [Rapids] community,” Schulz wrote. “We have encouraged all sides to voice their opinions and concerns, in a constructive, respectful manner.”

In an email to TSN, Ragogna maintained that he has cooperated with OSIC investigators.

“Throughout the past 14 months, I have cooperated and trusted the process that took place through the [OSIC],” Ragogna wrote in his Nov. 20 email. “I deny the content of the facts you have collected via your sources and again, the same have been dealt with through OSIC confidentially.”

Ragogna wrote that he has not been provided with details about any recent complaints made to the OVA and has not had a hearing.

“Unfortunately, at this time the only comment I can make is that I intend on defending any and all allegations made against me,” he wrote.

White completed her investigation in April, determining that Ragogna had engaged in seven instances of boundary transgressions, two of which were deemed serious, in relation to the complaint made in September 2022 by the family of the 16-year-old boy.

Her findings were provided to Dasha Peregoudova, the OSIC’s director of sanctions and outcomes. 

According to the case summary, Peregoudova cited Ragogna’s “strong record of leadership and professionalism both in his coaching activities and in his community” and wrote that she did not believe Ragogna posed a threat to the safety of others. Peregoudova also determined Ragogna had effectively served an eight-month suspension since he had not allowed to coach during the investigation.

She wrote that he would be formally warned about the seriousness of his boundary violations and ordered to provide a written apology to the boy and to his parents. Ragogna was also directed to take a course on the “Rule of Two” – a policy adopted by a number of amateur sports organizations that calls for at least two adults to be present in any situation where an athlete may be vulnerable.

In June 2023, the boy’s parents challenged Peregoudova’s ruling, arguing Ragogna’s sanction was too lenient because his comments about their son’s hand size and tickling his feet constituted sexual maltreatment.

They asked for Ragogna to be banned for at least 10 years, citing his position as a coach of minors and his breach of trust. The parents also complained that Peregoudova made a mistake by not determining Ragogna’s behaviour constituted grooming, a process where individuals seek to gain the trust of victims and their family members and, over time, use that trust to assert control over them.

An SDRCC arbitrator rejected their appeal on Aug. 31, noting in his decision that because White specifically said in her report that she was not prepared to distinguish whether the tickling was incidental or purposeful, there was no clear finding of fact that the tickling was of a sexual nature. 

The arbitrator wrote in his decision that Peregoudova had not concluded Ragogna groomed the boy and his parents, and that it wasn't his role to substitute his personal judgement for Peregoudova's, the case summary said.

On Sept. 16, Schulz sent a memo about Ragogna’s return to the families whose children were scheduled to play for him on a Rapids U18 team.

“…The Rapids made the decision that Matt return to the club as we believed that he did not pose a threat to the safety of any of our athletes,” the memo said.

Orr, the Rapids coach and parent, said the memo should have been sent to the parents of every player.

“Matt was the club’s technical director and had had access to every child at our gym, so why wasn’t every parent sent this memo?” Orr said.

“All of a sudden Matt was back in the gym. He told me that he had broken the ‘Rule of Two’ by driving an athlete to a practice and justified it by saying that every coach has done that at some point to help out a parent. He said he couldn’t talk about it in specifics because he was bound by a confidentiality agreement with the OSIC. He definitely didn’t say he had taken a teenager into his bedroom and had him sit on his bed.”

At that point, the OVA stepped in. 

The OVA requires every coach who works in a program it sanctions to pass a screening check each fall. While many organizations merely require coaches to pass a criminal background check, the OVA’s policy goes further. It requires people to confirm if they have ever been the subject of a misconduct investigation.

While Ragogna told the OVA’s screening committee that he had been investigated and cleared by the OSIC, he refused to provide the committee with the OSIC’s findings, citing confidentiality rules, a source told TSN. (The OSIC’s confidentiality policy does not make it clear whether details of their investigations can be provided to the screening committees of sports organizations.)

Because of that refusal, Ragogna was suspended by the OVA on Nov. 16, which posted news of his sanction on its website. After being contacted by TSN, a Brock spokeswoman wrote in an email that Ragogna was not currently working with its volleyball program. The school’s website says Ragogna is on leave.

“Brock University is aware that allegations have been made to the Ontario Volleyball Association about this individual,” Brock spokeswoman Maryanne St. Denis wrote to TSN in an email. “We are reviewing the situation and can confirm that he is not currently coaching at Brock.”

On Nov. 24, Ragogna posted a four-minute video statement on Instagram in which he discussed the complaint made against him in September 2022.

“In all the years I have been teaching I have never had a complaint come about how I coach until now,” Ragogna said in the video. “The athlete is a good kid. We were preparing for the new season ahead. I met with him and talked about how he could play and be better. It was brought to my attention of pre-existing injuries. I recommended different athletic taping and different routes that could help in the hectic wear and tear of both the club and the high school season. All of my intentions were for the good of the athlete… I did not act inappropriately with this athlete in any way, shape, or form…”

Niagara Regional Police Service spokesman Philip Gavin declined to confirm whether his department is investigating Ragogna but said in a statement to TSN, “If during the course of your work you speak to anyone who believes they may be a victim of a crime we would ask you to encourage them to report it to the police.”

Ragogna has continued working with youth despite his OVA suspension.

A spokeswoman for the District School Board of Niagara confirmed Ragogna and other Brock coaches were invited to lead a 90-minute volleyball clinic at Greater Fort Erie Secondary School on Oct. 13.

“At no point during the volleyball clinic was Ragogna left alone with students,” Milica Petkovic, a spokeswoman for the school board, wrote in an email to TSN.

Petkovic wrote the school board has not received any complaints from students or staff who attended the clinic and wrote that the school’s principal has contacted the families of students who were there.