February 16, 2018

Sexual Exploitation in the Sports Industry: An Abuse of Power

The recent trial of sports physician Larry Nassar has sparked media attention on the sexual abuse suffered by female members of USA Gymnastics. During his more than 20-year career as a physician for Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, Nassar sexually abused more than 150 girls (some reports claim the number may be closer to 260), at least seven of whom had raised concerns long ago—concerns that were ignored and dismissed. During his trial, more than 100 women came forward to testify against him and speak about the trauma they experienced as a result of his heinous acts. (To hear some of the women’s testimonies, see this article.) Investigators have also discovered that he possessed over 37,000 videos and images of child pornography, including videos of him sexually assaulting girls.

Nassar’s reign of terror officially ended when he was sentenced on January 24, 2018, to 40 to 175 years in prison.

He, like many abusers, held power and authority over his victims, tools he used to sexually abuse them for his own pleasure.

As a doctor, Nassar held a special place of respect and esteem within his community—a position he masterfully manipulated for two decades. However, sexual harassment and abuse of athletes often comes from other quarters within the world of sports.

Most sexual harassment and abuse is perpetrated by people in positions of authority within the sport industry, often coaches. It happens in all sports and at all levels. According to the “International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement: Harassment and Abuse (non-accidental violence) in Sport,” sports culture “ignores, denies, fails to prevent or even tacitly accepts” sexual harassment and abuse.” In fact, it is a widespread issue for female athletes.

Commonly reported types of sexual harassment include “‘repeated unwanted sexually suggestive glances, jokes, comments, etc.’, ‘unwanted physical contact’, [and] ‘ridicule.’” Other less common examples include excessive preoccupation with weight and appearance (by coaches), inappropriate flirting, inappropriate touching of private body parts, flashing, threatening sexual suggestions, humiliating treatment, stalking, rape, and attempted rape, (the physical contact behaviors being more specifically referred to as assault or abuse).

According to the American Psychological Association, sexual abuse is “unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent.”

Many of the less extreme forms of harassment are often used subtly by the perpetrator first for an extended period to “groom” the victim before committing the actual assaults. Victims often do not initially recognize these acts as harassment or abuse until after they are entrapped. A perpetrator grooms a victim by building trust, isolating them, and then gradually breaking down interpersonal boundaries and initiating abuse. This is what Larry Nassar did to countless girls that he “treated” as he abused them. During his trial one survivor explains how she trusted him and thought he cared about her well-being, only to be manipulated and abused. She states, “I am so ashamed that I was so blinded by this disgusting game.”

There is speculation about the cause, or motivation, of sexual exploitation. Some believe that sexual harassment and abuse, particularly by coaches, is largely the result of learned “harassing” scripts within a culture dominated by hegemonic masculinity. Others believe it could be a response by males in positions of authority within the sports industry to the increasing prevalence of women in sports. The sports industry is largely male-dominated and male-run, causing some to theorize that men see women as intruders. They further postulate this may result in efforts to maintain their power and domination over women via sexual harassment and assault.

In multiple ways, a coach has significant power over an athlete. Traditionally, athletes place their trust in their coach, taking their advice and following their instructions uncritically because the coach has greater knowledge about and experience with the sport. Coaches can either boost or diminish the athletes’ self-esteem, and they have significant control over the participation and success of athletes and whether they lose their jobs. Their power also often extends beyond the sport and into the personal lives of athletes.

The effects of sexual harassment and abuse on female athletes are numerous. Effects may be mild or severe and can be long-lasting. Many female athlete victims of sexual abuse experience various negative psychological outcomes, including difficulty concentrating, anxiety, depression, lowered self-esteem, substance abuse, body image issues and disordered eating, feelings of powerlessness, self-harm, and suicide. As a victim impact statement by McKayla Maroney in the Nassar case stated, “He left scars on my psyche that may never go away.”

Physical impacts include headaches, fatigue, problems with sleep, and weight fluctuations. All of these can in turn impair athletic performance, leading to diminished success and higher dropout rates. Effects can also extend to other areas of an athlete’s life, leading them to: change their behavior, dress, and regular routine; seek counselling for psychological problems; change attitudes towards coaches and men in general; lose interest in sports; and/or leave the sport due to the harassment endured. Even athletes that report only ‘mild harassment’ may still experience major negative outcomes.

Sexual harassment and abuse within the sports industry is suspected to be significantly underreported due to social conditions that discourage disclosure. Many hesitate to come forward fearing they won’t be believed or will be disregarded in favor of the perpetrators’ denial. They fear being met with victim-blaming and ostracization, and/or being forced to leave the team. Many others fail to report due to a lack of evidence. Additionally, past reports in the sports industry have been met with indifference and a failure to act or discipline the guilty party (such as in the case of Nassar).

There are also policy and procedural barriers to reporting sexual offenses. According to a study done in 2011 in Quebec, many organizations have no sexual abuse policies, and the few existing policies are extremely limited. Many involved—including athletes, coaches, and administrators—aren’t even aware of existing policies or resources available in the event of an incident. When a group of five sports administrators were interviewed, all agreed that the issue was too complicated and preferred to stay out of it, saying that they leave problems up to lawyers.

As the Nassar case has gut wrenchingly proved, we cannot ignore sexual exploitation in the sports industry any longer. Fortunately, the federal government is taking steps to address the issue. The Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act passed in the Senate on January 30, 2018. This bill will improve policies to protect athletes from sexual abuse, make reporting safer and easier for victims, and extend the statute of limitations for these abused children. You can see video of Dianne Feinstein, the senator who drafted the legislation, discussing the legislation here.

You can also learn more about child sexual exploitation and NCOSE’s current prevention campaigns by visiting our web page.

Mary Urie

Mary Urie, a senior at Brigham Young University majoring in Public Health, is NCOSE’s public health intern. After living in Paraguay for a year and a half, she began studying a minor in international development, which then sparked her interest in women’s studies. Since then, she has focused much of her study on women’s health issues and women’s rights, both domestically and internationally. She is passionate about prevention of sexual exploitation and advocating for survivors. She loves eating ice cream, spending time on the beach, and traveling the world.

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