Breaking Down Sexual Abuse in Sports

The Huffington Post: Since the Sandusky case we have all been made aware that sexual abuse of a young child by a coach is possible. Yet, more attention to the subject and types of sexual abuse in sports needs to be committed to addressing this topic and to developing an infrastructure that supports the needs of the athletes for a safe and positive environment in sports.

The world of sports is complex in regards to the coach-athlete relationship. Although a large proportion of U.S. children participate in youth sport, we do not give appropriate attention to analysis of the four differing types of sexual abuse in sports: pedophilia, sexual harassment, sexual abuse and athlete domestic violence.

Pedophilia may be defined as pre-puberty abuse and is not gender-specific. This type of abuse is committed by an adult who has a desire of sexual exploitation of a child. This type of abuse can happen in any setting. There is no data to support that the sports environment is more prone to this type of abuse compared to other types of settings, like school or after school programs. This is a wide spread problem in the culture.

The second type is sexual harassment. The workplace addressed this issue in the 70s by implementing Title VII (7). Many professions are required to take on-going sexual harassment training as part of the profession or part of the employment. The school system has also addressed this issue under Title IX. In both of these cases the standard of evidence is a preponderance, which is commonly referred to 50 percent and a feather, meaning that it is more likely to have happened than not. While sexual harassment has been addressed in the workplace it is wide spread in sports and is not covered under the other laws because the athlete is NOT considered an employee. Therefore regardless of age, the athlete does not have equal legal protection afforded to other environments. Athletes are required to endure harassment purely because the dynamic is not considered employer/employee.

The third type is coach/athlete sexual abuse; often a pubescent athlete engaged in a sexual act with a coach. This can be on-going or a one time act. In some cases, the business model of the sports environment perpetuates this issue making it difficult to change this culture. When the coach-athlete sexual abuse is on going it becomes more complex and can further develop into Athlete Domestic Violence (ADV).

Athlete Domestic Violence can be described as an athlete in a (perceived) “relationship” with a coach and can involve consenting age or not. The dynamics develops regardless of age. Professional standards maintain that a ‘romantic relationship’ is never appropriate as the coach always has a structural power advantage over a competing athlete.

The competing athlete has something at risk, for example, dreams of being an Olympian, a college scholarship, playing time or financial gain. There is a complex ‘hook’ keeping the athlete engaged in a relationship even when abusive and unhealthy. The athlete has to make decisions for the family, the team and the coach. When speaking up about the abuse, the athlete could be subject to retaliation from the team if there is a perceived threat of their dreams being compromised as a result of the coach removal; the parents that sacrificed everything to make sure that the child-athletes dreams are fulfilled or the coach that convinces the athlete that the only reason for her/his success is because of the “coach.”

The other reason that this may also be described as Athlete Domestic Violence is because of the presence of external pressure and the lack of sympathy that is also commonly found in a domestic violence relationship. When an athlete stays involved in the sport, the coach or the team, there is an assumption that the athletes could always have easily removed themselves and speak up. They are often blamed and it’s seen as ‘their fault’ if they knowingly continue to put themselves in harms way. These dynamics are complex and need to be treated as such. Resources need to be put in place so as not to further victimize the athlete via the coach, the team or the family.

The breakdown of sexual abuse by gender is 90 percent involving older male and younger female. The remaining 10 percent is split evenly amongst older male and younger male, older female-younger male, and older female-younger female across all types of sexual abuse in sports. 1

What is being asked of the athlete is to have emotional intelligence that actually requires a team of highly educated and trained adults to deal with the issue safely and effectively. Too often a young athlete is required to address this issue on her/his own without any resources to help.

It is Safe4Athletes mission to 1) find those resources to help the ADV victim, 2) change legislation so athletes have protection in place against sexual harassment, 3) stop the athlete sexual abuse that is further exploited and encouraged because of institutional business models, and 4) keep pedophiles out of sports environments entirely.