DONNA

Lady Justice: Sport and the Law

Often there is more than one source for a quote, so I choose child psychologist Jean Piaget who said, “Play is the work of children”. If you work really hard at playing, you might compete in the Olympics or turn professional and get paid for playing. You might earn scholarships to play your way through a post-secondary education. You might eventually become a lawyer.

My first personal experience of the intersection of the law with sport was when I was a young adult amateur kickboxer. My instructor was a world champion at one point. There were not many women involved so I would often have men as sparring partners. The less competent ones could prove quite dangerous. I will concede that, on average, men are stronger than women (and gorillas are stronger than men). Whereas my instructor was very encouraging about my potential, I knew since Grade 3 that I was going to be a lawyer and a few hits too many to the head could compromise my powers of analysis, but I endured as it was challenging.

During law school, when I was applying for my dream job as a clerk at the Court of Appeal, I was interviewed by Justice Asa Milton Harradence, a former university boxing champion (among many accolades). My kickboxing became a point of contention, he had been a boxer and was a supporter of boxing. We verbally sparred over the merits of our respective sports but I was hired nonetheless. I recall him discouraging my pursuit of a sport that included a few intentional knocks to a body part enclosing brain cells. I also recall him telling me about a silver medalist boxer in the 1984 Olympics that he was encouraging to give up boxing and go to law school.

My kickboxing continued until I was a young lawyer, the last straw being my insurance having exclusions for kickboxing. Nobody seemed to see merit in a kickboxing lawyer, and I guess I eventually agreed.

Last week, I needed an urgent court order which was granted by a very kind judge and I did not realize until I left the building that my order was signed (autographed?) by one Justice Willie deWit, that same Olympic silver medalist with whom I had shared a wise mentor. He not only became an excellent criminal lawyer, he was eventually elevated to the Bench.

This encounter reminded me of another inspiring athlete turned lawyer. Prior to boxing, Justice deWit played high school football and was an all-star quarterback. Football and boxing are incredible sports. A quote I appreciate for its audacity, especially emblazoned on very small athletes’ attire is: “if gymnastics were easy, it would be called football”.

Rachael Denhollander trained as a gymnast as a youth. She suffered back pain and was treated by Dr. Larry Nassar, an Olympic doctor involved with USA Gymnastics. Sixteen years after he sexually abused her, and after at least seven other women told others about Nassar, hers was the first complaint to gain traction. Hundreds of other athletes (including gold medalist Olympians) came forward who had experienced similar abuse over a couple of decades.

At Nassar’s sentencing, Denhollander asked, “How much is a little girl worth?” The judge indicated that Denhollander was the most courageous person she had seen in her courthouse. Dr. Nassar was permanently installed in a jail cell. The civil fallout to USA Gymnastics and others was extensive.

Little girls (and boys) should not have to become lawyers to gain the skillset and the credibility to bring down monsters. Until the least powerful among us are given the protections and voice they deserve, including in their childhood occupations of playing, I am glad for the athlete lawyers among us.

Donna Purcell, K.C., (aka Lady Justice) is a Central Alberta lawyer and Chief Innovation Officer with Donna Purcell QC Law. If you have legal questions, contact dpurcell@dpqclaw.com.

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