Three more former players with the Lakehead University women’s basketball team in Thunder Bay, Ont., have come forward with allegations of maltreatment against its former coach, in what the school’s incoming president calls an issue of “great concern.”
Megan Schwartz, a former shooting guard on the 2010 team, and another former player have made similar allegations about on-court maltreatment and wrongdoing involving the work-study program, while a third player says she experienced bullying on-court behaviour at the hands of longtime coach Jon Kreiner.
“Just because it’s normal doesn’t mean it’s not toxic,” Schwartz said. “The whole culture … needs to be changed.”
During her time at Lakehead, Schwartz said, she was diagnosed with depression. She said that when she confided in Kreiner about what she was going through, she was made to reveal her condition to her team and tell everyone she was on medication.
Other sources have described similar scenarios where players would be shamed in front of the entire team.
“You can be a tough coach without causing someone emotional harm,” said Schwartz, who’s from Regina, where she’s now coaching a high school team.
Incoming president pledges to look into situation
In January, CBC News reported on allegations from 10 people currently or formerly affiliated with Lakehead’s women’s basketball program. They claim Kreiner’s maltreatment of athletes included bullying, kicking basketballs at players and breaking clipboards.
Six of those sources said the university had begun an internal investigation into allegations Kreiner stole thousands of dollars from athletes over at least a decade through the university’s work-study program. Five of them said they know senior members in the athletics department were aware of these allegations, but failed to stop the purported theft and protect athletes.
Lakehead University’s incoming president, Gillian Siddall, has pledged to learn more when she arrives on campus to take over the role July 1. She’s currently president of the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver.
“I’m aware of that situation,” Siddall said in an interview with CBC’s Superior Morning, referring to the Lakehead basketball complaints. “I’m not in a position to speak to it. I’m not there. Obviously it’s an issue of great concern and I will learn more about it once I’m on the ground.”
She said she’ll do a broad review of Lakehead’s programming after she starts, and it will include the athletics department, but she did not offer any other comments about the allegations against the team and Kreiner.
Schwartz also said she was part of the work-study program under investigation by the university. Former athletes in the program have alleged Kreiner stole money from them.
Thirteen people either currently or formerly connected with the basketball team have spoken with CBC News about what they say were issues with the program.
Ex-coach cites his ‘professional conduct’
CBC News requested an interview with Kreiner after the additional athletes came forward. He declined the request, but issued a statement defending his record.
“I am not able to provide any other details in response to these allegations. I remain confident in my record, my commitment to the teams and organization, and professional conduct,” Kreiner said.
Kreiner had been head coach since 2003, leading the team to an overall win-loss record of 272-307 through 18 seasons. David McCallum took over as interim head coach for the 2022-2023 season.
The university recently announced Hugo Boisvert would become full-time head coach starting June 1.
When asked about the former players’ allegations, Boisvert said he wouldn’t speak about what may have happened at Lakehead in the past.
“The only thing I do know, I have always held myself to the highest standard of integrity, and I’ll continue to do that. And I’ll expect the same from all my staff members and my players as well,” said Boisvert, who’s leaving his position with the women’s basketball team at Laval University in Quebec to relocate to Thunder Bay.
CBC News also made multiple requests to Lakehead for interviews specifically about allegations by now-former athletes and the school’s commitment to athlete safety, but did not receive a response.
The university’s athletic director, Tom Warden, has not publicly addressed the allegations and has not been made available for interviews.
CBC News spoke with an expert in sport integrity and governance, Whitney Bragagnolo, who said toxic, competitive cultures are deeply embedded within sports institutions at all levels.
‘I lost my drive and my passion for the sport’
Schwartz said her relationship with Kreiner began when he invited her to Thunder Bay for a recruiting trip while she was living in Regina, to meet the Lakehead team the summer before she began her studies.
Schwartz almost tore her quadricep during training camp, and said it set the precedent for her season. She pushed through her injury, for fear of retribution, causing further damage. In her first season, she red-shirted — which means she attended practices, but didn’t play in games.
After she was promised a spot on the team in her second year, she said, she was cut a week before school started, when she had already moved back to Thunder Bay.
“I lost my drive and my passion for the sport that I absolutely loved,” she said. “For 10-plus years, I’ve been harbouring all this.”
Schwartz was also part of the work-study program under investigation by Lakehead.
According to the contract she signed to play basketball, Schwartz was required to participate in the work-study program and was to receive a set amount of money for helping coach the Junior Wolves basketball team.
How many great athletes did we lose because there wasn’t this safe place for them or their mental health declined? – Megan Schwartz, former Lakehead University women’s basketball player
Toward the end of the school year, she said, Kreiner told her she had been overpaid and needed to give some of her earnings back — which would be reinvested into the team’s scholarship program for other players.
But Schwartz said she was concerned about this and told her dad.
She said he looked at her account and found she was actually owed two more payments. She said she brought these concerns to Kreiner and showed him the bank statements, but he dropped the subject. The situation raised red flags for her, since some of her teammates were also told they owed money.
Schwartz said she told athletic director Tom Warden, who still holds this position, about the work-study situation, but never received followup about her concerns.
If you’ve experienced maltreatment while participating in university athletics and want to share your story, contact us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, through Signal at 807-630-2160 or CBC Secure Dropbox.
Another former player provided CBC News with screenshots of two text conversations:
One appears to be between her and Kreiner, and the other between her and another athlete Kreiner allegedly told her to transfer work-study funds to.
In that exchange, the player, it appears, asks Kreiner if she should transfer $1,000 in work-study money to him directly. He tells her no, but says she should transfer the money directly to the other player.
Then, in the other text exchange, the two players discuss a “pool” created by money taken from players’ fees and then that money is redistributed.
The player who spoke to CBC News said she provided this documentation to the university in October 2022, but she hasn’t heard from the school since then.
CBC News is keeping her identity confidential due to the nature of the ongoing investigation.
Neither Kreiner nor spokespeople for the university have responded to questions about the allegations or status of the investigation into the work-study program.
Schwartz said that when she heard players were coming forward about what they say they experienced, she was filled with emotions — from grief and anguish, to relief and validation — and she felt she was not alone.
“One of the biggest things I felt was guilt because I didn’t protect these girls,” she said.
While Schwartz said she had expressed her concerns to the athletic department, she felt ashamed she didn’t do more to prevent harm to future athletes. On the other hand, she felt people wouldn’t take her seriously and would dismiss her as a disgruntled ex-athlete who was cut from the team.
Athlete safety the focus of call for national inquiry
The allegations against Lakehead’s women’s basketball program come amid a national discussion around athlete safety.
A letter signed by 91 individuals from 30 Canadian and 17 international institutions from Scholars Against Abuse in Canadian Sport urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to call for a national inquiry amid “widespread reports of sexual, physical and psychological abuse of athletes throughout the nation’s sport system.”
Whitney Bragagnolo is a sport integrity and governance consultant completing a PhD in sport governance, integrity and anti-corruption out of Charles University in Prague. Bragagnolo is currently finishing a study with colleague and co-researcher Yanei Lezama about sex, power and corruption in sport.
The findings suggest athletes are reluctant to come forward with concerns because they are afraid that it will lead to backlash.
“What we’re seeing is a general lack of trust in institutions,” said Bragagnolo.
Bragagnolo said there needs to be a multi-faceted approach to sports integrity, looking at areas including law, policy, governance and gender, and how these intersect.
“Athletes are left out of the conversation and they have so much valuable input. Their stories and experiences can teach us so much [about] where we need to evolve, where we need to improve.”
She reviewed Lakehead’s publicly available documentation about its policies for athletes who wish to report potential wrongdoing, and offered recommendations, in light of the former athletes’ allegations, about next steps for the university’s athletics department.
Firstly, she said, it’s important to know who belongs to the athletics board and what their credentials are. Making the department’s short- and long-term strategies public is a way to help keep them accountable of their goals and commitments.
She said the department’s website lacks this transparency.
Bragagnolo would like to see the department publish a code of conduct policy, a code of ethics policy and other governance documents, and to communicate these regularly to the university’s stakeholders.
She also stressed the importance of investigations and annual assessments being conducted by independent third parties. It’s important to consider who is funding these reviews and whether there are conflicts of interest.
Call for a change in athletics culture
Schwartz said that as her senior players on the Regina high school team she now coaches go on recruiting trips, she wants to ensure they feel empowered enough to voice any of their concerns.
To her, a coach should be committed to making their players better people, not just better athletes. She also said they need to consider what it means for an athlete to uproot their life and move to a school, only to be benched.
Schwartz is calling on Lakehead to follow up on the concerns brought forward by former players about maltreatment and the work-study program. She wants to see an assessment of the athletics department and what can be done to improve coaching practices.
And taking athletes’ concerns seriously should be at the forefront, she said.
“It’s like a whole system change, right? It’s not just one team, it’s not just one athletic department. It’s looking at it as a whole.”
Schwartz also wants mental health resources to be made more accessible to athletes. She has open conversations about therapy with members of the team she coaches, and says it’s important to be that safe person they can confide in if they face issues.
“How many great athletes did we lose because there wasn’t this safe place for them or their mental health declined?” she asked.