Since the Sandusky case, many have jumped on the bandwagon to address child sexual abuse in sports. We show videos of adolescent aged girls and boys being targeted and abused. Without a doubt, we react emotionally and with revulsion to something so horrific as the taking the innocence of a young child.
Yet, that isn't the whole truth when discussing coach-athlete sexual abuse. If you look at the list of banned swim coaches on the USA Swimming website, there isn't one coached banned for sexual abuse who was accused of having a relationship with a swimmer under the age of 13.
We wouldn't know, based on the education videos that we are forced to watch in order to be certified in some capacity in sports. These videos only depict young children being groomed by acquaintance pedophiles.
Why aren't we seeing videos of a 17-yr-old showing how a close relationship with his or her coach went from affection towards the athlete as a reward for their hard work on the practice field to molestation, or - from the psyche and perspective of the artfully manipulated athlete - "a loving relationship"? This scenario just doesn't pull at our heartstrings in the same way. Why aren't we seeing a video of a 25-year-old, who we assume is a consenting adult, talking about such a relationship? We react with even less sympathy in this case, if any at all.
Abuse of power
If we truly want to address sexual abuse and harassment in sports we need to call it what it is: an abuse of power by the coach which victimizes athletes of all ages. We are being misled if educational materials imply anything else.
If you look at the minimum age requirements to compete in the Olympics by sport, you would find that age requirements correlate to the vulnerability of athlete sexual abuse. The sports in which athletes begin to peak around age 13 or 14, like gymnastics, swimming and taekwondo, are the ones in which, at that age, a close "coach-athlete relationship" begins and coaches start to get banned for inappropriate relationships with the athletes.
In sports like Team Handball, Cycling and Weightlifting where the minimum age requirements to compete internationally and in the Olympics are 17 or 18 years, we tend to hear less about sexual abuse by coaches, presumably because athletes are old enough, supposedly, to consent to a sexual relationship with the coach at that age.
If you look at list of banned coaches by sport on my website, you will see, not surprisingly, that they tend to be in sports which allow younger athletes to compete at the international level.
What does this tell us? That we are continuing to fail to understand the dynamic between the coach and the athlete as being one that is characterized, first and foremost, as an "abuse of power" regardless of the age of athlete.
Current and new laws only address this issue up to the age of 18, which tells me we are responding to that picture of the 8-year-old victim, and not the 24-year-old athlete who we all presume consented to their inappropriate relationship with their coach.
Heads in the sand
If we took the approach of addressing this issue across the age spectrum, we would have a better chance of truly hearing and understanding the real problem about coach-athlete relationships. For too long, sport organizations have refused to deal with this issue. Now that litigation and bad press are forcing sport leaders to adopt policies and implement education programs, rather than confronting the issue in its entirety and identifying its abuse-of-power source, they have kept their heads in the sand. The issue is less about child abusers still on the loose in the larger society. The issue is about the need for education targeting the sport-specific version of abuse in which a coach's position of power gives them the ability to take advantage of less powerful and emotionally less mature athletes to satisfy their sexual appetite. In many ways, this form of abuse is more insidious because it involves a fundamental violation of trust by someone in a revered position, whether it be a coach, teacher or priest.
Not only do we all need to get our heads out of the sand, but we must design educational materials and enact new laws to truthfully address the nature of the problem.
Katherine Starr is the head of Safe4Athletes, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to proving athletes a safe and positive experience free of abuse, bullying and harassment. For more information about the Safe4Athletes program and becoming a Safe4Athletes Club, please visit her website at www.safe4athletes.org.