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Young Skaters at Risk

Understanding Sexual Misconduct in Sports

Sexual misconduct is a legitimate concern for athletes, parents, fans, and responsible coaches and officials in any sport. British researcher Celia Brackenridge, co-author of a study recently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, calls sport "the last bastion of child abuse," estimating that as many as one in five young athletes may have experienced sexual victimization by adults overseeing their careers. This is an ongoing series of articles examining sexual misconduct in sports settings, with a particular emphasis on some of the unique aspects of figure skating which can leave young skaters at risk.

Who's In Control?

"Sex offender, sex scandal, sex abuse, a dozen references to sex and not one mention of power. What will it take for the media to get it through their thick skulls that these crimes are not sex, they're an abuse of power - the abuse of power in relationships and between groups in society in general. As long as the media and thus the public believe it is about sex, nothing will ever change. The criminals will continue to abuse and the victims will continue to suffer in silence. Because you keep telling people it's about sex, those abused feel ashamed, that this is somehow their fault... If they understood it was about the adult abusing the power that they have over them they'd know it wasn't their fault and there's no reason to be ashamed to tell someone, right away. But that isn't what you are telling them... According to you it's about something so emotionally charged...that they are unlikely to ever tell anyone no matter how much they are suffering."

--A viewer responds to CKND-TV's coverage of the Graham James abuse case

At first glance, the phrase "sexual misconduct" doesn't seem to embody a very scary concept. In fact, however, it embodies a wide variety of concepts that, to most people, range from the merely uncomfortable to the truly threatening.

Most people can quickly understand the threat of "child sexual abuse" or "statutory rape." But many cannot see past the word "sex" when it comes to concepts such as "sexual harassment," "sexual exploitation," and "non-consensual sex." When the object of sexual misconduct is a young child, observers are more willing to think of what's happened to them as abusive, involving power and control over a helpless victim. But when the victim of sexual misconduct is an adolescent or young adult, the abusive or controlling nature of sexual misconduct in sports becomes harder to keep in mind.

Aside from a victim's age, one of the reasons why sexual misconduct in sports is not seen as particularly threatening or wrong is because of our assumptions about athletes. An athlete is someone who has devoted their time to mastering skills, mastering their nerves, mastering their bodies. We associate athletes with competence, confidence and self-control. If they are successful athletes, they win championships and have opportunities to earn huge sums of money. They are often regarded as celebrities or cultural icons. Because of their outward success, we tend to assume that they have control of their personal lives as well, and could never be victimized by anyone, and that they feel free to determine the courses of their careers, finances and daily routine. We assume that they have total power over their own relationships.

Our assumptions about athletes' lives tend to dissolve when a top athlete comes out to reveal that they are having substance abuse problems, or when they are arrested for a crime. It is then that the public is reminded of the unique pressures of the elite athlete's lifestyle, and that they do not always feel in control of their own lives. The expectations and pressures of coaches, parents, sporting officials, agents and fans are brought to light, and we are reminded that in the course of trying to achieve their own dreams, athletes feel that they carry the high expectations of others, that they can be imposed upon emotionally, financially, or -- in the case of sexual abuse and exploitation -- physically and psychologically.

In figure skating in particular, athletes understand that they are trying to achieve their dreams in an environment where they only have relatively limited control over the ultimate outcome of their efforts. A skater can train hard for the World Championships, but even if they give a stellar performance, how their season ends up depends totally on the subjective opinion of nine judges. This is a reality about the sport that every successful skater understands from the moment they begin to compete, usually as a young child. A young person growing up in the competitive skating world, no matter what their physical talent, does not get far if he or she questions the decisions of the adults around them. A successful skater trusts the decisions and guidance of his or her coach, and trusts the knowledge and fairness of those who are judging his or her performances.

While this need for trust can teach a young skater valuable life skills such as patience and equanimity, it also leaves them particularly at risk -- perhaps to an even greater degree than athletes in other sports -- for having that trust imposed upon and abused by powerful adults who do not have their best interests at heart.

The potential for such abuse seems especially heightened in a sport where participants are conditioned not to question judges, officials or coaches. Parents of skaters, too, often are expected not to question the power that other adults have over their children and their child's environment. Those who do often fear being branded "skate parents from hell" by coaches sensitive to their training methods being second-guessed (one of the frustrations of working in youth sports). One young skater's mother reported that her child's coach harshly reprimanded her when she attempted to share with other parents information about coaching and equipment that she had downloaded from the Internet. She was reportedly told, "If we want moms to know anything, we will tell them. You do not need to know anything, unless we choose to tell you. That is the way the rules are." (1) Although coaches can have legitimate concerns about making sure that their students receive correct information, parents can be made to feel that their legitimate interest in their child's training is being seen as a threat to the power establishment at a rink. This can help contribute to an atmosphere of silence where abusive coaches can flourish.

The vast majority of skating coaches and officials are ethical, responsible professionals who do not seek excessive control over skaters or their parents, and certainly would never cross over the line into sexual abuse or misconduct with an athlete. However, for those unfortunate skaters and parents who find themselves associated with an unethical or abusive coach, realizing the dangers of such an association -- or even realizing that a coach may be taking advantage of them -- can be very difficult. When those new to the sport are continually being given messages that they are not to question those in authority -- at risk of damaging their own or their child's careers -- it gives an unethical coaches great opportunity to prey on their athletes.

Sexual misconduct between a coach and an athlete, in any sport, is an abuse of power and an abuse of trust. It is not about sex; it is primarily about power and control. Until sexual misconduct by coaches and officials is viewed properly as an abuse of power, and not whispered about as a subject fit for idle gossip or treated as something which shames the victim as well as the perpetrator, such abuses against young athletes will continue to be hidden, misunderstood or ignored.

Next: Growing Up Exploited

(1) Quoted on rec.sport.skating.ice.recreational (7hi42r$q43$1@nnrp1.deja.com)