coach and athlete

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.

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.

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