Sport is supposed to provide a safe, healthy environment in which children can have fun while also developing life skills that will help them become successful young adults. And for the most part, this is the environment that most children find themselves in while participating in sport. Unfortunately, this is not the case for all children who play sports. Child sex abuse in the sporting world has recently received far more media coverage. In addition, many older cases have also been brought into the light, proving that this is a problem that has been around for a very long time.
This was a topic that I did not know much about at the beginning of the semester, yet through our coursework and my own personal research, my eyes have now been opened to this dark cloud that hovers over the world of children’s athletics. Each child sex abuse scandal in sport is just as disgusting as the last, and many of them share very similar details. With the unearthing of all the cases of sexual abuse, the question had to be asked, “Where is the accountability from those in positions of power?”. This theme of the absence of responsibility from the individuals who were put in power to protect the children who decide to play sports can be seen as the biggest problem when it comes to trying to eliminate sex abuse in sports.
Through the use of social media and the advancement of technology, it is becoming far more difficult for people to continue to get away with sexually abusing these children, yet there are still many cases occurring in the United States every year. Many of the victims do not end up telling the story of their abuse until much later because they feel as though they will not be helped or that they will be in danger if they do. Both of those reasons should not be acceptable in our society. I believe that the structure and placement of power in children’s athletics has led to the diminishing of the integrity of contemporary sport and that the child athletes deserve to be far better protected from this disgusting behavior moving forward.
Defining Sexual Abuse in Sport
The issue of sexual harassment and abuse in sport as it relates to children is not something that is new. However, before we explore certain cases of child sexual abuse in sport, I believe that it’s first important to have a good idea of what exactly sex abuse in sport is and just how many people in the United States and throughout the world are affected by it. The Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic committee defines sexual harassment and abuse in sport as, “the act of tricking or coercing a person into a sexual act the person does not want, or is not sufficiently mature to consent to”. This provides a very clear and concise definition as to what exactly sexual abuse is. A very important part of that passage is the section about tricking someone or coercing a person into a sexual act.
When we take a closer look at some of the child sex abuse scandals that have affected major athletic programs in the United Sates, there will be multiple examples of people in positions of power coercing children into non-consensual sexual acts. The British Journal of Sports Media said it best when they said that, “The underlying aspect of sexual harassment is that it is based upon an abuse of power and trust and that is considered by the victim or a bystander to be unwanted or coerced”. Something that I thought was eye opening from this passage was the quote, “abuse of power”. It caught my eye because most of the child sex abuse cases in sport involve the lack of accountability on the part of an individual or individuals that are in charge of major sports programs and organizations such as the Penn State football program or the USA gymnastics team.
Statistics About Child Sex Abuse in Sport
Child sex abuse stories have recently begun to receive far more attention in the news and on social media, especially in the world of sports. However, it was not clear to me just how prevalent this issue is and has been in the world of sport for a long period of history. According to the Quebec Media Kit on sexual assault, “between 2% and 8% of minor-age athletes are victims of sexual abuse within the context of sport”. These were numbers that I found very astonishing, especially when you put them into perspective with the number of kids that play sports in the United States. According the website ActiveKids, there are currently 45 million children playing organized sports in the United States. 2% of 45 million comes out to be 900,000 and 8% of 45 million comes out to be 3.6 million children that have experienced sexual abuse in sports.
Both of those numbers are astronomically higher than any of the numbers that I would have guessed before doing research on this topic, which shows just how prevalent this problem is. The Quebec Media Kit on sexual assault also reported that out of 159 cases of sexual abuse in sport, 98% of the time the perpetrators were coaches, teachers, or instructors. This statistic shows just how much power these people in power have over the children who play for them. I know that from my personal experience in youth sports, I looked up to all of my coaches and listened to almost everything that they said. It is scary to think that there are children out there in the same situation that I was who are being taking advantage of by the same types of coaches, who chose to use their positions of power to conduct disgusting acts of abuse on their players.
Larry Nassar Case
One of the most infamous cases of child sex abuse in sport is the case involving Larry Nassar, the USA gymnastics program and the Michigan State University athletic department. As I touched on earlier, this case falls under the category of one where the sexual abuse had been taking place for a very long period of time, yet it was not until recently that most of the accusations and legal proceedings took place. Larry Nassar was a member of the medical staff of USA gymnastics and Michigan State athletics for many years, where he repeatedly sexually abused young female athletes. He got his start in the industry in 1986 as an athletic trainer with USA gymnastics. IT was six years after this, a medical student at Michigan State, that he assaulted his first victim, a 12 year old girl (5). Nassar’s victim would later testify that he assaulted her under the guise of, “medical research”. At this point in his life, Nassar was a relatively young man, but his actions show that he understood how much power he had in his position of helping young girls.
In 1996, Nassar was named the national medical coordinator for USA Gymnastics before the beginning of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and the following year, he was named the gymnastics head physician and an assistant professor at Michigan State University. In hindsight, these were two promotions that should have never been made. By being promoted to these positions of power, Nassar was constantly surrounding himself with young, vulnerable, girls, who wanted nothing more than to be the best gymnasts possible. Famed US, gymnast Mckayla Maroney described the affect Nassar had on her when she said, “As it turns out, much to my demise, Dr. Nassar was not a doctor, he in fact is, was, and forever shall be, a child molester, and a monster of a human being. End of story! He abused my trust, he abused my body, and he left scars on my psyche that may never go away”. Maroney’s realization of Nassar’s true character speaks to the true horrors that child molesters cause their victims. The actions of the abuser not only haunt their victims during the attack, but for years to come after.
Larry Nassar continued to sexually abuse children for years under his new positions, and although most of his victims remained silent, there were some who spoke out against his actions while they were taking place. Despite their complaints, Nassar was able to use his high standing positions to retain his innocence so that he could continue his malpractice. In 2017, Nassar was visited by a 17 year old girl seeking treatment for her scoliosis. He proceeded to sexually abuse her during the visit which lead to the girl and her mother reporting the incident to the local police department. Nassar then defended his actions with a PowerPoint presentation and no charges were made (5). Additionally, in 1998, Nassar abused, “the 6-yeear-old daughter of a friend” yet convinced her parents to disregard their child’s complaints. The measures that Mr. Nassar took to get away with his crimes are disgusting and show how well trusted he was by his friends and the members of his community.
Despite how horrible Nassar’s actions were, he is not the only one who is responsible for the cover up of their abuse. Larry Nassar was employed by two major athletic organizations, both of which received multiple complaints that he was sexually abusing his patients, yet nothing was done about it until 2015. This leads back to my original question of, “where is the accountability?”. Let us first look at the lack of accountability shown by the USA gymnastics department. In 2015, gymnast Maggie Nichols was overheard by one of her coaches talking about Nassar’s abuse. When her coach told USA gymnastics, they refused to tell law enforcement and instead opted to hire someone to investigate. USAG concluded that it did not have, “a reasonable suspicion” that Nassar was committing any crimes and thus they did not tell law enforcement about the problem. It wasn’t until an interview with Mckayla Maroney that they finally decided to inform law enforcement about their fears of abuse happening in their program.