Why is it socially acceptable, that every time a sexual abuse scandal comes to light, (like with USA Gymnastics -Dr.Nassar) the mass response is “we knew something was going on”? As a society we encourage people to speak up, but at the same time are not taking the necessary steps to make sure none of this happens again. It feels as if being reactive is more applauded than being proactive. Speaking up is essential, it’s almost as important as prevention; but if we found a way to stop sexual abuse in sport from happening, speaking up would not even be necessary. Everyone was “outraged” when the Nassar scandal first hit the news, even the USA Gymnastics Federation. Unsurprisingly, it was later revealed that people within the USA Gymnastics Federation knew what Nassar was doing. Everyone screams out after-the-fact because it is socially expected to do so, but no one does anything to stop these abuses from happening, in fact these organisations keep covering it up. Movements like #MeToo do have their merits, but they need to go further, much further.
Everyone understands that there is a widespread sexual abuse problem in sports, yet at the same time, no one knows about it, hears about it, or talks about it. There is a systemic problem, top to bottom, in sports, especially those that involve minors, where a scandal made public would lead to such chaos within the organisation that it just “feels better” to “deal with it internally” (i.e., sweep it under the rug). Why is no one speaking about it? As long as no one says anything, it’s easy for the people to turn a blind eye and let the abuse continue.
These athletes are scared, they are fighting for their dreams, and they know that in one unlucky break, it can all be over. Athletes feel that they are paying a price for their dreams, but they pay such a high price that most of these athletes end up hating the sport they once loved. The cost of glory should not be innocence; the price of a medal should not be the love of the sport. They already work hard, they already possess the skill; athletes need people to help them reach that podium, not people that threaten to take away that dream if they don’t “do whatever it takes.” Most of these athletes are intimidated into not disclosing such abuses with taking away their chances to compete, while others fear such a possibility. In a world where only a handful of athletes are ever able to achieve their dream, it is understandable why these athletes fear to disclose and why they take so long to do so.
“No means no,” we can all agree on that. But what happens when the fear of losing the one thing they love leads to that “no” becomes a coerced “yes”? What happens when their dreams mean so much that they would give anything up for them, no matter the cost?
Organisations should care as much about athletes’ well-being as they do about their success. Safeguarding measures should be put in place and accusations need to be taken seriously. Sexual abuse scandals cannot be kept confidential and swept under the rug. Education is critical; tolerance and understanding are a must. It is simply not enough to say, “I’ll look into it,” actions need to follow, rules need to be enforced. There needs to be a procedure that teams and federations follow when they become aware of possible abuse and this procedure needs to be followed without deviation. It’s about prevention as well as management.
Although a false accusation can ruin a career, ignoring someone who claims to have been abused can destroy many lives. It’s not about making the accused guilty with only an accusation, it’s about understanding and listening to the accuser and taking allegations seriously. A career can be rebuilt; a life simply can’t.
People are afraid to disclose sexual assault, because when they do, no one takes them seriously. Can you see the problem? Today it is still taboo to accuse someone; it’s always looked at with skepticism. When someone is brave enough to step up and denounce an abuser, society doubts, ridicules, and ignores them. Accusations wouldn’t be taboo if they were taken seriously. We need to make athletes feel safe disclosing when they feel unsafe or feel something is wrong. We need the people surrounding these athletes to value their lives and not fear reporting abuse. We need athletes’ safety, so they can do what they were born to do and show the world their magic. Abusers should not, and cannot, have the power to rob these athletes of their shine.
Even worse than turning a blind eye is blaming the athletes that suffer this abuse. People say, “everyone else knew, how could you not have known?” and move on with their lives. As if saying that, since the “victim” should have known that a person was dangerous, it’s that person’s fault and no one else. The problem with this? Abusers get a free pass because if we tolerate the abuse and victim-blame, we are saying that the only person responsible for the abuse is the “victim.” Society makes athletes feel like telling someone is putting an unwanted burden on them, and therefore athletes prefer to keep quiet than to tell anyone. The problem is not sport-specific, it’s about society as a whole; tolerance, blame, and guilt should not be the norm when dealing with abuse. We should be comprehensive, caring, and understanding, that’s the problem.
The problem is not only that there is widespread abuse. The problem is that this abuse is being tolerated, ignored, and applauded. Reporting of this abuse is being ridiculed; people being abused are being threatened not to disclose. We are losing this battle, not because of how many abusers there are, but because everyone is willing to sit back and let it happen.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke
Some sports are more susceptible to abuse than others, but the reality is that athletes of all disciplines are at risk, unless society steps up. In gymnastics, for example, young athletes are taught to respect authority, to trust coaches, doctors, spotters, and staff, to do as they are told, listen to the people in charge. These views are enforced throughout their lives and careers. Athletes grow up believing that the only way to be great it is to allow coaches and staff to do whatever they want because there is no other way to make it.
I wish it were that simple. We need to educate people, top-to-bottom within organisations, federations, and especially, in society. We need to establish safeguarding measures at every level of sport and to enforce these measures. We need to ensure athletes are well-taken care of. We need to follow-up on accusations and take them seriously. We need to help these athletes, that have been abused, cope and heal. We need to establish guidelines to prevent this from happening, but we also need procedures in case it does happen. Putting pen to paper is one thing, but it’s not enough. Anonymous questionnaires are fine, but again, insufficient. It’s not about the appearance of doing something, it’s about doing something. It’s not about seeming pro-sport, it’s about being pro-athlete. We need people that care and do something real, not just put fancy words on a piece of paper to say, “we did what we could.”
It’s not a one-word-answer. It is not a simple solution; it takes time and conscious effort from everyone involved. It’s a complicated and lengthy process that might cost money, employees, and medals. But is it worth it? More than winning gold at the Olympics.
We no longer need hashtags or reactions. We need superheroes. People that step up do the right thing and expose the systemic confidentiality surrounding sexual abuse in sports. We need to help athletes reach their dreams by only having to pay the price of hard work. We need athletes to fall in love with the sport and never out of it. We need to protect their innocence, their passion, their lives. The abuse is widespread and well known, the dreams being shattered are plenty, the lives being ruined incalculable. Education is the key to stop this abuse. It’s about time we value athletes over medals and lives over money.