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Former wrestler ‘shocked’ by disciplinary decision after filing sexual assault complaint against coach

Warning: This story contains a description of sexual assault.

A former provincial championship wrestler who came forward claiming her coach sexually assaulted her at a party when she was a teenager is disappointed with what she describes as the “ridiculous” Canadian complaints process, saying it left her afraid for the safety of other young athletes. 

Madison Payette, now 26, learned last month that her old coach, Aso Palani, had been suspended after a disciplinary panel found, on a balance of probabilities, that he had assaulted her when she was 17.

The coach was suspended for three years, half of which is already over — meaning he will be free to return to work with youth in February 2025.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Payette, speaking in an exclusive interview with CBC.

“You’re going to say that it did happen, on the balance of probability … but you’re only going to give him three years? And you’re willingly going to let him go and continue to work with minors?

“It’s absolutely shocking.”

Palani, 36, “vehemently” denied the allegation of sexual assault during the hearing. He did not respond to requests for an interview and plans to appeal the decision. 

Despite the panel finding in her favour, Payette says her case highlights the grueling reality of the patchwork sports disciplinary process in Canada, which is still inconsistent across the country despite public discourse calling for improvements for years. 

For all the talk around safety in sports, Payette says, the reality behind the scenes is still far more difficult for athletes who step forward.

Wrestling Canada added Palani’s name to a list of suspended coaches in March 2022, but the full decision from the B.C. Wrestling Association — which explained the reason for his suspension — was not made public for seven weeks, despite repeated requests from Payette’s legal team. 

The decision was posted online Tuesday, the day after CBC News contacted Wrestling Canada to request an interview.

In a statement, the national organization said “there was never a decision not to publish the full details of the suspension.”

Decision describes night of party

Payette started wrestling as a high school student in her hometown of Edmonton. Under her father’s coaching, she went on to compete provincially and nationally, as well as for the University of Alberta.

She met Palani when he started coaching three days a week at the Edmonton Wrestling Club in 2012. At the time, Palani was also a member of the Canadian national team and registered with a wrestling club in B.C.

Payette claimed Palani used his reputation to gain her trust.

“He was giving me all the attention that a 17-year-old girl would have wanted. He told me I was special. He told me that I was mature for my age … you want to believe all these things.”

Payette went to a house party hosted by university athletes in Edmonton in December 2013, a few weeks after her 17th birthday. She said Palani also went to the party, which she called “unusual” for a coach.

Two women in green leotards participate in a wrestling match inside a school gymnasium.
Madison Payette, right, is pictured in an undated photo taken during a wrestling match. (Supplied by Madison Payette)

The disciplinary decision said the rest of the group left to go to a nearby bar. Payette, who was still underage, stayed behind with Palani.

Payette told the disciplinary panel that Palani gave her alcohol, led her to a bedroom, removed all of her clothes and forced her to perform oral sex on him.

She said the assault stopped when two university athletes, both men, came back from the bar early.

“I was 17 years old. I really hadn’t had any dating experience. I didn’t know how relationships were supposed to work. And then you have this adult who’s been put on a pedestal, basically, you know, he’s your head coach. He’s a national team member,” said Payette.

During the disciplinary hearing, Palani said he did not attend the party in question and did not interact with Payette that night. He denied flirting with Payette during his time as her coach.

Palani did not respond to repeated requests for comment by CBC. 

A man with short black hair stands in a red leotard on a podium.
Aso Palani is pictured in an undated photo. (Aso Palani/Facebook)

Edmonton Police confirmed they received a complaint from Payette, but said the file is currently closed. Palani has not been criminally charged in the matter.

In its decision, the disciplinary panel criticized what it described as Palani’s attempts to attack Payette’s character and credibility “on multiple fronts” during the hearing. The decision said the coach and his lawyer questioned her mental health and whether she was too intoxicated to remember what happened.

Palani also implied “girls who cry on the witness stand are unreliable,” according to the decision.

No policies in place

Payette decided to file a complaint nine years after the party, galvanized by what she described as a sense of moral responsibility through her work as a high school teacher and all the talk around safe sport in Canada.

Payette said she found wrestling’s governing bodies were not prepared to address her complaint. 

“No one knew how to handle it. They still don’t know how to handle it. It’s quite shocking. If I’m being honest … it’s frankly scary,” she said.

“As an athlete, I shouldn’t have to go and ask people how to access these resources.… It should be drilled into me.”

Payette encountered a common problem in Canadian sport: where jurisdiction and responsibilities lie.

Two women in green leotards participate in a wrestling match inside a school gymnasium.
Madison Payette, right, is pictured in an undated photo taken during a wrestling match. (Supplied by Madison Payette)

She first brought her complaint to Wrestling Canada in January 2022, but officials decided the matter was not within their jurisdiction, despite Palani being on the national team. The wrestling association in Alberta did not handle the complaint, though Payette thought they would, given Alberta was where she and Palani trained and where the party took place.

After three months of back-and-forth, governing bodies decided the B.C. Wrestling Association (BCWA) would investigate Payette’s complaint because Palani was registered with the club in Burnaby, B.C., at the time of the party. 

The hearing was ultimately held this April — nearly a year and a half after Payette first came forward.

“The hard part was the waiting,” Payette said.

BCWA did not have a code of conduct or discipline and complaints policies in place when Payette’s complaint was received.

In a statement, the organization said it “recently updated” its procedures and provided a link to a Discipline and Complaints policy dated June 1 — several weeks after Payette’s case concluded.

That policy said sexual mistreatment toward a minor moving forward will now “carry a presumptive sanction of permanent ineligibility.”

“We firmly believe that we have a duty to ensure all athletes have a safe environment in which to compete, and are committed to improving any existing safe sport initiatives. As above, we have recently updated several of our policies to reflect current best practices,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.

Athlete expected a lifetime ban 

After the hearing, Payette said she felt several aspects of the process went right: BCWA chose a third-party panel, those panellists believed her story and they acknowledged how deeply abuse can affect young athletes.

“Finally, this panel of people, they understood me,” she said.

But as she read the decision, she realized Palani would not be permanently banned.

“Then you get to the very end [of the ruling] where they give their decision and it was pure shock on my face.

“I can’t even describe the emotion. My stomach dropped at that moment. It felt like all of it was for nothing.”

Payette said she expected a lifetime ban given national guidelines on the issue.

In Canada, the Universal Code of Conduct (UCCMS) sets rules for federally-funded sports organizations. Under that code, any abuse of a minor should result in “a presumptive sanction of permanent ineligibility” for the perpetrator.

WATCH | Former top fencer calls for ‘public inquiry into Canadian sport culture’: 

former wrestler shocked by disciplinary decision after filing sexual assault complaint against coach 3

Former top fencer calls for ‘public inquiry into Canadian sport culture’

2 months ago

Duration 4:11

While speaking before a parliamentary committee focusing on safe sport in Canada, Emily Mason, founder of Fencing for Change Canada, discusses the ‘culture of toxicity, bullying and abuse pervasive in Canadian fencing.’

But since BCWA does not receive federal funding, it does not have to follow the code. The decision did not explain the panel’s rationale for the three-year term.

In its statement, BCWA said it could not comment on the penalty because the panel and its members were “entirely independent” from the organization.

Palani owns a wrestling gym that runs out of a high school in Surrey. His lawyers confirmed during the hearing that he had been training athletes, but had not been involved in wrestling-related activities during his suspension. 

“My question was how many people have to be sexually assaulted for him to be banned for life,” Payette said.

Local vs. federal level 

While Palani has never been criminally charged, the case highlights an ongoing CBC News and Sports investigation that has revealed nearly 300 coaches — mostly at the local level — have been criminally convicted of a sexual offence against a minor under their care between 1998 and 2022, across multiple sports, provinces and jurisdictions.

Despite the majority of offences taking place at the local level, most of the recent government action on the issue has been taken in Ottawa.

Last year, the federal government committed $16 million to create the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC), an independent office which administers the UCCMS and is responsible for investigating athlete complaints in Canada. The government said federally funded sport organizations who did not sign on by April would risk losing their funding. 

Wrestling Canada signed on by deadline.

At the provincial and territorial level, governments have been given until the end of the year to either join OSIC or establish their own independent bodies to properly investigate complaints of misconduct. 

Ottawa has not yet said what might happen if that deadline is not met.

Despite her experience, Payette still felt it was right to come forward

“If B.C. Wrestling isn’t going to protect me, if Wrestling Canada isn’t going to protect their athletes, then I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure everyone is aware and that no one puts their children or themselves in a situation like I was in with him,” she said.

“It’s my responsibility.”

More to this story? Send tips to Lori.Ward@cbc.ca.

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