Too big to fail, or too big to regulate Child Sexual Abuse? How sporting bodies must do more to protect their athletes – Conservative Article
TW: This article will be discussing sensitive topics around sexual harassment and abuse.
Netflix’s latest documentary on sexual abuse spotlights its existence across the USA’s elite gymnastics division. Abuse that began in 1997, to be overlooked for almost 20 years under the nose of the national governing body: USA Gymnastics.
Sadly, the most alarming impact of “Athlete A” is not learning that child sexual abuse exists. From child trafficking, to paedophilia in schools, to child sexual exploitation within the Catholic Church; we see it all too often.
Moreover, I was left astounded by USA Gymnastics’ failure to act responsibly. It is designed to do exactly that. An institution fuelled continuously by its athletes, yet one that fails to protect their basic human rights.
Child sexual harassment and abuse (SHA) in sports is undoubtedly widespread, occurring in all sports at all levels with an increased risk at the elite level. SHA includes everything from sexual harassment and sexual abuse to gender harassment, hazing and homophobia.
An inquiry by The Truth Project into child SHA in sports in the UK studied the experiences of almost 4,000 survivors over the last four years. It concludes that the highest rates of incidence per sport belong to football and swimming. This was followed closely by gymnastics, which came in third place. The majority of participants noted that their abuse began at the age of 11 or below, and usually occurred within sports clubs or private coaching. A disgusting 78% of incidences were at the direct fault of club coaches and volunteers.
These statistics, both gruesome and shocking, are brought to life by the documentary. As a child who was, and still very much is, involved in the world of gymnastics, this inevitably struck home with me. How close was I to a near miss?
The documentary’s titular figure, Maggie Nichols (‘Athlete A’ on official documentation), embodies the typical athlete that perpetrators target. A young, vulnerable athlete, willing to do whatever it took to achieve her dream of competing at The Olympics. A dream that “coaches with bad intentions absolutely wield to their advantage”, as child SHA survivor and elite swimmer Sarah Ehekricher says.
Even the gymnasts who made the USA National Team, competing at The Olympics, were not shielded from such abuse. Numerous gold medals were won whilst the girls were abused by Dr Larry Nassar, the National Team’s Doctor, off the floor in-between competing.
It makes you think, what prevented the athletes stepping forward?
As Ray Wyre (Director of the Gracewell Clinic for the rehabilitation of sex offenders) put in 1993, “Monsters don’t get near to children – nice men do.”. Whilst the gender distinction here is evidently outdated, his principle still stands. Abusers are never who they seem to be; they hold positions of power with unshakable reputations. A minor report would never hold any ground, at least in the past.
Therefore, we witness a culture of silence. Many of the victims are too young to comprehend the severity of what they are being subjected to. They might even think it normal, in some twisted case of Stockholm Syndrome, as they know no different.
Some, however, do come forward. Maggie Nichols first appealed in 2015 after her mother reported suspicions of malpractice by Nassar. USA Gymnastics took up an ‘internal’ investigation, by brushing it under the carpet. Maggie was re-payed for stepping forward by having her place on the National Team stripped away, destroying her dreams of competing at the Olympics.
In this same vein, swimmer Sarah Ehekricher, who reported her coach after he raped her when she was just 17, was told that she was “not unique, that it happens all the time, that (she) should simply get over it.”
The issue is, USA Gymnastics, like many sporting agencies, are driven and fuelled by their successes. Winning athletes lead to more sponsorship and investment, making profit a key motive for these organisations. Profit is therefore often prioritised over health and safety.
The wellbeing of individual athletes is too frequently subjugated by the financial and time costs, and of the organisation’s reputation of proceeding with an investigation so vulgar. This is undoubtedly a corrupt style of operation, highlighting a distinct need for policy change.
It is essential that organisations have and consistently endorse channels of open conversation about sexual abuse, especially for children. Minors must be taught about their rights, educated further about their bodies, and learn what constitutes sexual harassment and abuse.
Thus, we must see grand policy implementation, not only within sports organisations and their venues but also within education. PSHE must move on from its repetitious teachings of ‘butterflies in your stomach hint that you’re nervous’ in the latter years of primary education to a more realistic curriculum. They need to tackle the key indicators of sexual abuse. With the majority of victims experiencing abuse when they were aged 11 or younger, this is paramount.
Society must enable pivotal change in order to support victims of SHA, not shame them in disbelief. It should not take a mammoth mass of media coverage, forcing these organizations into the public reckonings, to trigger meaningful change. Organisations must hold themselves to account over the wellbeing of their athletes daily, or face being disbanded.
Written by Junior Conservative Writer, Emily Taylor
Point of Information
Education and accountability are key to tackling child sexual abuse – A Liberal Response
Emily writes a very detailed, accurate and insightful article. In fact, there is very little of her piece that I can disagree with. The scandal surrounding Larry Nasser that began in 2015 was seen as huge; it was responsible for uncovering decades of child sexual abuse. And that is the tragedy surrounding cases of child sexual abuse – as we saw with Nasser, with Saville and others, it often takes, as Emily said, ‘a mammoth mass of media coverage’.
There needs to be a big change to the culture within sporting institutions. These organisations are fuelled by success. By their very nature as sporting institutions, this is almost impossible to change. But there needs to be more attention given to the welfare and health and safety of children. This comes through accountability from above and education from below.
The only issue I have with what Emily writes is the idea that primary school children should be taught about child sexual abuse. Whilst I think more openness within society is necessary to root out abusers, I think telling primary school children about sexual abuse could cause more problems than it solves. I know that, as Emily says, many victims are 11 or under, but I still think a different approach to this is needed.
Written by Senior Liberal Writer, Fergus Harris
Education and a change of emphasis – A Labour Response
Education, safeguarding, and culture of belief are whats needed. As Fergus said, 11 does seem too young to be exposed to the idea of predators, however, Emily is right. We cannot simply ignore the fact that most of the abuse suffered by children begins before this age. Obviously, a delicate approach is required. It needs to be sensitive to the mental and emotional capacity of such young children.
I would also suggest that parents should be educated too. Sports club activity often involves the transfer of responsibility for the child’s safety (momentarily) from the parent to the coach or support staff. It would never be right to blame a parent where there is no fault, but this transfer of care is so common in our society. Therefore, teaching parents the warning signs is vital.
In addition to a change in education, further safeguards are necessary. Abuse is often conducted when the adult is able to get a child alone. It is these scenarios that need to be stamped out. I am not saying that every adult in sport is unworthy of trust. However, when the power dynamic is as it is between child and adult (no matter the level of sport), safeguards are necessary.
A culture of openness and belief is something our society needs to adopt for all instances of sexual abuse, harassment, and violence. Innocent until proven guilty stands at the core of our legal and moral fibre, but for far too long. This has been used to suppress accusations or allow them to go uninvestigated.
Children, no matter their age, need to be supported in coming forward and not feel that their experiences are seen as irrelevant, or simply the fantasy of a young mind. It is always better to believe and investigate thoroughly than disregard accusations.
Written by Senior Labour Writer, Henry Mckeever