Youth sports can provide many positive, lifelong lessons for participants — from sportsmanship, building character, learning how to work as a team, and self-discipline.
Sports need to be a safe place for our kids to learn these lessons.
Unfortunately, sports also can be a danger zone as has been noted recently. Examples of sexual abuse and harassment in women’s gymnastics and, most recently, Ohio State’s wrestling program are just a few instances where sports are not a safe zone.
According to Childhelp, coaches are second to teachers in their frequency of sexual misconduct. Coaches who “perpetrate are often highly qualified and well respected in their sport, allowing them to offend under the radar.
“There has been no correlation made between manual handling (such as gymnastic spotting or physical redirection) and increased likelihood of sexual abuse.” And, this is a surprise to me, “athletes are responsible for more sexual harassment of their peers than coaches.”
Globalsportsdevelopment.org notes “while studies yield different findings, reports indicate that anywhere from 2-20 percent of young athletes experience sexual harassment or abuse.
“The Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission worked with Michigan State University to determine that 35 million kids in the United States participate in sports each year ... that potentially means that 700,000 kids are experiencing sexual victimization in sport ... That’s just the low end of the range. If 20 percent of young athletes experience sexual harassment or abuse, the number jumps to 7 million.”
We no longer live in an age where we can trust our kids’ coaches, particularly as a child progresses from recreation programs to elite programs. Globalsports also cited Celia Brackenridge, who has researched and published on the topic of sexual abuse and harassment in sport. In one of her articles, “Dangerous sports ... Risk, responsibility and sex offending in sport,” she lists “normative” and “constitutive” risk factors for young athletes being abused.
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According to Brackenridge, normative risk factors have to do with the culture of the sport community, including:
l An autocratic authority system.
l Close personal contact with athletes.
l A clear power imbalance between athletes and coaches.
l A scope for development and maintenance of secrecy.
l It provokes intense peer group competition and jealousy.
l Supports collective silence on matters of sexuality.
Constitutive risks are more related to the structure of the sport organization and can include:
l A hierarchical status system.
l Performance-based rewards.
l It links rewards to compliance with the authority system.
l Has rules and procedures which omit or exclude consultation.
l Lacks formal procedures for screening, hiring and monitoring staff.
l Makes technical and task demands which require legitimate touch.
l Has locations that may be more high risk for sexual molestation, including national and international competition, massages by staff, being alone in the car with a coach, or visiting the coach at home.
Though the effects of sexual abuse can be obvious, it doesn’t hurt to state these effects can continue into adulthood:
l Poor self-esteem
l Substance abuse
l Suicide attempts
l Self-destructive behavior
l Dissociative disorder
l Severe post-traumatic stress
Globalsports suggests people working for a sports club, federation or organization should read the research article, “Sexual Abuse in Sport: A Model to Prevent and Protect Athletes,” written by Sylvie Parent and Guylanie Demers. Their study was conducted in Quebec. They found there were many negative attitudes surrounding prevention methods and that the absence of a prevention program missed many measures which could keep young athletes safe from sexual harm, including:
l None of the organizations conducted criminal background checks on volunteers and only one organization did checks for staff.
l Parents had not received training on sexual abuse or any awareness-raising documents or materials. Administrators also were untrained.
l Organizations had not created formal definitions or boundaries. There were no instructions or written rules related to shower or changing rooms, road trips, or hotel rooms. Codes of Conduct were rare and if in existence, did not require a coach’s signature. No disciplinary action was attached to breaking the Code agreement.
l Administrators felt policies were complex and not applicable in practice, nor did administrators feel equipped to manage or implement the policies. Athletes, parents and coaches did not know what procedures to follow or what resources were available in the event of an incident,
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Childhelp has created “Blow the Whistle on Child Abuse,” a tool kit that can be used for training adults and youth on what sexual abuse is, the signs of abuse and ways to prevent abuse from occurring. Check it out.
l Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Outlier Creative Communications. Let her know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org