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Young Skaters at Risk: Understanding Sexual Misconduct in Sports

The Silent Minority

"I didn't tell him no...I cared about him and everything. I was scared to tell him because I was young...I really looked up to him as a coach."

--A 17-year-old victim of sexual misconduct by a figure skating coach (1)

One of the greatest barriers to understanding sexual misconduct in sports comes down to a deceptively simple question: If an athlete isn't comfortable with a coach's advances -- especially if he or she is no longer a child -- why doesn't he or she just say no?

Most children and teens who find themselves in uncomfortable situations with their peers find it tough to deal with peer pressure -- the expectations and demands of people their own age. But when an athlete finds himself or herself being pressured into something uncomfortable by a coach -- someone older, and in a position of authority over them and their dreams -- it can be even harder, perhaps even almost impossible, to "just say no."

Sexual abuse is a crime of opportunity. Athletes are particularly vulnerable targets for unwanted advances because coaches always have the opportunity to touch them -- to check for injuries and to demonstrate technique. Figure skating is one of a number of sports, such as tennis or gymnastics, where one-on-one touching can be commonplace and can be a normal sight at any public skating session. But an unethical coach may cross the line into improper touching -- and because athletes are accustomed to letting a coach touch them in the course of a lesson, they may find it difficult to "put on the brakes" and ask it to stop when a coach does it in a less public place.

An athlete is also accustomed to accepting a coach's comments on his or her body. Again, this is particularly true of figure skating, where physical appearance is regarded as being very important. If such comments become sexually suggestive, a skater may not feel able to tell a coach that they are uncomfortable with such talk. Unfortunately, an athlete's silence in the face of inappropriate touching or suggestive remarks usually signals to a predatory coach that he or she can make other sexual advances on the athlete and not have to worry about being confronted.

In some cases, the influence that a coach can wield over a student in order to ensure their continued silence begins when the student is a child. A Florida coach who sexually exploited a 14-year-old teenage skater gained the trust of her parents by allowing her to stay with him and his family during the week. He had coached the girl since she was nine years old. By the time she was a teenager, he had developed a psychological hold on her that she admitted was very difficult to break. "He was probably my biggest role model," she said. "He instructed me on what I ate, what to wear, who to hang out with. He told me exactly what I should tell my parents." (1) Some feel that an influence by a coach beginning at such a young age can make subsequent sexual abuse into the psychological equivalent of incest -- with many of its attendant fears, confusions, conflicting loyalties, and unwillingness to say anything to get the coach in trouble.

And in all walks of life, sexual abuse victims are reluctant to come forward simply because of the embarrassment and humiliation of having to go through publicity surrounding any allegations. A figure skater, in addition, may have further fears that his or her competitive career will be ruined if any allegations are made. A young skater whose parents have put much time and effort into his or her career may fear that such support will end abruptly if they find out about the abuse. In a sport where image and reputation are highly important, an alleged sexual abuse victim may not be able to count on much support in a skating community where many people may be acquainted with both the accused and accuser.

Even if confronted about possible abuse, a victim may feel it is necessary to deny that anything is wrong. When abuse or exploitation victims finally do come forward, it is usually after years have passed since the abuse occurred. This can make prosecution of criminal molestation offenses difficult, especially when statutes of limitations have expired, and witnesses can no longer be found to testify. But psychologically, victims of sexual offenses may need a long time to overcome internal barriers such as fear of their abuser, fear of reactions by family or friends, or denial of painful memories. "People come forward later because they usually wait until they're in a circumstance where they feel comfortable, where they've got their life under control, where they're not controlled by other adults," says Dr. Thomas Roesler of the Brown University School of Medicine. (2)

For some athletes, this time may not come until they are past what is considered to be the legal age of consent. This can be the case especially if their career decisions continue to be heavily influenced by coaches, agents or sporting officials. Sheldon Kennedy, who endured regular sexual abuse beginning at the age of 14, did not feel able to break free from his respected coach's controlling influence until he was 19 years old -- past the legal age of consent -- and had left the world of Canadian junior hockey for the NHL. Even for a young adult athlete who is under the influence of an opportunistic coach, time can stand still.

"You can't see clearly [about what's happening]. The window's all cloudy, the defogger's not working," recalled one figure skater who was molested by her female coach starting at age 13. "You want the Olympics so bad, you let someone control your life." (3) Until abused athletes feels safely back in control of their lives, enough to gain this new perspective, their silence may continue.

Next: The Silent Majority

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(1) "Skating coach guilty in sex abuse," Cox News Service, November 14, 1996

(2) "Reporting sex abuse years later is normal, experts say," Detroit News, 10/20/96

(3) "Skaters share nightmare of coaches in control," Palm Beach Post, 6/21/98