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Young Skaters at Risk: Understanding Sexual Misconduct in Sports

The Silent Majority

"We'll ALL become suspect if this gets out," one said.

"I'm sorry," I told him. "You already are in the eyes of many. It's time to grieve. It's time to be outraged at what your colleagues have done to the reputation of your own profession."

--Dee Miller, www.takecourage.org

A healthy relationship between an athlete and their coach is very often close and intense, and may exclude the influences of a parent to a certain degree. Yet, even in the relatively isolated life of a competitive figure skater, the athlete and their coach are never totally alone. The athlete becomes acquainted with other skaters at the rink, with competitors or training partners. Team leaders provide support and sympathy for skaters at pressure-filled competitions. Judges and officials know coaches and skaters personally and professionally. The typical skating coach does not conduct his or her business in a vacuum either, sharing facilities with colleagues who face the same pressures and dealings with rink management.

When they do occur, sexual relationships between coaches and athletes are very often not a total secret in any sports community, and the responses of those on the periphery of such a relationship can vary widely for a number of reasons. Yet, even when it seems clear that such a coach-athlete relationship seems "not right" or even obviously illegal (involving a minor), a typical reaction of onlookers in the community is to not react at all.

Whether through apathy, fear or ignorance, many athletes who suspect sexual improprieties by coaches against fellow athletes may minimize their impact or accept them as a fact of life. In Ladies of the Court, Michael Mewshaw's examination of ethical abuses in women's tennis, a top star claimed she knew nothing about coaches sexually exploiting young players, denying it had ever happened to her. When asked about a then-current case where a teenaged player was rumored to be sleeping with a middle-aged coach, however, she admitted she thought the rumor was true and that it was "sickening." As one reviewer of Ladies noted, "No one admits it has happened to them, but everyone knows somebody else to whom it has happened." (1)

When athletes reach their teens and appear to be "involved" with coaches or other professionals that they work with, few around them seem to consider such relationships as possibly unethical or potentially emotionally harmful to the athlete. In fact, athletes who are being targeted for sexual activity by coaches can be the subject of cruel gossip ("She's sleeping her way to the top") by those who do not grasp that the coach, because of his or her ability to strongly influence the athlete's success, is the one who may be in control of the situation. One skater who submitted to an unwanted sexual relationship with her manipulative coach, who later went to prison for sexual abuse, said, "He was fixated on me, anyone could see that. He was treating me differently. But if the other skaters were mad, they were better off." (2)

It seems clear that officially sanctioned "policing of relationships" is not a desirable or constructive (or even remotely attainable) response to sexual exploitation in sport. However, important questions can fail to be asked by those in a position to make a difference to a victimized athlete. It can be difficult for even a concerned and conscientious observer to perceive whether or not a relationship between two people is "consensual" or whether it involves a potentially dangerous degree of power imbalance.

Yet, there are questions worth considering about any apparent sexual relationship between a coach (or agent) and an athlete: Is there a large age differential between the two of them? Is the athlete seem overly reliant on his or her coach outside of the training environment? Has the athlete worked with the coach since he or she was very young? Do the coach and athlete appear to use alcohol or drugs together? Is the true nature of the relationship kept a guarded secret, even from close relatives and friends? Most importantly, does the relationship seem to focus heavily on the continued competitive (or financial) success of the athlete? The more the answers to these questions tend toward "yes," the more likely the possibility that such a coach-athlete "involvement" could be of an exploitative nature.

Those who do try to speak out about their misgivings about a situation or even to investigate can find themselves stonewalled by superiors. One skating instructor on the West Coast who had concerns about another coach at her facility found her reports dismissed by a rink management that insisted the coach in question was "an asset to the rink" by virtue of his top students. A mother whose child who was subject to harassing behavior by a coach on the East Coast was quietly advised by other parents and officials to not make an issue out of what had happened to her daughter. Other rink managers choose to quietly "let go" of a coach with suspicious or abusive behavior, breathing a sigh of relief when he or she takes up residence at another facility elsewhere. The tendency to pass difficult complaints on to the next person has also been seen among top organizations like the United States Figure Skating Association, which in the past has passed on queries about coach screening to the Professional Skaters Association, which has its own grievance procedure regarding complaints of unethical coach conduct.

On rare occasions when complaints against coaches do find their way through proper grievance channels, sports organizations can be extremely reluctant to fully investigate. "Clubs and national governing bodies find it easier to align with the coach," according to Celia Brackenridge, a researcher on sexual harassment in sports. "The stakes are so high for a national governing body that, even where it is widely known that an abuser is at work, it's safer for officials to keep quiet, to safeguard the possibility of medal success." (3) Because of such attitudes, an abused athlete who does well in competition can be an unwitting though ideal "human shield" for his or her abusive coach.

Author Dee Miller, in her book How Little We Knew, has coined the term "DIM thinking" to describe the all-too-typical response of members of any closed community when confronted by the possibility that a respected member has been abusing his or her authority: denial that abuse occurs; ignorance about the dynamics of abuse; and minimization of the reality and potential damage caused by the misconduct to vulnerable members of the community. Miller, an expert on clergy sexual misconduct, is referring to reactions contributing to the ongoing secrecy of abuse within a close-knit community with shared goals, such as a family or a church. However, her observations may be highly applicable as well to any close-knit sporting community, whose members all share a desire for the attainment of personal athletic excellence, as well as a pride in each others' accomplishments as professionals at the Olympic level or volunteers at the club or rink level.

It may be difficult for those who have given their ethical all to the honorable profession of coaching to move beyond denial, rationalization and minimization of a colleague's unethical behavior. It may be even more difficult for those who have given many years of volunteer service to a volunteer-intensive sport such as skating to seriously confront the possibility that the administrative system they have worked so hard to support may in fact have serious flaws which leave young athletes at intolerable risk. Honest confrontation of these weaknesses may call for difficult personal and organizational commitments and sacrifices in the interest of genuine change.

Miller observes of institutional leaders, "Those who remain silent or rationalize that 'we are helpless to change things' refuse to face the incongruency between what they know and what they are willing to admit." Yet this unwillingness to honestly confront abuse (and the covering-up behavior that occasionally results) is probably the biggest ally that an abusive coach has. It is a perhaps well-meaning, but ultimately negative reaction which permits people and organizations to escape personal and professional accountability. It also allows abusive coaches to continue practicing their trade, and exploiting athletes, safely beyond the reach of ethical codes that supposedly are in place to protect all members of the skating community and uphold its common standards. In some cases, these attitudes also allow abusive coaches to remain out of reach of the law.

Surrounded by such silence and the tacit tolerance for their coach's behavior that it implies, victimized athletes may in the meantime remain out of reach of the personal support and professional help they may need to deal with what has happened to them. Their needs and concerns can remain neglected by the sporting community -- the only community of peers that some of them have ever really known. This is a neglect that has serious potential consequences not only for their health, but for the health of future young skaters and the sport of skating as a whole.

Next: The High Price of Unethical Behavior

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(1) Quoted in "The great betrayal," Sunday Times, 10/1/95

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

(3) Irish Times, 7/19/93

(4) Dee Miller, Church Secrets We Dare Not Keep, Christian Ethics Today, 2/97