Abuse in the Sports World, and What Needs to Be Done About It
This is the era of children’s liberation from tyrannical treatment. Child-sex-abuse victims have been coming out of the woodwork, and demanding the justice that has been long delayed, but truly owed. First, the Roman Catholic Church was on center stage, but now it has had to make room for virtually every other religious organization, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox Jews, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In each institution, pedophiles were harbored. Religious groups are not alone, of course, with more recent additions to this list of shame including the Boy Scouts; prep schools like Horace Mann, Poly Prep, the Landmark School, the Brooks School, and Deerfield Academy; and, of course, Penn State.
On the heels of these institutions’ scandals, which are finally in the spotlight, the vast swath of abuse that occurs in homes across the country is now beginning to emerge into public view. We have let our children down in every scenario, and, sadly, even the family courts too often hand children right back to the very person who abused them. We have much to do. Today, though, I will focus on abuse in sports.
Each of the institutions that I listed above has harbored adults who made the lives of children miserable, either through abuse or by tolerating the abuse. The spotlight has now turned on not just the sexual abuse that we have ignored for decades, but also the emotional and physical abuse suffered by children, right into college, at the hands of coaches, with Rutgers the perfect example of the tyranny of adults.
Mike Rice’s Abusive Behavior Is Far From an Isolated Example
Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice was finally fired after he was caught on-camera berating and throwing basketballs at his players. It was an uncivilized and childish display of temper and he deserves the public disapprobation that he received for it, in addition to the loss of his job. The sad truth is that there are many coaches across the United States who are just as emotionally and physically abusive as Rice, and, in the absence of a video, the athletes are simply tolerating it in order to stay on the team (and keep their scholarships). Or, in some circumstances, athletes are being forced to give up their beloved sport in order to escape the mistreatment.
Just as there are many fine priests who do not deserve to be lumped in with the priest predators, there are also many coaches who are upstanding men (and women) who do wonderful things for our children. But, as in the priestly universe, the good ones must take a stand against the bad ones in order to avoid becoming negatively labeled, or, worse, legally liable, themselves.
Abuse in the sports context ranges from sexual abuse, as we have heard from Olympic and many other athletes, to emotional and physical abuse. Coaches are not gods, but rather, fallible humans, and they can be vicious, racist bullies, or the facilitators of players’ bad behavior. As the mother of athletes, I have witnessed coaches engage in repetitive, damaging emotional abuse—including one coach who let his own son physically threaten other players, and another who stood by while team members bullied their teammates. Then there is the Ivy League coach who asked a Chinese-American athlete if he needed to turn the ball into “white rice” to get her to pay attention to it, and then told these highly skilled athletes to “quit thinking like girls” or they would never win. And there is also the high- school club coach who called teenage girls (who were in perfectly good shape) “fat cows,” and physically yanked them off the field when they did not play to the coach’s expectation. One player explained her abusive coach like this: “We know that if he’s constantly screaming at us, he thinks we are good players. If he ignores us, that means we are useless players.” When these incidents happen at every practice and every game, you have a pattern of denigration that no player should have to endure, and no parent should have to tolerate.
Rutgers’ Rice is the tip of the iceberg. As we saw at Rutgers, the abusive coaches retain their jobs because the Athletic Directors turn away, while university and sports- organization heads don’t take the abuse complaints seriously. Unlike with Rutgers, for most athletes, there is no video documentation, so the cruelty continues under the radar, with no solution for the athlete who loves the sport or needs the scholarship, or both.
As in the church and school cases, this abuse scenario is rooted in the power differential between the child and the coach. Even an older child, one in college, is at a distinct disadvantage vis-à-vis his or her coach. For the scholarship athletes who cannot pay for college without their athletic scholarships, their very education (and apprenticeship in the sport, for those dreaming of the pros) rests on the coach’s continuing support of the athlete. And even the non-scholarship athlete’s coach holds tremendous power over the athlete, if they want to play, and play a particular position, and learn the sport from someone knowledgeable.
Reimagining Sports Without Abuse
The tropes of sport need to be reconfigured. The model of the Marine Corps Staff Sergeant screaming at recruits is outdated and abusive. In this context, “taking one for the team” has an ominous underside. With the power they are given, the tyrant coaches get carte blanche to impose their will and their tantrums upon those they control.
At least with sexual abuse, it is plainly illegal and has been for a very long time. So there are parameters that institutions should have honored, even if many did not. Part of the problem in sports, in contrast, is that there are few and inadequate codes of conduct in place.
Coaches are not the only bad actors in sports, of course. There are unchecked bully athletes galore. The Utah soccer player who recently hit and killed a referee proves the need to get serious about improving our sports culture, and quickly. It is time to make the principles of good behavior, and the penalties for bad behavior, explicit.
A Model Code of Conduct for Coaches and Athletes Is Urgently Necessary
To the credit of some sports, they are working to ensure they will not be the next Penn State or USA Swimming, but others are cowering, fearing that if they adopt new standards, they are conceding the inadequacy of their prior standards. That is the reasoning that locks institutions into cycles of abuse, and future liability. Drawing on a number of existing codes and some that are in process, I have compiled and drafted a Model Code of Conduct for sports.
I believe that there are three elements that are absolutely essential if we are to change the culture of abuse in sports, and which are missing from many current codes. Of course, criminal background checks, training of all coaches and staff on identifying the signs of abuse, exclusion of coaches who have been identified as sexual abusers, and toll-free hotlines for reporting abuse are an absolute minimum. And everyone in the organization at issue, whether administrator, coach, or athlete, should have an obligation to report abuse to the organization, on the toll-free hotline. Failure to report should be treated the same as committing the offense would be, for silence and secrecy are the abuser’s best friend.
The Meaning of Good Sportsmanship
Here are the three other principles that need to be observed, as well. First, let’s remind each other what “Good Sportsmanship” truly is. This is an old-fashioned concept that got lost in the charge to make each of our kids year-round specialists. Sports are breeding grounds for violence, abuse, and immoral conduct without an ethic of sportsmanship. Here is my definition:
Good sportsmanship is demonstrated when teammates, opponents, coaches, and officials all treat each other with respect, dignity, and fairness. They all understand that they each have an individual function on perform the field—a “job,” as it were — and that it’s the interaction of these jobs that makes for a successful contest. Players compete and communicate, coaches direct and encourage, and referees officiate to keep the game fair and safe; for a contest to run as it should, they should not cross the lines into each other’s area of responsibility. Players learn the basics of good sportsmanship from the adults in their lives, especially from their parents and their coaches. Players who see these adults behaving in a sportsmanlike way gradually come to understand that the real winners in sports are those who know how to persevere and to behave with dignity—whether they win or lose a game or a call, and whether or not they prevail in any other situation that occurs on the field.
Good sportsmanship requires that everyone play fair. When a coach throws a playoff game to ensure a more desirable seed in a national tournament, he or she should be punished for lack of sportsmanship and a betrayal of all that is good in sports. And when a player throws a punch at a referee or umpire, he should be removed immediately.
The Need to Follow Anti-Abuse Codes
Second, bans on emotional and physical abuse need to be explicit. Here is an example of such bans and their key definitions:
- Physical Abuse: Contact or non-contact conduct that results in, or reasonably threatens to, cause physical harm to an athlete or other sport participants. Physical abuse is also any act or conduct described as physical abuse or misconduct under federal or state law (e.g. child abuse, child neglect, assault). Exception: professionally accepted coaching methods of skill enhancement, physical conditioning, team building, appropriate discipline, or improving athlete performance that are appropriate to the sport will not be considered physical misconduct.
- Emotional Abuse: A pattern of deliberate, non-contact behavior that has the potential to cause emotional or psychological harm to an athlete. These behaviors include verbal acts, physical acts, and acts that deny attention or support. Emotional abuse also includes any act or conduct described as emotional abuse or misconduct under federal or state law (e.g. child abuse, child neglect). Exception: professionally accepted coaching methods of skill enhancement, physical conditioning, team building, discipline or improving athletic performance will not be considered emotionally abusive.
- Verbal Acts: A pattern of verbal behaviors that (a) attack an athlete personally (e.g., calling them worthless, fat or disgusting) or (b) repeatedly and excessively yelling at a particular participant or participants in a manner that serves no productive training or motivational purpose.
- Physical Acts: A pattern of physically aggressive behaviors, such as (a) throwing sport equipment, water bottles or chairs at, or in the presence of, participants; or (b) punching walls, windows or other objects.
- Acts that Deny Attention or Support: A pattern of (a) ignoring an athlete for extended periods of time or (b) routinely or arbitrarily excluding participants from practice.
The Key Need for a Way to Report Abuse
Third, every sport needs an avenue for an athlete to report abuse safely and confidentially, without fear of retaliation, outside the organization. This is a pathway separate from the hotline that is needed for reporting abuse within the organization, which I described above. These calls need to be directed to an entity, e.g., a psychologist or a nonprofit that specializes in such issues, that is not accountable to the organization or institution and is staffed by psychologists who have the expertise to take such reports, and who are mandated reporters of abuse to the authorities. Yes, this may have some additional costs, but without having a neutral recipient for the information relating to abuse, athletes simply won’t be protected, according to one of the experts in this arena: Katherine Starr, an Olympic swimming athlete and a victim of abuse, who started safe4athletes.
It would be nice if we only permitted civilized adults to be coaches, but that standard is perhaps too lofty, and also too vague. It is particularly inadequate in a culture that, until Penn State, included the “value” of winning at all costs. We need codes of conduct, and we need to rid our sports of the tyrants, the bullies, and the pedophiles, even when those coaches are wildly successful. There are some costs that are just too steep to pay.
We also need to empower athletes. Bring on the cameras!