USOC Lawsuit Reflects Tolerance of Sexual Abuse in Sports Culture: What You Can Do to Help

According to a CNN news report, four women have filed a lawsuit against the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and USA Taekwondo alleging that the sexual abuse by USA Taekwondo Team coach Jean Lopez and his gold medalist brother, Steven Lopez, was tantamount to sex trafficking. Rex Sharp, one of the three attorneys pleading the women’s case, put it this way:

“Much like a pimp who traffics women for money, the USOC was trafficking its athletes to known sexual abusers for money and medals.”

The Lopez brothers’ sexual abuse was alleged to have started from as early as 1996. Rumors of the brothers’ misconduct circulated around the team for years. A formal complaint was lodged in 2006, yet, the USOC and USA Taekwondo did nothing. The organizations continued to send young female athletes to train under the leadership and tutelage of the brothers. The law suit claims that these women were “groomed, conditioned, and trained to trust [their] coaches.” The brothers are accused of using their positions of power to commit many contact and non-contact sexually abusive acts, such as: inappropriate sexual comments, digital penetration, sex with minors, and rape.

The Lopez brothers leveraged their leadership positions to protect each other and to coerce the young athletes into silence and submission. The female athletes felt unable to say “no” to the perpetrators for fear of losing their positions on the team. In fact, Mandy Meloon was dropped from the national team by Jean Lopez after accusing both brothers of sexual abuse and being badly battered by Steven Lopez. Another plaintiff, Gabriela Joslin, reported that she continued to agree to have sexual relations with Steven Lopez “out of fear of the brothers” and that Jean made it very clear that she was to “cater to Steven.”

This is not the first time U.S. Olympic female athletes have been subject to sexual abuse by those in power. USA Swimming is accused of turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse of at least 590 victims since 1997. According to a Washington Post article,  within a 36 year span more than 290 coaches and United State Olympic officials have been publicly accused of sexual misconduct— officials like Larry Nassar. Nassar was imprisoned earlier this year for sexually abusing more than 150 girls during his career as the USA Gymnastics Team doctor. Athletes reported Nassar’s misconduct to coaches as early as 1998, but no action was taken. It wasn’t until twenty years later that he was finally convicted. (To see a full timeline of Nassar’s career and misconduct, see this article)

The issue with sexual abuse in sports extends further than a problem with reporting, or even acting on reports; it is embedded in the toxic masculine and misogynistic culture of some sporting teams. “Locker-room talk” and sexually provocative half-time shows are prime examples of sports culture sexualization of women.

Some elements of the sports industry sell more than tickets and athleticism: they sell sex. Women are treated more as eye candy than actual people. One of the best demonstrations of this is the Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit Edition.

As Dawn Hawkins, Executive Director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation has explained, “The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition tells women and girls of all ages that no matter how many years, or how much blood, sweat, and tears you put into reaching the pinnacle of athleticism, your value as a human being still ultimately hinges on your sex appeal. Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue tells men of all ages, backgrounds, and demographics that you are entitled to gawk at women and girls as sex objects for your viewing pleasure.”

This sexual objectification of women, which is so prevalent in sports, contributes to men treating female athletes as just that: objects. Objectification normalizes male use of women for their own personal pleasure without regard for the woman’s age, feelings, or consent. Until there is a shift in the culture, women will continue to resemble trophies more than athletes, or equals, in the eyes of men—evidently, even at the Olympic level.

The Olympics is a beloved tradition. Athletes around the world dream of going to represent their country, but many of those dreams turn into nightmares as they become entrapped in cycles of abuse. The lawsuit against the USOC is a perfect example of why changes need to be made in sports culture. It’s time for men to stop seeing women as sex toys, and start treating them as the talented, intelligent, and hard-working people they are.

YOU can be a part of spurring that change. We are calling all men and women to take action here by asking Target and Walgreens to stop blatantly promoting the objectification of women by removing Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue from their checkout lines.

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