Five Kingston area softball officials suspended for the season

Photo by Darrin Moore.

According to a recent decision by Softball Ontario, five local coaches and officials have been suspended for the 2024 season.

A Softball Ontario Discipline Panel made the decision to suspend the officials on October 23, 2023, and most recently, the appeal of that decision was dismissed on February 22, 2024.

According to the appeal decision, written by James Smellie, each official named will have “a one-year suspension from participation, in any capacity, in any program, practice, activity, event, or competition sponsored by, organized by, or under the auspices of Softball Ontario, including its Member Associations (‘activities’). A one-year suspension is required to ensure the Respondents do not participate in the 2024 season. For clarity, the Respondents may attend activities in which their children are participants.”

The coaches and officials suspended from Softball Ontario for the year are as follows.

  • Kyra Funk, President, Greater Kingston Softball Association (Greater Kingston SA*) 
  • Nicholas Brunet, Vice-President & Head Coach, Sydenham Minor Softball Association (Sydenham SA); Board member, Frontenac County Minor Softball Association (Frontenac County SA)
  • Hugh Vankoughnett, President and Head Coach, Sydenham SA; Board member, Intercommunity Softball Association (Intercommunity SA); Vice-President, Frontenac County SA 
  • Brittany Smith, President, Frontenac County SA; Board member, Intercommunity SA
  • Tammy Vankoughnett, Vice-President, Sydenham SA.

    *(names of various leagues are given in a shortened form in parentheses and will be referred to as such throughout article)

According to the original decision, written by Softball Ontario Discipline Panel member Ann Peel and upheld by Smellie, “reinstatement shall be conditional on completing Governance Essentials [a training course] at their own expense, and to the satisfaction of Softball Ontario.”

Peel notes that the suspensions stem from multiple incidents that were contrary to Softball Ontario’s Code of Conduct and Ethics and/or prohibited under the Universal Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport (Universal Code of Conduct). Peel deemed all of the incidents to be “interconnected.” 

The Universal Code of Conduct, advanced by the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner, “is the core document that sets harmonized rules to be adopted by sports organizations that receive funding from the Government of Canada to advance a respectful sports culture that delivers quality, inclusive, accessible, welcoming and safe sports experiences.” 

The complaints

Despite arguments presented by the above-named officials and their legal counsel, Smellie held that “the essential facts are set out in the Decision and are not seriously in dispute.”

According to the details provided in the decision, Sandra Sinclair was an Executive Board Member of Sydenham SA, a sub-unit of Frontenac County SA, from 2015 to 2019. During that time, Sinclair coached multiple teams for the Greater Kingston SA and Frontenac County SA.

In 2019, she had begun discussions to create a rep program in Sydenham, but softball was shut down for the 2020 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pandemic restrictions were lifted for the 2020-21 season; however, the Sydenham softball organization remained closed. 

Consequently, the Greater Kingston SA invited the Sydenham SA players and coaches to join their organization for the 2020-21 season, including Sinclair, Brunet (with whom Sinclair was in a relationship both personally and as a co-coach at the time), Sinclair’s daughter and stepdaughters, and six other players Sinclair had coached for several years. The Greater Kingston SA then invited Sinclair to coach a U15 Girls rep team for the 2021-22 season. Her daughter and the other six players joined the team. 

However, Peel noted in her earlier decision that Sinclair said the experience was negative for the team. Over the course of the season, Sinclair said she witnessed numerous behavioural issues by adults that violated the Provincial Women’s Softball Association Code of Conduct and the Universal Code of Conduct, including psychological maltreatment, neglect, failure to report, subjection to the risk of maltreatment, and aiding and abetting.

According to the appeal, Sinclair reported these to the other head coaches and to Greater Kingston SA President Kyra Funk, but none of these concerns were addressed.

The decision document summarizes the actions of Funk, Brunet, Smith, and the two Vankoughnetts in August and September 2023, actions for which they were suspended.

In her original decision, Peel wrote, “I will consider each Complaint in turn. In addition to determining whether the behaviour in the underlying allegations occurred, I must also determine whether the conduct amounted to a Softball Ontario Code or Universal Code of Conduct violation.”

Complaint One says Funk suspended Sinclair for no reason other than Sinclair’s voicing her concerns about coaches in Greater Kingston; Funk then encouraged Frontenac County SA and Sydenham SA to follow suit. In addition, the complaint alleges that Funk harassed Sinclair and breached the confidentiality of their communications.

Peel, in her original decision, found that Funk suspended Sinclair without merit and that the Greater Kingston SA Notice of Suspension was arbitrary. Sinclair had not been asked questions or allowed to make her case, and Funk had made no effort to talk with her. Peel found it notable that Funk stated that Sinclair deserved a suspension because she was “difficult and not a good Ambassador.” Peel called this “capricious decision-making” and “abuse of power.” 

Complaint Two concerns primarily the allegations that Hugh Vankoughnett, Brunet, Smith, and Tammy Vankoughnett then wrongfully suspended Sinclair from Frontenac County SA and Sydenham SA and harassed and intimidated her.

Peel found that Smith, Brunet, and the Vankoughnetts, “acting in their capacity as voting members of Frontenac County [SA], suspended the Complainant without merit.” At no time did any of them consider it their responsibility to exercise their authority with fairness, respect, and dignity, she wrote.

Further, she wrote that none of them bothered to find out if the suspension by Funk was legitimate or followed the various codes of conduct before releasing an email to the wider softball community, damaging her reputation: “None… conducted their own due diligence on the Greater Kingston SA Notice of Suspension, even after learning that the Provincial Women’s Softball Association had not, in fact, suspended [Sinclair]. This led to Frontenac County [SA] compounding the errors of Funk and the Greater Kingston SA. It is one thing to act in solidarity with an affiliated organization, it is another to fail to do your own homework, to fail to exercise your power fairly.”

Complaint Three alleged that the five respondents breached confidentiality, retaliated against Sinclair for filing Complaints One and Two, and provided false statements during the investigation of Complaints One and Two.

Peel wrote, “Their disregard for Sinclair’s right to be heard leads me to find that it is more likely than not that Sinclair was suspended in retaliation for her complaints against the Greater Kingston SA and her continued efforts to challenge the Greater Kingston Notice of Suspension… [They] aggravated her isolation in the softball community, which had been core to her sense of purpose. They each failed to act in good faith throughout what should have been the disciplinary review process.”

Complaint Four alleged that Hugh Vankoughnett and Nicholas Brunet harassed and intimidated Sinclair while she was out in public with a friend walking her dog. Peel forwarded the fourth complaint to the Frontenac County Detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), where she said it better belongs. “I do not have the necessary investigative authority to compel testimony or to inquire about the facts of these allegations,” she stated.

Constable Rob Martell, Media Relations Officer for Frontenac OPP, confirmed a complaint was made to the Frontenac OPP for “an incident or series of incidents” related to area softball issues.

“An investigation was commenced, and it was determined that the OPP has no authority to apply charges or investigate softball governing bodies in the area for the suspension or removal of coaches. There was no basis for laying charges on any of the reported complaints… Area softball issues are governed under their own respective area sports federations and have the proper process for disciplinary procedures,” said Martell.

Peel noted, “Each [of the Appellants] abused their power, showed no remorse, and acted collectively to shut down a qualified coach [whom] they had supported until they decided she was ‘difficult.’” Peel imposed a one-year suspension on the five officials, requiring them to complete leadership training and to stay away from Sinclair.

Photo by Alex Haney.

Appeal process

The five suspended individuals collectively appealed this decision and Peel’s sanctions. They submitted that the findings were inconsistent and contradictory. They said that the scope of the suspensions exceeded Peel’s jurisdiction and that the “sanctions imposed… were disproportionate and unduly severe, and in the result, grossly unreasonable.” 

In accordance with Softball Ontario’s appeal policy, James H. Smellie was appointed as the Appeal Manager on December 5, 2023. He allowed more submissions by the parties and their lawyers, but ultimately, it made little difference. In his appeal decision dated Feb. 22, 2024, Smellie upheld most of the decisions made by Peel.

Smellie allowed that the Softball Ontario Panel had acted outside its scope when it “erred on the side of caution” with its original suspension statement; it could not suspend any activities outside Softball Ontario governance.

However, he was particularly adamant that the five officials could not argue (as they’d attempted to) that because they were volunteers, they should not have known to follow the rules.

“To characterize their efforts as a mere procedural error is a severe understatement. Simply put, there was no process of any sort afforded to Sinclair. The lack of good faith shown to her is palpable, and on my reading of the record and the submissions, the Appellants’ behaviour was egregious,” wrote Smellie.

“While the Appellants characterize the suspensions as ‘punitive,’ I am of the view that they are reasonably proportionate with the egregious nature of the Appellants’ behaviour in arbitrarily punishing Sinclair by blackballing her from any involvement in softball in the Kingston region for an entire season.”

In conclusion, Smellie thanked Sinclair for coming forward and added, “This is a particularly difficult case for reasons that are readily apparent from the Decision. In reviewing the evidence that the Panel considered, I took note of many references to the volunteerism that is at the heart of the Kingston softball community and how such efforts are principally directed to the teaching and enjoyment of children and young persons. That is as it should be, and I hope the parties keep this and their related accountabilities in mind going forward.”

Response

Kingstonist reached out to the Frontenac County SA and the Greater Kingston SA for comment; they responded with a joint statement confirming that “A number of [Frontenac County SA] and [Greater Kingston SA] volunteers have been suspended from Softball Ontario rep activities for the 2024 season.”

“This is the result of our organizations’ inexperience in having to handle an ethics matter with a coach through the [Provincial Women’s Softball Association]. The procedural error and resulting suspensions in no way prevents them from their regular volunteer positions and work for our local house leagues,” the statement reads.

It should be noted that, in Smellie’s conclusion on the suspension, he noted the appellants referring to their faults as “a mere procedural error” was “a severe understatement.”

Nonetheless, the statement from the Frontenac County and Greater Kingston SAs continues, “We are working hard as a volunteer organization to implement changes that will prevent some of the errors in procedure that were the basis for the complaint to Softball Ontario.”

“Our goal remains to provide a safe space for kids to play softball in our community. This is at the centre of everything we do and why we put in the hours to make it happen. We care about our community and want to see it continue to be a vibrant place with many sports options. We hope our community supports us as we work to make the changes required to prevent this from happening again,” the statement concludes.

One thought on “Five Kingston area softball officials suspended for the season

  • The response from the Frontenac County SA and the Greater Kingston SA clearly demonstrates their lack of understanding of the serious nature of the decisions of SoftballOntario.

    The response doubled down on the ‘procedural error’ when Smellie clearly stated – to characterize the appellants wrongdoing as a mere procedural error when the actions were egregious is an understatement.

    What a shame, how can people learn and grow when organizations continue to argue against clearly stated findings. Do better people.

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