“Athletes of all ages have a right to engage in ‘SafeSport’: defined as an athletic environment that is respectful, equitable and free from all forms of violence to athletes.”
The physical, psychological, and social benefits of sport participation for your health and well-being are numerous – and well known. Hence, I sincerely hope you enjoy and embrace these positive aspects of SafeSport. However, you are also aware that sport, as a ‘microcosm’ of society, is not immune to the negative aspects of society. Therefore, I want to talk to you about harassment and abuse. And what SafeSport means to you.
What is harassment and abuse?
So, what is harassment and abuse in sport? Some athletes are unaware of what constitutes harassment and abuse. In fact, they may even accept some harmful behaviours as being normal and the ‘culture of sport’. According to the International Olympic Committee experts, there are four categories of harassment and abuse. These can occur in combination or isolation:
- Psychological abuse is at the core of all other forms of harassment and abuse. It is a pattern of deliberate, prolonged, repeated non-contact behaviour between a person of authority (e.g., coach) and an individual of lesser status (e.g., athlete). Examples are teasing, bullying, yelling, etc.
- Physical abuse is the non-accidental (=intentional) trauma or physical injury caused by punching, beating, kicking, biting, burning etc. It may also include forced inappropriate physical activity (e.g., age-inappropriate or physique-inappropriate training loads, or when injured or in pain); forced alcohol consumption; or forced doping.
- Neglect is the failure to provide for the physical or emotional needs of the athlete, or the failure to protect them from exposure to danger. In sport, this may also include being overlooked for promotion to a team, for representation at a competition, or for advancement in sport levels, when appropriate.
- Sexual abuse is any conduct of a sexual nature where consent is coerced, manipulated, or is not or cannot be given.
How does it happen?
Harassment and abuse in sport occur when its culture allows for differences in power to be exploited through discrimination. For example, the coach has power over the athletes. Or, a rookie has less power than a senior team member. The discrimination can be based on differences in age, sex, gender, race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, athletic ability, financial status etc.
Over time, such discrimination may become one or more of the four forms of harassment and abuse described above. Subsequently, they may be expressed as:
- Contact behaviours: The abuse is expressed through touching, hitting, sexual contact etc.
- Non-contact behaviours: The abuse is either from neglect, or psychological. But there is no touching involved.
- Bullying: Bullying is unwanted, repeated and intentional, aggressive behaviour. It occurs usually among peers and can involve a real or perceived power imbalance. Bullying can include actions such as making threats, spreading rumours or falsehoods, attacking someone physically or verbally, and deliberately excluding someone.
- Cyberbullying: Via social media or smartphone.
- Hazing: An organised, usually team-based, form of bullying in sport, that involves degrading and hazardous initiation of new team members by veteran team members.
Importantly, scientists tell us that sexual abuse occurs in a sport when three factors align:
- High motivation of a perpetrator to abuse
- A sports culture that does not protect athletes with policies and procedures
- High vulnerability of the athlete because they are of different age, sex, gender, race, etc.
This scenario is illustrated below:
How do harassment and abuse in sport impact you?
The impact of harassment and abuse on athletes can vary, depending on the circumstances and duration. For some athletes, the repercussions can be devastating and may continue to affect them long after the actual abuse has stopped. Furthermore, the ‘by-stander’ effect may worsen the impact of the trauma on you as an athlete: Your entourage or team-mates know about or witness the harassment or abuse. Yet, no one stops it from continuing.
As a victim of harassment and abuse, you may suffer from a variety of injuries or harms. For instance:
- relationships with family and friends
- education/ work disturbances
That is to say that the potential impacts of harassment and abuse on you as an athlete are many:
Harassment and abuse may also impact on sport organizations, e.g., through early athlete retirement, loss of sponsorship, reputational damage, or reduced fan base.
Why you need an ‘action plan’ to prevent harassment and abuse
It is critical that athletes have a representation and a voice in their sport organizations. You need to be able to express your concerns and guide the development of policies and procedures to safeguard your sport. Ideally, this leads to a) the implementation of athlete protection practices and b) decreases the power differential described above.
All athletes should know their right to a ‘harassment and abuse-free’ SafeSport environment.
You have to educate yourself about the warning signs of harassment and abuse. Be aware of the discriminations we described above. Recognize suspicious patterns of behaviour in those that have power over you or your team-mates.
For example, perpetrators of sexual abuse ‘groom’ or prepare their victims in a predictable pattern:
Targeting the victim (that might be you—or a team-mate)
- Finding a vulnerable athlete
- Beginning a friendship. Being ‘nice’.
Building trust and friendship
- Making you feel special, giving gifts, or rewards
- “You have to do this, because I have done that”
Developing control and loyalty
- Refusing you access to significant others, friends, or further support
- Restricting your access to your parents. Checking your ‘commitment’.
Building and securing secrecy
Breaking sexual boundaries: “You owe me”. “It’s our little secret”.
Recognize, React, Respond, and Report
Are you suspicious that behaviours you observe might be harassment or abuse, either of you personally or a team-mate? It is important that you “Recognize, React, Respond, and Report”. The ultimate goal is to STOP THE ABUSE!
Recognize: Be watchful to recognize the forms of abuse discussed here.
React: If your team-mate is the victim, try to intervene to stop the abuse. Be sure to check that he/she is o.k.
Respond: Go tell someone that you trust who can intervene and stop the abuse.
Report: Tell the appropriate authority: e.g., your Safeguarding Officer, or a public authority.
Make sure that you know where to report suspected harassment or abuse. For example, to your sport organization’s Safeguarding Officer, or to a trusted individual either within or outside your sport or team. Importantly, they must have the power to stop the abuse. Report in a timely and appropriate manner through the correct mechanisms in your sport organization.
Where to from here?
In conclusion, I hope that this blog has provided you with an understanding of SafeSport and athlete safeguarding – and your critical role within it. Moreover, I hope to have encouraged you to look at the safeguarding policies in your own sport team, as well as any national policies or laws which apply to you.
Remember, there are many benefits to your physical and mental health from participating in SafeSport! Do not allow anyone to prevent you from reaping these benefits or enjoying your sport and performance to the fullest.
“Everyone involved in sport will benefit from a sporting environment that is free from fear or favour and is just as entitled to express their human rights in the context of sport as they are in any other setting.”
SafeSport and athlete safeguarding is about you. Therefore, I encourage you to visit the safe sport section on the Athlete365 platform.
To sum up, the below diagram model illustrates harassment and abuse in sport (courtesy of the International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement (2016)):