Women’s Wednesday: A Culture of Silence

A Culture of Silence

By Lisa Ingarfield

Two weeks ago, the Southern California News Group and OC Register broke the story of rampant sexual abuse in USA Swimming (USAS). The sexual abuse, largely perpetrated by coaches, was overlooked and/or covered up time and again by USAS and occurred over decades. Over this time period, there are over 590 alleged victims. Many coaches were held accountable through the criminal justice system, but were not banned from coaching by the USAS, or USAS was aware of the behavior (and didn’t do anything) decades before any criminal investigation was initiated. This, of course, comes on the heels of former USA Gymnastic (USAG) coach Larry Nassar finally being held accountable for the sexual abuse of over 200 young girls while serving as USAG’s medical doctor. In both cases, athletes came forward to their national governing body (NGB), law enforcement was involved at different points, and still victims weren’t believed and coaches weren’t held accountable.

And then today, this headline pops up in my news feed: Top Volleyball Coach Raped Girls Hundreds Of Times, Lawsuit Alleges.

       

       

We just finished the Winter Olympics, and many of you may have rejoiced in Shaun White’s gold medal. But did you know he was accused of sexual harassment by a former member of his band? He allegedly sent her explicit images of himself, asked her to wear sexually provocative clothing, and forced her to watch sexually disturbing videos, among other problematic and hostile behaviors. After his win, when asked about the allegations by the press, he referred to them as “gossip.”

While he later apologized for this comment, it is another example of how violence against women in sport is routinely minimized, erased, and covered up. White settled the lawsuit against him in 2017. His behavior apparently wasn’t severe (relevant?) enough for the USA Olympic Committee (USOC) to ban White from PyeongChang. When money and medals are at stake, pushing the sexual harassment of girls and women off to the sidelines is acceptable, right? After several months of pressure from senators and former Olympians, Scott Blackmun, the head of the USOC, just stepped down. Under his leadership, the USOC failed to intervene in numerous cases of sexual abuse that came to its attention.

Brett Sutton, a well known triathlon coach was also convicted of sexually assaulting a minor, a minor he coached. He was given a two year suspended sentence and was suspended from Triathlon Australia and ITU and is barred from coaching in Australia. Yet, he is still a successful coach, and his criminal act — because, yes, it was criminal — is hotly debated in triathlon circles, although generally receives very little attention overall.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar, former Olympic swimmer, runs Champion Women, an organization dedicated to supporting women and girls in sport. She is also a civil rights attorney and regularly represents college athletes with Title IX claims against their schools. She was integral in pushing for the resignation of USOC chief executive Blackmun. She shares: “The [fight against the] issue of sexual abuse in club and Olympic sports has been going on for about twenty years.” In 2014, she represented 19 victims of sexual abuse in the sport of swimming, and nothing really changed in US Swimming. In fact, USAS chief executive Chuck Wielgus was shortly thereafter honored by the USOC. But now, something is different, Hogshead-Makar laments. The #MeToo campaign and the women who came forward in the Nassar case “showed the depth of the emotional harm that occurs as a result of sexual abuse,” says Hogshead-Makar. This helped people understand, rather than dismiss, women’s repeated complaints of sexual abuse.

Last month, the U.S. Congress voted to pass the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act. This act, championed by Hogshead-Makar and many others, was signed into law on February 14th. The law does a few things including making NGBs, including the USOC, mandatory reporters of child and sexual abuse. They must report to law enforcement within 24 hours complaints alleging abuse. Prior to the law, NGBs and in the case of USAG, Michigan State University, argued they did not have a duty to protect if made aware of Nassar’s sexual abuse. And this is largely true. Olympic or professional athletes are not employees or students, and so Title XII and Title IX of the federal Civil Rights Act do not apply to them. With the passage of the recent Safe Sport law, this will no longer be a legitimate legal argument. The law also extends the statute of limitations to 10 years from the point a person realizes they were sexually abused, and entitles victims to statutory and punitive damages. The U.S. Center for Safe Sport, based here in Denver, is also designated as the investigatory body for all sexual abuse complaints reported. If you are a USA Triathlon coach, you will have taken its sexual abuse module as part of your certification requirements.

The prevailing thread through the examples in this article, as well as many others, is the culture of silence surrounding the behavior of coaches and high profile athletes. There has been barely a peep about White’s sexual harassment case during NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, and we know for decades leaders at Michigan State University, USAG, and the USOC did nothing about Nassar’s repeated sexual assaults on the gymnasts he was supposed to be caring for. USAS seems to be the same way. We will have to wait to see what happens with the Chicago area volleyball coach accused of sexually assaulting a number of his athletes. As a culture, we are routinely willing to look the other way and make excuses for perpetrators (who are almost always men). We need to ask ourselves why one girl’s or woman’s complaint is not enough to take seriously. Why does a coach’s word hold more sway? Why does it need to tip past 100 complaints for any substantive public action to be taken? How does power, money, and winning play into all of this? The decisions made time and again would lead many of us to believe a girl’s life is of less value than a coach’s reputation and winning gold.

Leaders in USAG and USAS covered up, failed to report, settled cases, and in some cases paid damages, while trying to desperately to keep the information out of the news. This takes effort. These are not isolated incidents of one bad apple. They are representative of a long term pattern of behavior that continually excuses incidences of sexual abuse. There has to be a network of people ensuring perpetrator behavior continues unchecked or to blame the victim and explain it away when a report does make the light of day. This is the problem and it is widespread. Silence is complicity. We must demand more from our NGBs, from the USOC, and from our fellow coaches. We must believe victims, and we must ensure the scores of coaches entering triathlon (or any sport) understand abuse of any kind will not be tolerated in the sport, will not be ignored, covered up, or hidden. There will be consequences. Each of us has an individual and collective responsibility to make sure this happens.

Hogshead-Makar urges: “When a victim and/or witnesses to sexual abuse is ready, please have them file a complaint with the U.S. Center for SafeSport. [They can also] call directly at: 720-531-0340.”

Women’s Wednesday: #MeToo – and Triathlon

By Lisa Ingarfield

I am sure many of you have become aware of the resurgence of the hashtag #MeToo trending on social media in the wake of the numerous sexual harassment and assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein. My feed was full of #MeToo hashtags–hundreds of people sharing, maybe for the first time, that they too have been a victim of sexual assault and harassment. And then there are all those individuals who don’t feel safe coming forward, or perhaps are not ready to share their victimization with the world. The number of hashtags in your social media feeds is just a small percentage of the number of those affected by sexual harassment and assault. Just this Sunday night, Anthony Rapp came forward to BuzzFeed about a sexual assault he experienced when 14 perpetrated by a 24 year old Kevin Spacey. Given the ubiquity of sexual assault accusations emerging in Hollywood of late, it is easy to think this is a behavior isolated to the rich and famous. But it isn’t. It is pervasive across all facets of our society.

So what does this have to do with triathlon? Well, actually, a lot. Why? Because sexual abuse is particularly pervasive in sport. Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a retired Olympic swimmer and advocate for women and girls in sport, wrote for ESPN that the #MeToo campaign “has once again brought to light the constant objectification of women in sports. Coaches and reporters tweeted about being groped or flashed, and athletes tweeted repeatedly about the entitlement of their male peer athletes and, in particular, about powerful, sexually demanding coaches.” This reality is just as true in triathlon as it is in gymnastics, swimming, running, sailing, or cycling.

We know women triathletes still receive smaller prize purses than men in many races, we also know women triathletes don’t receive the same coverage as their male counterparts. And while it is easy to dismiss these two examples as not relevant to sexual abuse, it is important to understand these behaviors exist on a continuum and in a system that values men, and men in sport, over women. Women athletes are often objectified by commentators and the media–their weight or attractiveness discussed and dissected while their athletic accomplishments are left to the side. Lizzie Armistead, a British cyclist, and former world race champion, spoke about the harassment she experienced as a cyclist in her book. Guardian columnist Barbara Allen describes one experience when Armistead was 19 years old. The night before her world champion win, she was requested to play Nintendo Wii in front of her male teammates while they watched. She was “subtly toyed with, [and] slyly objectified, simply because she’s female.” Sarah True, Olympic triathlete, has also spoken of her experiences with sexism in triathlon. Once married, she became the the wife of an accomplished triathlete, versus a two-time Olympic qualifying triathlete herself.

It is easy to condemn sexual abuse, but it is not so easy to condemn the attitudes and behaviors that support its existence, like those described above. Wherever a behavior falls on the continuum of sexism, each behavior connects to support a cultural system where sexual abuse is tacitly permitted and excused.

Alarmingly, according to Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who is also an attorney, there are limited, if any, legal consequences for club coaches who perpetrate sexual abuse: “Few legal protections [apply] to the U.S. Olympic Committee and its National Governing Bodies (NGBs). Because athletes in club or Olympic sports aren’t competing for a school, Title IX’s student protections aren’t available; athletes are also not employees, meaning Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, [doesn’t] apply either.” If you were surprised by how many of your friends, triathletes or otherwise, hashtagged #MeToo, it is important to remember, whether or not we hear about sexual abuse in sport, it is happening. Based on the sheer magnitude of #MeToo hashtags, we would be naive to dismiss them as isolated incidents–each individual hashtag combines to paint a larger picture of the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment. It’s an epidemic and we must do better.

So what can our community do about it? Most importantly, we can believe and support our friends who come forward and share experiences with us. Whatever level of triathlon you participate in–a local club or the national team–we can all do a better job of creating a climate where sexual objectification is unacceptable. We can demand equitable treatment and equal coverage for women triathletes. We can vet coaches and call out problematic and sexist behavior when we see it–even when it’s uncomfortable for us. And in doing these things, we can work to create safe, non-objectifying spaces for girls and women triathletes. Women and girls have the right to participate in triathlon and any sport without fear a coach or fellow athlete will sexually objectify, harass, or assault them.


If you have experienced sexual assault and want to talk confidentially with someone about it, there are resources in Denver to assist you. Call The Blue Bench, a 24 hour hotline: 303-322-7273. You can also visit the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault for a comprehensive list of statewide resources.