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The Truth About Coach-Athlete Relationships

Since the Sandusky case we have jumped on the bandwagon in sports and addressed child sexual abuse in sports. We show videos of adolescent aged girls and boys being targeted and abused. Without a doubt, we react emotionally and with revulsion to something so horrific as the taking the innocence of a young child.

Yet, that isn’t the whole truth when discussing coach-athlete sexual abuse. If you look at the list of banned swim coaches on the USA Swimming website, there isn’t one coached banned for a sexual abuse who was accused of having a relationship with a swimmer under the age of 13.

We wouldn’t know that based on the education videos that we are forced to watch in order to be certified in some capacity in sports. These videos only depict young children being cultivated by acquaintance pedophiles.

Why aren’t we seeing videos of an 17-yr-old voicing how a close relationship with his or her coach went from athlete affection as a reward for their hard work on the practice field to molestation or, from the psyche and perspective of the artfully manipulated athlete, “a loving relationship.” This scenario just doesn’t pull at our heartstrings in the same way. Why aren’t we seeing a video of a 25-year-old, who we assume is a consenting adult, talking about such a relationship? We react with even less sympathy in this case, if any at all.

If we truly want to address sexual abuse and harassment in sports we need to call it what it is, an abuse of power between the coach and the athlete that occurs at all ages. We are misled if educational materials imply something else.

If we look at the minimum age requirements to compete in the Olympics by sport, one would find that age requirements correlate to the vulnerability of athlete sexual abuse. The lower end sports that begin to peak around 13/14 like gymnastics, swimming and taekwondo is also the age where the “coach-athlete relationship” begins and coaches start to get banned for their inappropriate relationships with their athletes.

When you look some of the old minimum-age sports like Team Handball, Cycling and Weightlifting that have age requirements of 17-or 18-years-old, we hear less about these cases, as it is presumed that there was consent with the coach at that point.

If you look at the website of listed organizations with a list of banned coaches, they are the ones with the younger age limits to compete at the international level.

What does this tell us? Answer: We are continuing to fail to understand the dynamic between the coach and the athlete as being one that is characterized first and foremost as an “abuse of power” regardless of the age of athlete.

Current and new laws only address this issue up to the age of 18, which tells me we are responding to that picture of the 8-year-old victim and not the 24-year-old athlete that we all presumed consented to their inappropriate relationship with their coach.

If we took the approach of addressing this issue across the age spectrum, we have a better chance of truly hearing and understand what the real problem is with regard to coach-athlete relationships. For too long, sport organizations have refused to deal with this issue. Now that litigation and bad press are forcing sport leaders to adopt policies and education programs, rather than confronting the issue in its entirety and identifying its “abuse of power” source, our heads are still “in the sand”. This issue is less about the child abuser still on the loose in our larger society. This issue is about a more artful sport-specific or education-specific version of abuse in which a position of power is key to taking advantage of less powerful and emotionally less mature athletes to advance a coach’s sexual appetite. In many ways, this form of abuse is more insidious because of the violation of trust in a revered position - be it coach, teacher or priest.

Not only do we all need to get our heads “out of the sand” but we must design educational materials and create new laws to truthfully express the nature of the problem.


Breaking Down Sexual Abuse in Sport

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.

1. Kirby, S.L., Greaves, L. and Hankivsky, O (2000) The Dome of Silence: Sexual Harassment and Abuse in Sport, Fernwood, Halifax.