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Young Skaters at Risk: Understanding Sexual Misconduct in Sports

The High Price of Unethical Behavior

"I have always felt like I was not normal...The biggest thing it affects is the mind. The ability to love and to trust are gifts, and they are stolen from people when abuse comes. It is so difficult to learn to love and trust and let people love me. That's the biggest struggle."

---Sheldon Kennedy

An unethical coach may not experience any twinges of conscience about pressuring his or her students into sexual activity. If others in the sport condone his or her behavior, dismiss it as his or her personal peccadillo, or pretend they don't notice, a coach can easily go on to the next young victim, considering the relationship to be "over." Unfortunately, for many athletes who have experienced unwanted sexual contact with coaches, the effects of it are never really "over."

Even if an athlete manages to extricate himself or herself from a relationship with a coach that involves sexual activity they aren't comfortable with, the emotional aftereffects of this unbalanced relationship remain, and can continue to have a serious impact on an athlete or ex-athlete's well-being if left unconfronted.

An athlete may not realize that he or she was unfairly taken advantage of, or even forcibly abused, until many years later, says Mariah Nelson. (1) Even if they do realize it, a victim will frequently blame himself or herself for what happened -- especially if he or she chose to endure the abuse or exploitation for an extended period of time, preferring to concentrate on high athletic goals. The athlete may genuinely care for the coach or value what he or she achieved while under the coach's instruction, making it difficult to sort out and confront his or her true feelings about the sexual activity. Because of this already existing emotional attachment, athletes may keep silent or may deny that anything happened, not wishing to get a beloved coach in trouble. (Similar reactions can be found in victims of abuse by family, teachers or clergy.)

However, negative feelings about the relationship, whether it was overtly abusive in nature or involved indirect pressures, may cause him or her to have trouble sustaining healthy and open relationships with their peers. Someone who has been the victim of an unethical coach-athlete relationship may find themselves being re-victimized by other people in future relationships. The self-esteem of a victim of such a relationship can be very low. He or she may bury or deny bad feelings about the experience. If an athlete continues to compete, he or she may try to drown feelings in high achievement, even to the point of pushing bodies beyond their limits. Both male and female victims of sexual misconduct can develop anorexia or bulimia, or other stress-related illnesses. Drug and alcohol abuse later in life is not uncommon, nor are suicidal feelings.

If the abuse or harassment involved a coach of the same sex, an athlete may feel deeply ashamed, and possibly confused about his or her sexual orientation. The experience of being taken advantage of by a coach can be especially hard on boys and men, who may believe that because they're male, they can't possibly be a victim of someone more powerful than them; that they were really in control of their role in the relationship and hence must have "really wanted it." It doesn't help that society feeds them this erroneous message as well, and that most resources on sexual misconduct in sports only acknowledge the experiences of female athletes with male coaches. Homophobia surrounding figure skating, still all too common even inside the skating community, does not merely affect the lives of gay skaters; it also can heap on even greater pain and shame for male skaters of any sexual orientation who have been victimized by male coaches.

It is important to remember that an athlete targeted by a coach is not the only victim of sexual misconduct.  The coach's other students may be victimized by being treated unfairly because they are not the objects of the coach's sexual interest. A coach who is using one athlete for sexual gratification may pay more attention to their victim, giving their other students less time and effort spent on lessons. Unfortunately, such unethically motivated favoritism can create a climate of jealousy and mistrust among athletes which only serves to make a victim feel even more isolated and dependent on an abusive coach. When unethical coaches are allowed to manipulate young athletes against each other in a high-pressured training environment in the interests of their own sexual gratification, everyone suffers.

The price of unconfronted sexual misconduct can also be extremely high for the owners of sports facilities and to sports organizations themselves. Fear of lawsuits is a major concern, and often an unofficial excuse for inaction. Yet, reluctance to officially address sexual abuse and misconduct within sports organizations rarely continues after a major lawsuit is threatened and the organization has been found wanting in its approach to ethical codes, education programs and other safeguards for athletes and parents. Venerable sports organizations can find that their reputations do not leave them immune to grave consequences when abuse is finally uncovered. The 100-year-old Irish Amateur Swimming Association, threatened with major lawsuits and removal of government funding in 1998 after some of its most respected coaches were convicted of multiple counts of sexual abuse against swimmers extending over 16 years, was disbanded after a government inquiry found that IASA exhibited "a total systems failure...no standard for behavior at all." (Despite vows to improve the situation, a replacement organization, Swim Ireland, nevertheless remained under the close watch of an outspoken parents' association and their lawyers.)

The lesson of IASA makes it clear that continuing secrecy and inaction by facility managers and sports associations, driven by a fear of lawsuits and bad publicity, will not stave off eventual legal action by victims of coach abuse (not to mention the attendant bad publicity). The consequences of lawsuits can be serious if a sports organization's policies and practices can be demonstrated in court as being irresponsible and negligent in confronting longstanding allegations of sexual misconduct by coaches. Regrettably, only after expensive lawsuits and the attendant negative publicity do most sports organizations shuffle into belated action with "risk management" initiatives designed merely to ward off future trouble while encouraging little if any real change in the organization.

Although the threat of lawsuits can inspire effective risk management strategies, such strategies cannot totally fill the underlying need for accountability to, and justice and emotional support for, the victims of abusive coaches and sports officials. All too often, the reaction of promising athletes who have experienced sexual misconduct by their coaches is to just give up on the sport and on their dreams, exiting their sport unnoticed and unsupported. But the damaging effects of sexual misconduct can have an impact that reaches far beyond its direct victims. In figure skating, skaters who reach the end of their competitive careers very often become coaches, choreographers or other skating professionals, carrying on what they've learned from the adults who were their instructors as children. Those who become coaches are usually not required to receive any kind of formal training, although optional rating courses are offered by the Professional Skaters Association. In the United States, official involvement in training and licensing of coaches by the sport's governing body (the USFSA) is minimal (as opposed to other countries such as Canada, where there is somewhat more involvement in coach certification by the CFSA).

If coaches receive no mandatory formal training, where do they learn about professional ethics and acceptable personal boundaries between them and their students? From the men and women who coached them as young skaters. If skaters spend their formative years in a physically, emotionally or sexually abusive environment where such behavior is tolerated -- even if they are not victims themselves -- the chance becomes greater that such behavior could be inflicted on their own students when these skaters enter the coaching profession.

Most victims of abuse do not themselves later become abusive, or later engage in sexual misconduct. But if sexual misconduct by coaches against skaters remains unexamined by the skating world, the danger of such repeating cycles of misconduct in the sport needs serious attention.

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