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The hidden thorn of sexual harassment in the world of sports



Whether you are training for the Olympics or playing in a casual league, many people have close relationships with their coaches. Coaches are there to guide you, to motivate you, to build trust and confidence within yourself and a team. But what happens when you cannot identify the warning signs between a coach that is passionate and a coach that is predatory?


According to the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, sexual harassment and violence committed by coaches has already been analysed since the 1980s. While the problem has been discussed for decades now, only recently have leagues and organisations begun to address these issues out in the open rather than sweeping them under the rug.


But this article is not intended to demonise the athletic community, but rather to urge it to recognise that the environment and culture in which the community currently operates can act as a breeding ground for sexual grooming and harassment.


One of the most famous examples of the severe lack of proper sexual harassment eradication measures in the athletics community is that of Larry Nassar. Nassar was considered an excellent doctor. If you were treated by him, it was seen as a badge of honour amongst gymnasts and their parents, as he only saw those with the most talent - the best of the best. To be seen and taken care of by someone who helped Olympians get where they were could only be something that would help your career.


The U.S. 2016 Women's Gymnastics Olympic Team

Therefore, when something felt uncomfortable or wrong, who could you tell? Where could you complain about this excellent doctor? The case of Larry Nassar is considered to be one of the biggest sexual harassment and abuse scandals in sport history. It is said that Nassar used his reputation to sexually abuse anywhere from hundreds, to thousands of targets. At his trial, over 150 women made statements about how Nassar used to “give them unsupervised pelvic exams at night in their hotel room or dorm bed”.


Outside of the sports world, it seems inconceivable that something like this could occur. Yet, many of the gymnasts said that people knew about it for years and did nothing. Clinical and physical psychologist Joan Ryan mentions how gaslighting in the sports industry starts from the beginning of your career.


“These girls are groomed from an incredibly young age to deny their own experience. Your knee hurts? You’re being lazy. You’re hungry? No, you’re fat and greedy. They are trained to doubt their own feelings, and that’s why this could happen to over 150 of them.”

There was the constant fear too that if you rocked the boat and brought these claims forward, you would be ostracised and blackballed from competing.


Like most cases of sexual harassment though, this is not something that solely occurs in women's sports. In 2011, a small college newspaper broke the story about a child abuse investigation into the football coach for Penn State, the state university in Pennsylvania.


Jerry Sandusky, like Nassar, was heralded as one of the best assistant coaches at Penn State and was admitted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame. He founded a non-profit charity for underprivileged and at-risk youth where he would coach them for football. It was honoured as one of President George H.W. Bush's "points of light" and had numerous sporting legends, including golfer Arnold Palmer, act as honorary board members.


It therefore came as a shock to many that this article would claim that he sexually abused ten boys between 1994 and 2009. After a two-year-long trial, Sandusky was convicted for 52 counts of sexual abuse of young boys and is currently serving 30 to 60 years in prison.


The Athletics Director, Time Curley, and vice president, Gary Schultz, were also convicted for failing to report the abuse that they were aware of. Yet, even with all this evidence, many Penn State students and alumni could not come to terms with the epidemic of abuse that had occurred in their halls.



But the era of secrecy and protection of sexual harassers in athletics has to come to an end. Even though the head coach of Penn State, Joe Paterno, was fired from the programme after the scandal, recent allegations suggest that he was aware of Sandusky’s abuse as early as 1971.


Anthony Lanzilote/Getty Images
Victims’ campaigners cheer women as they leave the court after Nassar’s sentencing

Current and former members of the U.S.A. Gymnastics team have expressed their disappointment and outright frustration with the organisation for the handling of nearly two decades of Nassar’s abuse. The magnitude of the Larry Nassar and Jerry Sandusky scandals illuminated the painful reality that many children and adolescent athletes have gone through.


However, we are not without the tools to combat the epidemic of sexual harassment and abuse in athletics. Professionals in the world of sport must have a particular understanding of the dynamics of sexual harassment within the athletic and sports culture.


The Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology offers interesting recommendations for risk assessment and prevention programmes when it comes to harassment within sport. The Journal recommends victim identification by encouraging sport professionals to be trained on sexual abuse trauma-related symptoms.


A victim, or target, may “present as confident and well-adjusted at some times and at other times they may present as scared, irritable or angry". They may appear depressed or anxious or traumatised with inconsistent presentations. This is partially due to the harasser intentionally keeping the target off guard, unbalanced and thus, easier to control.


They recommend identifying targets based on “simple symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder”, such as flashbacks, emotional dysregulation or emotional hyper-reactivity. There is no "one-one-size-fits-all" approach for identifying targets, but the journal urges sport organisations to employ a clinical sport psychologist trained in identifying trauma in sport and have navigated the world of athletics and understand the culture of sport.


Athletes are trained to win, to succeed, and push themselves beyond limits thought to be possible. But that does not mean they are unbreakable. The acknowledgement that mental health is just as important as physical health is long overdue. And finally, athletes are getting the support they need.

Written By: Apollina "Polly" Kyle, Research Ambassador at Metta Space


Edited By: Paula Koller-Alonso, Head of R&D at Metta Space






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