Thursday, 29 March 2012 14:42

Are you a Bystander?


By now all of have heard about Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and his non- action in response to the Sandusky incident (an assistant coach caught in a sexual act with a young boy).  I would describe Paterno as playing the role of a “bystander”.    According to Merriam-Webster a bystander can be described as one present but not taking part in a situation or event ; a chance spectator. 

I got to thinking about this bystander behavior as I read about the Mission Viejo Nadadores swim club officials who were  purported to have been aware of a coach-athlete sexual relationship with a sixteen year old girl as far back as 2006, but who did nothing.  At first glance one could argue that we should address the policy issue that no coach should be in a relationship with an athlete regardless of consent or age, which we should be the case, no question there.  However , the deeper issue here is the question of knowledge of the situation and why neither club officials, coaches nor parents responded to it responsibly?

In thinking more about this,   I asked myself the question, am I bystander?  How can I be, I started an organization that is designed to address this exact behavior and protect young athletes from not being heard.  The answer is,  “Yes I am”.Sometimes there is nothing I can do and sometimes there is something I can do.

At the very least I’m a bystander to my own situation.  It took me 30 years to speak up, having been a teenage athlete raped by her coach and do something about it.  No judgment on the time it took me to be able to talk about i tbecause I know I didn’t have the tools to do anything differently than I did.  But, let’s set aside my personal experience with coach abuse.     I would be lying to you if I told you I wasn’t ever aware of any other swimmer/coach relationship during the years I was a competitor.    Why didn’t I do anything about it then?

As in my situation I don’t think that I knew that it was wrong because it was such a commonplace occurrence.  Even if I knew it was wrong, where would I have gone to say something?  What would have happened to me if I did say something?  Really, once you ask yourself those questions, you realize there are no easy or  immediate answers.  Few children would find a voice and fewer still are taught anything about improper coach-athlete relationships.

One could say, well you’re a kid and should not be held accountable to those standards. Which raises the question who should be held accountable? 

I was well aware of others that talked about the situation and debating the whether it was “happening conversations” which was common place amongst the adults on the pool deck.  Often referred to as gossip. Generally not reaching a solution of action that is beneficial for a potential victim.

Let me give you an example, my freshman year at NCAA championship meet in between prelims and finals, I left the hotel to go to the convenience store next door and when I came out a man pumping gas just drop down dead and his wife was over him with a blood curdling scream “help” that still to this day rings thru my body. I watched as people kept on pumping gas, continued to walk into the store and just went about their business as this women very clearly needed aid.  I stood there and observed how hopeless I was (barely eighteen) forced to make a challenging decision in the moment.  It wasn’t until moments later when another car pulled in that someone responded by calling for an ambulance (on the pay phone).  I was a bystander to a horrible situation. At the end of the day there was a clear protocol what to do and eventually someone responded accordingly.

However when you having a discussion about an underage child having sex with an adult, and the conversation is entirely speculative and not grounded in observable fact, there is no excuse or justification to even having the conversation.  Another way to describe this speculative gossip might be bystander behavior. The effects of entertaining the possibility of sexual abuse without feeling obligated to take action to make sure this is not true,  is just as damaging if not more so, then the abuse its self.  We are in a position to act, to question, to investigate and to insist on making sure the suggested awful fact isn’t true, and we fail to take action.

If one is going to make an excuse for being a bystander it’s because there isn’t a clear path or protocol unlike my first example where we had a system in place and people knew how to respond to such situations, but assumed that somebody else would.  There was also a “blood curdling” cry that had the possibility of someone hearing .  The problem with sexual abuse it is silent and only heard by the person that it is happening to. Which means that we (everyone) needs to be more diligent in acting in a responsible way.

Or is it a deeper question of having to put oneself in an uncomfortable situation when it is so much easier to just talk about it and not take any action? 

In my experience the easy way out has never been successful, I have tried it many times to no avail.

When one is challenged with making a decision that has some barring on ones life and changing the cocoon that we are currently in, good or bad, it takes a strong willed person to fight for what is right even it means to look at ones own misconduct. 

Really isn’t that what this about, both not wanting to examine your own  character defects and not wanting to challenge the wrong actions of someone else.    In the meantime,   a child will endure a harm that will last a lifetime. 

At the end of the day, we are all accountable to our own actions and when situations like these arise , we can be challenged to face adversity and be brave or we can run the other way and pretend that it never happened and continue to allow the cycle of abuse to prevail.

SafeAthletes has developed policies and procedures to take the questions out about how to respond to such a situation if it where to arise.  A designated person is assigned to play the role of the athlete welfare advocate so the athlete will have the much needed voice to address the issue in a respectful and deliberate way when he or she cannot manage to generate their own voice against older and more powerful adults.

I challenge you all, if you are confronted with such a situation that you embrace the challenge and know that you have the opportunity to change ones life path for good. 

There is nothing worse then an abused child with no voice then an adult with a voice that doesn’t use it. 


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