"Athletes are sensitive human
beings with lives beyond sport;
they are not simply a commodity."

The Coaches' Report

Sexual Harassment: When Coaches Cross the Line

As a teacher, mentor, confidant and even a surrogate parent, coaches command a huge amount of power. But what happens when a coach takes that power too far? What if, while an athlete is trying to score in the game, her coach is trying to score with her?

By Dana Hudepohl

This article originally appeared in the August 2000 issue of Jump Magazine. Reprinted with permission.

The relationship between an athlete and a coach is a tricky one. It can be a love/hate thing, but generally, athletes will work their butts off to please their coach and trust that he or she will guide them down the path to victory. A coach drives the w orkouts, enforces curfews, determines who stars in a game (and who warms the bench) and is generally the leader and guiding force in an athlete's life.

Clearly, most coaches play a positive role, but, unfortunately, as girls' participation in sports has increased, so has the chance that they will be sexually harassed by a coach. It is estimated that anywhere from 5 to more than 20 percent of female athl etes have been sexually harassed -- which can include suggestive comments, inappropriate touching, even sexual intercourse -- by their coaches. The percentage might be even higher, since sexual harassment is a crime that often goes unreported. According to Gary Brines, executive director of the National High School Athletic Coaches Association, sexual harassment and abuse in athletics is "one of the major issues in coaching today." He also says that schools are losing coaches rather than gaining them; recruiting qualified people can be difficult because of this issue.

Once a coach crosses the line, an athlete can be filled with mixed emotions, confusion and fear. We talked to three girls who found out just how devastating it can be when a coach goes from mentor to manipulator. Although they've suffered tremendous los ses as a result of their coaches' disturbing behavior, they ultimately came forward with their stories, bravely marking a victory for female athletes everywhere.

Amanda, 19
During my freshman year of high school, a guest speaker came in to talk about sexual harassment and I thought, That will never happen to me. At first I thought my assistant softball coach, who was also a teacher at my school, was just a friendly guy. Tw ice a week, I helped out as his student aide, grading papers in his office while he taught class. Before long, he started leaving his class to hang out with me. He bought food for his office and told me it was for me and to help myself. He'd even show up at my basketball games -- some of them were as much as two hours away -- and take rolls and rolls of pictures of me on the court.

By the middle of my sophomore year, rumors were flying that the two of us had more than just a coach-athlete or teacher-student relationship, which actually surprised me. I was completely focused on sports and my grades, I'd never had a boyfriend and the idea that my coach might think of me that way was just gross. I mean, he was about 45 and had a wife and two kids, and I was only 15!

But the more I ignored the rumors, the more Coach tried to be around me. He wouldn't tape my ankles for practice unless we did it alone in his office, and he would barely leave my side at softball practice. He always asked if I wanted to get something t o eat afterward, and he hugged me a lot. He also started getting personal -- asking me questions about my parents and telling me that they needed to let me live a little.

Pretty soon, he was acting like a jealous boyfriend. If I told him I was going out with friends, he'd ask, "With whom? Where? For how long?" Once, when I sprained my knee, he volunteered to take me to physical therapy. When I asked my friend to come with us, he grabbed my arm, jerked me aside and said, "What are you doing? This is a chance for us to be alone!" He said, "Either go with me or go with her!" His behavior made me uncomfortable, but I thought I could handle it, so I didn't tell anyone.

The summer before my junior year, things became even more awkward. My coach was a good photographer, and my mom asked him to take photos of me because I wanted to pursue modeling. During the shoot, he said, "If you unzipped your shirt, you'd be a little sexier." A couple of weeks later, he called and asked if I wanted to go to the movies with him. That, on top of all those other incidents, really scared me. I told him I couldn't go to a movie with him, just as my mom walked in. She asked who I was t alking to, and I guess I felt guilty -- like it was my fault he was doing this -- so I said, "No one." But she could see I was upset and continued to probe. Finally, I broke down and told her everything -- how Coach kept trying to be alone with me, abou t the rumors at school and how uncomfortable I felt around him. It was the first time I'd told anyone how upset I was by the whole thing, and we both just sat there and cried.

Then, my mom found out about SESAME, an organization that deals with sexual harassment in schools. She called them and they told us what we could do. We got a lawyer and, following a private investigation, 30 people testified against him. I found out h e had done this to a lot of people -- he had even fondled some of my friends' breasts. Since then, he was forced to resign. Our case is before the courts right now, so we are waiting to see what will happen.

Although I think the whole experience has made me stronger emotionally, coming forward was really hard. Even though many people reported similar incidents, a lot of students who still respected Coach thought I was making everything up. There wasn't a day that I didn't come home crying. I even quit the softball team. But I knew we needed to get him out of there. I looked up to this man as an authority figure, and what he did was wrong. The experience has really opened my eyes to the fact that I c an't trust people as much as I thought I could.

Jessica, 23
When I was 17, I collided with another ice-skater and hit the ice facefirst. I shattered my jaw, broke my nose and went through a series of procedures to save my teeth. My skating fell apart, my coaches basically dropped me and I thought my athletic car eer was over. The whole thing took my confidence to an all-time low.

Then I met a new coach. When he saw me skate, he told me I was incredible. To hear those words was amazing. He bragged about his coaching credentials and said that if I trained with him for a year, I could reach my goal of making the national team. He even said he would cover all of my expenses, which was a relief, since my parents were having financial problems.

Training with Coach was like heaven at first. He constantly gave me gifts -- like tickets to ice-skating shows and backstage passes to meet the stars -- and special privileges, like allowing me to skate on ice that was usually reserved for Olympic skater s. He even told me to use his office as my locker room.

On weekends, I would stay at Coach's house so I could be closer to the rink for training. One night, he climbed into bed with me. I felt totally uncomfortable, but he played it off like it was no big deal. He said that he shared a bed with other skater s when they slept over and told me he had a different way of coaching -- I wasn't just a number, but somebody he cared about. Since he was my coach and my dad's age, I trusted him. I never dreamed he would hurt me.

Another night, Coach got in my bed again and we started talking. Somehow, the conversation led to boyfriends. I told him that I had never even kissed a boy and that I was afraid of being taken advantage of. He said, "Don't worry, I'll teach you what yo u need to know." He began touching me and having me touch him. I was in shock. But I felt like Coach was the only one in the world who believed in me, so I didn't think I had a right to be angry. Besides, I'd always been teased about being too prudish , so I believed him when he said he just wanted to show me how to handle myself with a guy.

Soon, my coach had me move in with him so my commute to the rink wouldn't be as hard, and he came into my bed more frequently. Once, when I got up to shower, he reprimanded me for locking the door. When I told him that I have never even changed in front of other girls, he told me I needed to get over those hang-ups. Sometimes, when I showered, I would turn around to find him watching me. He would walk around the house naked, and he even pushed himself up against me a few times. At the rink, he'd make me change in front of him to get over my so-called hang-ups. He said I could never tell anyone because people are sick and wouldn't understand how much he was helping me.

Coach controlled everything. Since I'd been training with him, my relationship with my parents deteriorated. He said horrible things about them and I started to believe him. I was totally isolated, and he was all I had. I felt I had to respect him, bu t I was also frustrated and confused. I cried all the time.

Then, I met my first boyfriend, who took things really slowly, and I started to realize how much Coach had manipulated me. Eventually, I moved out of his house. Fortunately, he was coaching another new recruit, so he was a lot cooler about me moving out than I thought he'd be. I started going to therapy, but I couldn't tell my therapist what he had done. I was so angry with myself. I was scared to tell my parents and my boyfriend; I thought they wouldn't want me to be a part of their lives anymor e. Finally, I told my therapist what happened, and soon after that, I told everyone. It was such a relief to not live with this secret anymore.

I contacted a lawyer and filed a complaint with the state's Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities and grievances with the Professional Figure Skating Association and the United States Figure Skating Association. I had to do something to stop Coach from hurting other skaters. I've had an overwhelming amount of support for standing up to him. Fifteen other girls have now come forward, and he resigned from his post as executive director of the skating center. I finally know that I did nothing wron g, and I hope that he never controls another skater's life the way he did mine.

Lisa, 19 *
* Name has been changed.

Before Coach came to my high school, our basketball team never had a winning season. So when she took over and we started winning, we completely loved her. I was one of the team's best players and I wanted to play college ball, so she immediately took a shine to me. We would talk on the phone for hours. She even came to my grandfather's funeral, and she would tell me she loved me a lot. But I didn't think she was saying "I'm in love with you" -- I just thought she was saying it as a friend and mentor .

Two weeks before graduation, Coach told me she had accepted an assistant coaching job at the same school where I was going on a basketball scholarship. I thought that was a little odd, but I was happy for her. At college, I had a hard time adjusting; my mom was diagnosed with cancer, my grades weren't good and preseason basketball was killing me. Coach was worried about showing favoritism, so she was much harder on me than anyone else.

Still, in private, she was very caring. One night on the phone, I told her how much I was struggling, so she invited me to her place to talk. When I showed up, there were candles lit everywhere. This was a side of her I'd never seen, and it scared me a little. As we talked, she suggested we go to her bedroom. I was pretty confused, and I guess she could tell I felt nervous, so she told me to relax. Then she put her arm around me, pulled me toward her and started kissing me. I was like, "Oh my God!" I didn't know what to do. A million things raced through my head: The way I used to defend her when my high school friends insisted she liked me, the fact that she was almost 13 years older than me, a woman and my coach! I told her I was uncom fortable with what she was doing, but beyond that, I wasn't sure how to deal with it.

I had grown to trust my coach and, honestly, I would have done anything to please her. She had my emotions in the palm of her hand. I trusted her because she had been there for me through everything -- my grandfather's death, my mom's illness. She kept getting more physical and said we had to take this to our graves, or she would get in a lot of trouble. I didn't tell anyone at first, but a few weeks later, one of my teammates approached me and said she had a weird feeling there was something going on with me and Coach. I denied it, but she persisted. I felt like God was sending someone for me to talk to, so I finally told her, and she told our athletic director.

Coach said I was lying, and soon after, I was kicked off the team. The official reason for my dismissal was that I had called an unauthorized team meeting, which wasn't true. Basically, my school covered everything up, even though it states very clearly in the school handbook: "Romantic or sexual relationships of persons of unequal status where one has positional power over another are strongly discouraged." It also states that it is difficult to prove it isn't sexual harassment if a charge is brought against a staff member involved in such a relationship. Since I wasn't being treated right, my mom called the local newspaper and told my side of the story. Some lawyers read about it and told me I definitely have a case. We're filing a lawsuit .

Sometimes, I get mad about what I went through with my coach. Why did I let her control me like that? Why did I let things go as far as they did? I wanted her approval and she took advantage of that. But, fortunately, I've been given another chance. I'm starting at a different school this fall and will be playing basketball. I'm hoping that this whole experience will soon be behind me.

Does your coach...

  • make you feel like you need him or her in order to succeed?
  • spend time with your parents to win their trust or try to be a surrogate parent?
  • act differently with you in front of others?
  • try to control you (even off the field)?
  • try to separate you from your teammates or other sources of support, like your friends or parents?
  • spend a lot more time with you than with other athletes?
  • try to be alone with you?
  • give you gifts?
  • tell you not to talk about personal encounters the two of you have had?

Experts say that if you can relate to any of the above coach-athlete scenarios, something probably isn't right and you should tell someone immediately. "A teenager can stop sexual harassment before it starts," says Todd Crosset, an assistant professo r of sports management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a leading expert on coach-athlete relationships. "Abusive coaches will test the waters, but if you put up any sort of resistance, they'll back off." Remember that you can say no to an adult, because this is one game a coach should not be playing.