Lakehead University and women's basketball coach 'part ways' amid theft, athlete maltreatment allegations
Jon Kreiner says he’s no longer coach, sources say internal investigation began, Ont. school won't comment
WARNING: This story contains vulgar language and distressing details of alleged athlete maltreatment.
From the time she was eight years old, Talia Peters loved playing basketball.
It was the constant drive to be better, the heat of the competition, that indescribable bond with teammates strengthened through the highs and the lows.
"It was always my happy place," Peters told CBC News.
Coming from a small community in Manitoba, it wasn't easy, especially as a woman. It was hard to find club teams to join. Her family put in a lot of money and would drive hours for games so she could keep playing.
In 2018, Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., and longtime women's basketball head coach Jon Kreiner recruited her to play.
Peters said it was a dream come true.
"I finally felt like I made it. I was like, 'Yes! I get to play U-sport basketball. This is so cool,'" she remembers.
But just weeks after arriving on campus, that all changed. Peters said she knew she had to leave.
According to Peters, instead of the sport she loved, under Kreiner, she and her teammates were constantly yelled and sweared at, belittled and made to feel scared to mess up.
"I got there and I was like, 'This is it?' I worked so hard for this, and to be treated this way," said Peters, her voice overcome with emotion.
"It was really awful. That was my thing. It was my passion. It was what I loved to do, and — obviously there were lots of factors — but I feel like he took that passion and that love I had away from me."
Peters is among 10 people currently or formerly affiliated with Lakehead University's women's basketball program who spoke to CBC News about allegations of athlete maltreatment by Kreiner — including bullying, kicking basketballs at players and breaking clipboards.
Six of those sources also told CBC News the university began an internal investigation into allegations Kreiner stole thousands of dollars from athletes over at least 10 years through the university's work-study program. Five of them said they know senior members in the athletic department were aware of these allegations, but failed to stop the theft and protect athletes.
All of the sources except Peters spoke to CBC News on the condition of confidentiality, because they were worried about personal or professional repercussions of speaking publicly.
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.
Kreiner had been head coach since 2003, leading the team to an overall win-loss record of 272-307 through 18 seasons.
At the start of the 2022-2023 season, Kreiner was noticeably and abruptly absent from the sidelines during practices and games. When asked repeatedly about his status and the allegations against Kreiner of theft and maltreatment, a spokesperson said the university "does not comment on personnel matters."
CBC News asked Kreiner for an interview to discuss the allegations and his status, and he responded Dec. 31, 2022, by email with a statement.
A decision was made to part ways, and I cannot discuss the details.- Jon Kreiner, former Lakehead University women's basketball coach
"I confirm that I am no longer the head coach of the women's basketball team at Lakehead University. A decision was made to part ways, and I cannot discuss the details," the statement said.
"I stand by my record and my professional conduct. I won't be commenting any further."
Peters and each of the nine other sources said they don't believe the athletic department has done enough to protect them and other athletes. Each has separately called for public accountability and an overhaul of the entire department to create a safer environment for current and future athletes.
Verbal abuse, bullying coaching tactics alleged
Peters said that by November 2018, just a few months into her first season, she already knew she wanted to quit the team.
"I was always worried to go to practice and mess something up because I didn't want to be the person getting yelled at or singled out," Peters said.
"It made me really anxious all the time."
During one of her first pre-game practices, Peters said, she and her teammates made a mistake during a drill. Kreiner stopped everything, lined the players up, and kicked a basketball past them and across the gym, she alleged.
Another athlete, whose name CBC agreed to protect, remembered the same practice.
"He told us that we were all going to fail our exams because we were all f–king stupid," recalled the athlete.
Two other players from different seasons both told CBC News similar stories — that they made mistakes during practices that made Kreiner so angry, he kicked a basketball that sailed right past their heads.
Six former players told CBC News they often felt singled out and bullied during practices. Each described his behaviour as emotional abuse.
It just felt so shitty, like this person [Kreiner] had so much power over me, and he took away something that I loved and made me feel safe.- Talia Peters, former Lakehead University women's basketball player
In one instance, one of the athletes said, Kreiner facilitated what she called a "bully circle," where he stopped practice, gathered all the team members around and directed each player to say something they didn't like about her.
Kreiner went first, the athlete said.
"That situation was the start to a miserable experience," she told CBC News. "Not a player nor human being should have to go through that."
After one year at Lakehead, Peters decided to transfer to the University of Manitoba to play basketball and be closer to home, but said the "emotional abuse" she experienced had a lasting impact.
During one preseason game at the University of Manitoba, Peters said, "I went onto the court and I made a mistake. I had a panic attack and I had to get taken off the court.
"It just felt so shitty, like this person [Kreiner] had so much power over me, and he took away something that I loved and made me feel safe, and turned it into something that was hard for me to do."
Investigation into work-study funds
In September 2022, Lakehead University began a review of the women's basketball team, sending out a survey to some current and former players, according to emails shared with CBC News.
The results led to an internal investigation, which started in October and was being conducted by Kathy Pozihun, the university's vice-president of finance and administration since 2012. In her role, she is responsible for many units at the university, including the athletics department.
The investigation, according to emails shared with CBC News, focused on Kreiner's management of work-study — a common program at universities and colleges across Canada where students work in on-campus jobs, usually on a part-time basis.
Athletes often receive work-study positions through the athletics department, but during his time as head coach, Kreiner stole thousands of dollars from his players, some of the athletes allege.
It didn't happen to every athlete who spoke with CBC News, but five sources said Kreiner told them to pay back half of their work-study wages for at least one year, and often multiple years in a row.
CBC News has agreed to protect the names of these sources because they were not authorized to speak about the university's internal investigation.
"It was explained to me that I had to pay back half my work-study into the [basketball] program, which was to be used at that point to help other athletes financially," said one source. "I was told not to tell anybody else about this interaction … I'd give him the cash in an envelope and then we'd move on."
Another former athlete said, "I didn't question it very much, because you're trusting that this is what's supposed to happen … there is that innate power imbalance where you're just doing the things that are asked of you because you think that's what needs to happen in order for you to stay on the team, get more playing time, not be in the bad books."
All five sources said they were given some form of promise the money would go toward the good of the team, but added they had no idea where the cash went after it left their hands.
CBC News has attempted to track these transactions, but the athletes said it was either done through cash and no records were ever kept, or they paid with a cheque but can no longer access their bank records.
Neither Kreiner nor spokespeople for the university responded to questions about the allegations or about the status or outcome of the investigation.
Athlete says she cited work-study thefts in survey
The alleged thefts from athletes date back to at least the early 2010s and continued right up until last year, according to sources.
One source said she knows the Lakehead University athletics department was aware this was going on, because she tried to pay the work-study wages back by cheque in 2012, and it ended up in the hands of Lana Rizzuto, executive assistant to the university's athletics director, Tom Warden — and Rizzuto asked for a meeting with the athlete.
"Lana made it very clear that it wasn't my fault and was quite supportive … and then offered some advice that I should never give a coach a personal cheque," the source said, adding Kreiner approached the player later and told her "he was going to let me keep the money."
One other source told CBC News that Rizzuto asked them directly about the work-study issue, but they don't know if anything happened.
Lakehead University did not respond to direct questions about if and for how long it was aware of the work-study scheme, or if any steps were taken at that time to prevent it from happening.
One source said the athletics department was aware of the work-study thefts because she wrote down complaints about it on confidential, year-end athlete surveys.
CBC News reached out directly by email to Rizzuto, Warden and Pozihun to request an interview. None of the three responded, but the university did, and said it would not comment on personnel matters.
Fears raised about speaking out
All 10 sources contacted by CBC News said they wanted to speak out now because they believe the women's basketball program and the athletics department allowed this culture of maltreatment to grow.
One former player said she never felt there was a safe space to speak out about the maltreatment she experienced, and it was difficult to come forward during the university's internal investigation.
"It was so ingrained in my psyche that I'm not allowed to speak up," she said. "After going through that really emotional piece of processing my experience at Lakehead [as part of my participation in the investigation], it was radio silence afterwards. No services were provided and no explanation was given. I and others are just left speculating about what happened.
"To me, the administration at Lakehead allowed this to continue for 20 years."
Some of the basketball team's coaches have been around for years, including assistant coach Lou Pero, who worked alongside Kreiner starting in 2003.
"I don't think Lou Pero should be even the interim assistant coach for the women's basketball team," said one source. "I think that completely sends the wrong message. If you don't condone what [Kreiner] did, why are you allowing his [longtime assistant coach] to continue to sit on the bench?"
Peters said: "I think that made it feel like it was normal. When we'd be in practices and [Kreiner would] be saying certain things that weren't OK, the assistant coaches just stood and watched."
CBC News also reached out directly by email to Pero for an interview, but there was no response. A spokesperson with the university did respond, and again said there would be no comment on personnel matters.
The 10 sources told CBC News they didn't believe it was worthwhile to speak out earlier, because they didn't feel any changes would come of it and Warden, the athletic director, had to know about the complaints through year-end surveys, yet no public investigation or noticeable change happened in the 18 seasons Kreiner was coach.
Peters added she wants to see the university provide transparency about the investigation and address the situation.
"By letting it go under the radar, it allows situations like this to continue, even in other schools, because this is just one example."
University athletes especially vulnerable, expert says
Gretchen Kerr, a leading expert on athlete maltreatment in Canada, is dean of the University of Toronto's faculty of kinesiology and physical education.
She isn't involved in the Lakehead basketball situation and said she could not comment on this particular case, but in general, there is a significant power imbalance between student athletes and their coaches, who have the power to decide if players will make the team and how much playing time they get.
Still, there is little data about athlete mistreatment within university athletics, Kerr said.
A 2019 study from the University of Toronto anonymously surveyed 1,001 current and former Canadian national athletes about maltreatment and mental health outcomes. More than 60 per cent of the respondents said they experienced at least one form of psychologically harmful behaviour, and more than 70 per cent of those surveyed said they experienced some form of neglectful behaviour.
As Canada and the U.S. have been reckoning with disturbing reports of athlete maltreatment by coaches over the last few years, Kerr said some steps have been taken to support athletes and address the vulnerabilities in the system.
A universal code of conduct to prevent and address maltreatment in sport (UCCMS) was published in 2019, and all national sports organizations must adopt and implement it. There's also a new Office of Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC), which provides an independent complaint mechanism, but it's only for national team athletes, Kerr said.
Instead, she said, often the only complaint process for university athletes is someone who is embedded within the university, it isn't necessarily transparent and there's no standardized approach that post-secondary institutions take to protect their athletes.
"In other words, they have to report to someone within the athletics department who perhaps knows the coach, perhaps hires the coach, and so it's riddled with conflicts of interest," Kerr told CBC News.
"We have made some strides … that university sport needs to adopt. While some would say, 'Well, we don't need them because the university policies take care of these issues,' we've learned through various cases across the country that's not necessarily so."
One of the challenges to implementing safe sport policies and initiatives is the number of jurisdictions that oversee university sports, said Pierre Arsenault, chief executive officer of U Sports, the national governing body of university athletics in Canada. Determining the most appropriate organization to address complaints is among those challenges, Arsenault said.
"Actions are being taken by so many different jurisdictions. It's definitely a work in progress, and I would say that our member institutions across the country are showing acceptance and understanding for the serious nature of these issues," Arsenault said.
For its part, U Sports adopted maltreatment policies in 2020 to bring a third-party organization in to investigate complaints during any U Sports events, and in November 2022, its board adopted the UCCMS, Arsenault added.
Ultimately, the broader system of sport needs to change to make it physically and psychologically safer, Kerr said.
"Imagine if [a university sport coach] were hired, fired, promoted on the basis of the well-being of their student athletes," she said.
"If coaches were evaluated by those things rather than how the team performs, that would solve a lot of these issues."
Support is available for any athletes who have experienced maltreatment. For more resources, you can reach out to the Canadian Sport Helpline by phone or text at 1-888-837-7678 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET, or by email at email@example.com.