A Culture of Silence
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.”