#MeToo Olympics Sheds Light on Abused Athletes

Posted in #MeToo,Sexual Harassment on March 13, 2018

By John D. Winer

March 13, 2018

With the pomp and circumstance of the Winter Olympics now in the rear-view mirror, leading sports organizations are beginning to take a hard look at how systemic failures in leadership allowed the sexual abuse of young athletes to fester for decades.

One of the first signs of change came just days after closing ceremonies, when U.S. Olympic Committee Chief Executive Scott Blackmun announced his resignation. While Blackmun said in a statement that he left for “ongoing health issues,” his departure follows weeks of unrelenting criticism and several lawsuits against the organization, stemming from the sex abuse scandal involving former USA Gymnastics’ team doctor, Larry Nassar.

The gut-wrenching trial, which ended with Nassar receiving a 40 to 125 years’ sentence after admitting to sexually abusing female athletes, prompted the entire board of directors at USA Gymnastics to resign, including the president and athletic director at Michigan State University.

USA Swimming is another high-profile organization that has apparently failed to protect athletes and its leadership will likely pay the price. USA Swimming’s former executive director and top officials are under fire for turning a blind eye to decades-long sexual abuse problems involving swim coaches. An investigative report by the Southern California News Group exposed how at least 252 swim coaches or officials have been arrested, charged by prosecutors or disciplined by the organization for sexual abuse or misconduct against minors.

A class action lawsuit is pending against a USA Volleyball coach which claims the coach “used his position of power to sexually abuse no fewer than six underage teenage girls,” according to the Chicago Sun Times. The lawsuit also names the coach’s wife for concealing the abuse by pressuring and threatening victims.

It will take the power of the justice system to enact meaningful change, which involves implementing safeguards that protect children, women and young athletes from sexual predators. Laws against sexual harassment and discrimination must be extended to sporting activities based on the unique power dynamics between coaches and athletes, which can involve threats, intimidation and unwanted actions of a sexual nature.

These sporting organizations must take steps to prevent and address this crisis, which has plagued the athletic community for many years. The first step is fostering a climate of open discussion about the issue of sexual harassment and abuse, which enables athletes to come forward with complaints and feel supported when speaking out. The organization must develop and strengthen policies and procedures aimed at preventing sexual harassment. Officials must develop a complaint procedure that protects the privacy of the victim and protects the legal rights of athletes who fear retaliation.

The egregious stories of abuse against athletes that have obtained media attention are sadly just the tip of the iceberg. As the #MeToo movement picks up steam, sexually abused athletes no longer feel compelled to keep their suffering a secret. Many reasons why victims stay silent are fear of retaliation, shame, embarrassment and the fear that no one will believe them. As victims feel more empowered and emboldened to share their stories of sexual harassment and abuse, the authorities who have fostered a culture of misconduct will be forced to make changes.