The nature of sport and athleticism means that there is always a risk of accidents, injury, and harm. Sports organizations, from the leadership to the grassroots levels, have a moral and legal obligation to keep their athletes safe and free from harm. While accidental injury is widely recognized and addressed by most sport organizations, non-accidental violence and maltreatment from abuse, harassment, and other harmful behaviours are at best, less well recognized, and at worst, ignored or denied altogether (Mountjoy et al., 2016). All athletes, of any age, have the right to engage in sport in safe, supportive environments.
These problems are not specific to sport and can be found elsewhere in other areas of society, including the workplace, schools, and other institutions. However, the root of the problem within the culture of sport can be found in the many power differentials, particularly between adults and youth/children, between athletes, or between athletes and sport organizations, that can make it challenging for athletes to stand up for themselves and assert their rights (Mountjoy et al., 2016). The risks unique to sport include the nature of coach-athlete relationships; the ways in which athletes are recruited; the risks when minor elite athletes are relocated to far away teams, away from their support systems; practices that measure physical/biological readings; training at multiple locations/times; and hazing practices (Mountjoy et al., 2016).
Conceptual Model of Harassment/Abuse in Sport
The model below, created by Mountjoy et al. (2016) provides an overview of how the cultural context of sport can contribute to abuse, including the potential impacts for both athletes and organizations.
All types of abuse are rooted in psychological abuse (Mountjoy et al., 2016). Psychological abuse reported by athletes includes (but is not limited to) humiliation, belittlement, yelling, scapegoating, rejection, isolation, threatening behaviours, ignoring behaviours, and denial of attention or support (Mountjoy et al., 2016). Further, psychologically abusive coaching practices can both hide and lead to grooming behaviours and sexual abuse (Mountjoy et al., 2016).
While sexual abuse can and often does occur from individuals in positions of power and authority, sexual harassment is far more likely to occur between athletes and their peers (Mountjoy et al., 2016). This behaviour can be learned by athletes in sports cultures that accept or even encourage this type of behaviour (Mountjoy et al., 2016). The risk of sexual abuse is greater when athletes are not protected (ex. through safe sport policies, codes of conduct, etc.), when the abuser is highly motivated to harm a young person, and when the athlete is highly vulnerable, particularly through age and maturation (Mountjoy et al., 2016). The type of sport, type of clothing worn, and physical touching are not considered risk factors for sexual abuse (Mountjoy et al., 2016).
Bullying & Hazing
Bullying occurs in the context of a power imbalance, where one individual has the desire to harm another by asserting their dominance (Mountjoy et al., 2016). This differs from hazing, which can be viewed as a ‘rite of passage’ for new members of a team to be accepted by existing team members, also by asserting their dominance (Mountjoy et al., 2016). Research has shown that sport cultures that haze can be toxic for young athletes, and are characterized by misogyny, homophobia, exclusionary behaviour, misconduct, discrimination, lack of mutual respect, and secrecy around these behaviours and attitudes (Mountjoy et al., 2016).
Athletes at the Highest Risk
The risk of experiencing violence (psychological, physical, and/or sexual) increases as athletes progress towards more elite levels of sport (Mountjoy et al., 2016). In addition, athletes who are LGBTQ+ or who have disabilities are more likely to experience sexual abuse (Mountjoy et al., 2016). Research has shown the risk of experiencing any type of abuse is two to three times higher for athletes with disabilities compared to other athletes (Mountjoy et al., 2016). Further, the first large scale study of homophobia in sport found that 80% of athletes surveyed had witnessed or experienced homophobia (Mountjoy et al., 2016).
There are many reasons athletes don’t disclose the abusive behaviours they are experiencing, including power differentials and feelings of powerlessness, fear of the perpetrator, isolation, silencing, a lack of bystander intervention, and organizational denial (Mountjoy et al., 2016).
The power differential between athletes and coaches is shown through the delay of disclosure, or lack of disclosure, around abusive coaching practices. The normalization of psychologically abusive coaching practices creates a persistent bystander effect; in turn, this can prevent athletes from disclosing the abusive behaviour and seeking help (Mountjoy et al., 2016). When the bystanders who witness or are aware of the abusive behaviour do nothing, either through acceptance of the behaviour, non-intervention, denial or silence, athletes believe that the behaviour is acceptable and that they would be powerless if they chose to speak out (Mountjoy et al., 2016). Further, given the competitive nature of sport, athletes may feel that they cannot say anything to maintain their place on the team or to not be singled out by their sport organization/team (Mountjoy et al., 2016).
Impact of Abuse
Many survivors of abuse can and do go on to experience positive mental health and well-being, return to sport, and resume their normal lives and activities (Mountjoy et al., 2016). However, the short- and long-term impacts of abuse in sport can be extremely damaging to athletes and extends beyond sport and the athletes themselves to affect their families, friends, and other areas of their lives, long after the athlete has left the sport (Mountjoy et al., 2016). Athletes suffer many opportunity costs within sport, including the loss of sponsorship, poor performance, reduced chances to win at high levels, willingness to engage in doping or cheating, or leaving sport altogether (Mountjoy et al., 2016). Outside of sport, the impacts include psychosomatic illnesses, disordered eating, low self-esteem, poor body image, anxiety, depression, substance misuse, self-harm, and suicide (Mountjoy et al., 2016).
Psychological abuse, in comparison to physical or sexual abuse, is most strongly associated with athletes experiencing post-traumatic and dissociative symptoms (Mountjoy et al., 2016). Further, the risk of self-harm, suicidal thoughts or attempts, or completed suicide is increased with each type of abuse that a young person experiences (Mountjoy et al., 2016).
Abuse & Harassment is a Systemic Issue
Sexual abuse and harassment in sport can be considered a symptom of failed leadership (Mountjoy et al., 2016). When power is abused by leadership, or an organizational culture ignores, denies, fails to prevent or cannot accept that the problem exists, the individuals in power have failed those they were supposed to protect (Mountjoy et al., 2016). Further, the ‘win at all cost’ nature of sport and the idolization of athletes contributes to the acceptance or normalization of violence and abuse in sport, particularly in contact sports (Mountjoy et al., 2016). When athletes are viewed as ‘assets’ or athletes first by sport organizations, instead of children and youth with rights and needs, there is a higher risk of creating a culture where their individual needs and rights are neglected (Mountjoy et al., 2016).
Aside from the ethical and legal obligations to prevent abuse in sport, the health and success of sport organizations is improved when these preventative measures are in place. The economic and opportunity costs related to abuse in sport are significant and can include reputational damage; depletion of the talent pool when elite athletes leave sport; termination of sponsorships/contracts; and the undermining of confidence and trust in the organization (Mountjoy et al., 2016).
Abuse & Harassment Prevention Requires Culture Change Through Systemic Solutions
Organizational and cultural change starts with leadership. Leaders who ignore, deny, or resist believing that abuse and harassment happen in sport deny the organization and those within it the opportunity to work towards prevention and mitigation of risk, ultimately creating a culture where athletes are at risk (Mountjoy et al., 2016). This denial and abuse of power allows the underlying causes of abuse and harassment to persist and allows abusive behaviours and unsafe practices to continue (Mountjoy et al., 2016).
The first step in the process of systemic culture change is to be aware of and understand that these behaviours exist and that the consequences are serious and long-lasting (Mountjoy et al., 2016). A key building block in this process is education at all levels of sport organizations (Mountjoy et al., 2016). According to Mountjoy et al. (2016), “Prevention begins with awareness-raising about non-accidental violence through the dissemination of evidence-based education and training programs.” This is a crucial step to equip stakeholders with the knowledge and understanding to both create preventative solutions and to overcome denial (Mountjoy et al., 2016). Further, this can help prevent the pervasive bystander effect, and equip bystanders with the knowledge and tools to address abusive behaviours when they see or suspect it to be occurring.
Sport organizations should take the lead of other youth-serving organizations and institutions, as well as the legal mandates in their area for reporting of abuse and harassment, to create safe sport policies that align with current best practices (Mountjoy et al., 2016). Training for individuals with young athletes in their care to recognize the signs of distress and mental health concerns are crucial in preventing long-term mental health impacts and preventing self-harm and suicide (Mountjoy et al., 2016). Allegations of abuse and harassment should be handled by individuals with the appropriate training and qualifications, as opposed to internal investigations by sport leaders who lack this expertise (Mountjoy et al., 2016). If allegations of violence/abuse occur, it is necessary to involve law enforcement as soon as possible (Mountjoy et al., 2016). External reporting structures should also be implemented so that allegations of abuse and harassment are thoroughly investigated both internally and externally (Mountjoy et al., 2016).
Further culture change can be created through the restructuring of safe sport programs that address the social context of abuse and harassment (Mountjoy et al., 2016) This includes clear policies and codes of conduct; background screening and systematic recruitment; continued education and training; processes for complaints and support; and continued monitoring and evaluation of safe sport practices (Mountjoy et al., 2016).
References: Mountjoy, M., Brackenridge, C., Arrington, M., Blauwet, C., Carska-Sheppard, A., Fasting, K., … & Starr, K. (2016). International Olympic Committee consensus statement: harassment and abuse (non-accidental violence) in sport. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 50(17), 1019-1029.