People should know that sexual abuse of children is not just happening in Hollywood, in the media, or in the halls of Congress. This is happening everywhere…Wherever there is a position of power, there seems to be potential for abuse. I had a dream to go to the Olympics, and the things that I had to endure to get there, were unnecessary, and disgusting… Our silence has given the wrong people power for too long, and it’s time to take our power back1. — McKayla Maroney
Sexual violence as the overall issue is typically defined as any unwanted sexual advances. This larger group can be broken into three subsets: sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape, as described by the graphic on the left. Often, people talk about these three things within the term of either sexual harassment or sexual assault and use the two interchangeably. When talking about non-consensual acts, the definition of consent is brought up. Legally, consent varies from state to state. Under the California Penal Code, “consent is defined to mean positive cooperation in act or attitude pursuant to the exercise of free will. The person must act freely and voluntarily and have knowledge of the nature of the act or transaction involved. A current or previous dating or marital relationship shall not be sufficient to constitute consent where consent is at issue.” One must be 18 years old and cannot be incapacitated. Unless someone has consented, any sexual activity is considered assault. Aside from the legality of sexual assault and how one goes about classifying it, sexual assault affects people personally and often changes survivors’ lives.
Though the act of sexual assault is usually something that happens within a short period of time, the impacts it leaves on survivors can last a lifetime. The stereotypical victim of sexual assault is usually beat up and bruised, but the effects of sexual assault are often not physically evident on the body. While sexual assault is physically forced, it usually leaves scars on the psyche more often than the on body. Sexual assault can leave victims mentally and emotionally damaged and almost all rape victims report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Having a history of sexual assault often correlates to depression, eating disorders and poor health later in life2. Dealing with the after effects of being assaulted leaves many survivors feeling isolated and alone, without anyone to talk to. Not only do they not think they have people to talk to, many don’t want to talk to anyone. In recounting their assault, they must relive it, and it often takes time before a survivor is comfortable with sharing their story. This is one of the reasons many incidents of sexual assault go unreported.
Sexual assault has been in the media for ages and most people are properly repulsed by these stories and thoughts of assault, but not much change has happened around preventing it. Sexual harassment has always been a problem that people are aware of, but as a result of recent events, it has gained national attention to a magnitude the issue has never before received. The media has labeled the wave of people coming forward to speak out against their abusers as ‘The Weinstein Effect’, named after the notable producer who fell from grace after his pattern of sexual abuse was revealed. The use of Me Too as a hashtag (#MeToo) also helped spread awareness using social media. Me Too was a movement founded by activist Tarana Burke in 2006 as a way to show survivors that they are not alone. The phrase was turned into a hashtag in 2017 by actress Alyssa Milano, and quickly spread through social media. As people used the hashtag in posts, the scope of the issue was made clear to some who didn’t realize how many people this problem touched. This movement, along with many others, like the Time’s Up movement and It’s On Us, helped create awareness and start conversations in popular culture. Perpetrators of sexual abuse were found and uncovered in Hollywood, the government, and many other industries with numerous survivors within their ranks.
PERSONAL INTEREST: One of the cases that caught national attention was former sports doctor Larry Nassar and his abuse of young gymnasts and other athletes. This case of sexual assault was one of the moments that I thought back to when deciding what issue to focus on for this project. Having always been a fan of gymnastics, particularly in the Olympics, after the news came out and everyone began stepping forward and sharing their story, I followed up on it and found interest in this case. The issue of Larry Nassar stems from his past position as a well respected doctor and the power and influence that this job comes with. In looking at this case, we must look at the system that he felt protected by and where the background of this issue comes from.
In 1972, President Nixon signed Title IX, a law that read:
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance3.”
Though Title IX does not explicitly mention sports or sexual harassment, the impact it had on both these issues was huge. As long as one aspect of an institution is receiving federal funding, the entire institution is bound to follow Title IX. A few years after the title was passed, the Supreme Court clarified Title IX’s effect on sexual harassment. For any institute receiving federal financial assistance, they are legally bound to follow up appropriately on all reports of sexual abuse–it is illegal to ignore reports of sexual harassment. If they dismiss cases of abuse and do not follow through, they are imposing on their student’s rights to receive an equal education.
Before Title IX, the ratio of boys to girls in sports was severely unbalanced and there were little opportunities for female athletes. Title IX made it so, in an institution that provided sports for both men and women, both teams needed to be provided with equal amounts of money, equipment and opportunities. Not only did Title IX allow more female athletes into sports that were male dominated because institutes were legally obligated to, but the new law also changed people’s mindsets. As girls began participating in more and more sports, the idea that sports were just for boys started to fade. The once extremely skewed proportion of girls to boys in athletics started to shift as well. Before 1972, only 1 in 27 girls played sports. Now, for every five girls, two of them are athletes4. In 1971, there were only around 310,00 women playing in high school and college sports whereas today, more than 3,000,000 of high school and college athletes are female5. While Title IX has proved to create more gender equality among athletes, the years following ironically saw a dramatic drop in female coaches. For women’s college teams, in 1972, the percentage of female coaches was over 90% but it 2017, that percentage had fallen to about 40%6. In the years following Title IX, the number of reported cases of sexual assault rose along with the number of girls playing sports.
All too often, the perpetrator of sexual abuse in sports is someone who holds a position of power over athletes, like coaches, special trainers or doctors. As children, we grow up learning to respect and trust our elders. Abusers find protection in the respect we have been taught to give them and usually feel that those they abuse will not speak out against them. People in power feel safe in their position and prey on those who can be manipulated with that power. For athletes, their bodies are of the utmost importance and most practices are spent improving physical physique. Within this there is usually a certain amount of close proximity between the athlete and the people helping and training them. Athletes come to expect this and learn to trust these people. When this trust is violated, athletes often do not know what to do or who to tell. The role many abusers play in their victim’s careers affect whether or not the victim chooses to speak out and report the assault. Survivors of abuse in sports usually fear that if they tell someone about what happened to them, their chances of succeeding in their sport will fade. They also fear that no one will believe them as a result of their abuser’s position. Coaches and doctors are thought of as well respected individuals who would ‘never do such a thing’. People come forward and report their abuser, but those they report to often don’t take the accounts seriously and don’t do anything about it, leaving the perpetrator in the position to assault more athletes. More often than not believing an accuser, officials do not fire the abuser because they can create more wins for the team. By choosing results over the safety and protection of their athletes, institutions often enable a perpetrator to continue their habitual assault.
PROMINENT PAST CASES
Some of the most notable cases of sexual assault in sports history include the case at Penn State University, Larry Nassar, and the US Swimming incident.
In 2008, an investigation into Jerry Sandusky, assistant football coach at Penn State University, began. This investigation followed reports dating as far back as 1998, that cited inappropriate behavior by Sandusky but didn’t result in any major conclusions. The investigation revealed that Sandusky abused 10 young men on hundreds of occasions, resulting in a 60 year prison sentence. His case led to multiple lawsuits against Penn State and the loss of millions of dollars in fines7. Many other Penn State officials were accused of knowing and ignoring Sandusky’s assaults. This case shocked the public and showed the amount of protection that people in positions of power receive as a result of their job.
Similar to this was the Larry Nassar case. Allegedly beginning in 1994, Nassar assaulted over 250 athletes and has been sentenced to at least 100 years in prison8. Nassar was a notable doctor who held many positions including working as the doctor for the US national gymnastics team. All but one of his victims were assaulted under the guise of medical treatment. At Nassar’s trial, over 100 of his victims came forward and gave testimonies describing Nassar’s horrific actions. Mattie Larson, a gymnast abused at 14, recalled how she purposely spilled water and hit her head against the floor in order to escape a training camp where she knew Nassar would be present. Alexis Moore expressed that “[Larry Nassar] betrayed my trust, took advantage of my youth, and sexually abused me hundreds of times”. One of his victims ended up committing suicide as a result of what he did to her. Nassar was reported on multiple occasions but, like Sandusky, was allowed to remain the national doctor because of the twisted priorities of those who could have let him go. Nassar’s reputation as a stellar doctor protected him from accusations and the people the victims confided in often assured them what they had received was simply medical treatment.
The last of the selected three cases of sexual abuse in sports are the hundreds of reported assaults that were covered up by USA Swimming. Most of the abusers were coaches who took advantage of the swimmers who should have been protected under their watch. According to Mike Saltzstein, former member of USA Swimming’s board of directors, USA Swimming’s main goal was to keep their name clean, leading to officials not doing anything about the reports of abuse. The investigation into USA Swimming found that they spent millions of dollars to keep victims quiet about the assault and knew of multiple abusers for years. Almost 600 young athletes came forward to say that they had been assaulted and over 200 coaches and officials have been arrested or disciplined for sexual misconduct9.
SOLUTIONS FOR PREVENTION
When the conversation turns to solutions for this issue, the topic of attire always comes up. Many people believe that a root cause of all this assault, especially in swimming and gymnastics, is what the victims were wearing. They say that if the victims hadn’t been wearing such revealing outfits they would likely not have been assaulted. This way of thinking simply places the blame on the victims and tells them that it is their fault they were assaulted. Instead of shaming those who were taken advantage of, we should look at the people who thought it was okay to force these sexual advances and the institutions that allowed them to do so. These are the ideas that I’ve come up with on how to prevent further assaults like those described above:
- Have coaches and parents begin conversations. If it starts at the top and initiates a conversation, it will hopefully make it easier for those who have been assaulted to come forward and report what they have been through.
- Make sure parents and athletes know what their legal rights are so that they know what their next steps can be.
- Have counselors specifically trained to help people who are being sexually harassed. Sometimes assault survivors don’t feel comfortable going to their parents and having someone specifically trained in these sorts of things will make it easier for the athletes to share their experience.
- Ensure in training facilities that protective measures are being taken. Limit the amount of time that an athlete is alone in the area with coaches and doctors.
- Screen anyone who comes into a position where they could take advantage of the athletes and input rigorous background checks.
- No matter how insignificant it may feel to the athlete make sure they feel comfortable reporting any incident they feel may be inappropriate.
- Try and remove the stigma around the conversation of assault, be comfortable with talking about it, and make sure survivors don’t feel isolated or alone.
Thank you for reading my page! Please let me know what you think:
“Little girls don’t stay little forever. They grow into strong young women who return to destroy your world” —Kyle Stephens
1-Reid, Scott M. “McKayla Maroney’s Letter to Judge in Larry Nassar Child Porn Case.” Orange County Register, Orange County Register, 6 Dec. 2017, www.ocregister.com/2017/12/06/mckayla-maroney-letter-to-judge-in-nassar-child-porn-case/.
2-“Statistics.” Statistics | RAINN, www.rainn.org/statistics.
3-20 U.S. Code § 1681 – Sex https://www.justice.gov/crt/title-ix-education-amendments-1972
4-Olmstead, Maegan. “Title IX and the Rise of Female Athletes in America.” Women’s Sports Foundation, 19 Oct. 2016, www.womenssportsfoundation.org/education/title-ix-and-the-rise-of-female-athletes-in-america/.
5-“Before and After Title IX: Women in Sports.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 June 2012, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/06/17/opinion/sunday/sundayreview-titleix-timeline.html#/#time12_271.
6-Longman, Jeré. “Number of Women Coaching in College Has Plummeted in Title IX Era.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 31 Mar. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/03/30/sports/ncaabasketball/coaches-women-title-ix.html.
7-“Penn State Scandal Fast Facts.” CNN, Cable News Network, 28 Nov. 2017, www.cnn.com/2013/10/28/us/penn-state-scandal-fast-facts/index.html.
8-“Larry Nassar case: USA Gymnastics doctor ‘abused 265 girls'” BBC, Jan. 31, 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-42894833
9-Vagianos, Alanna. “Explosive Report Says USA Swimming Covered Up Hundreds Of Sexual Abuse Cases.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 19 Feb. 2018, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/usa-swimming-sexual-abuse_us_5a8ad81fe4b004fc3194c4b2.
Blake, Mike. “McKayla Maroney at the London 2012 Olympic Games.” www.thenation.com/article/metoo-sexual-assault-sports/.
“Nassar Testimonies Image.” New York Times, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, 30 Jan. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/01/30/sports/larry-nassar-trial-gymnastics-gymnasts-reactions.html.