Elite athletes are at the peak of physical and mental fitness. But that doesn’t mean they’re safe from abuse.
When you watch an elite sporting event like the Olympics or the College Softball World Series, it’s easy to think that the athletes on the field seem almost invincible. They’re strong, fast, and calm under intense amounts of pressure. You probably wouldn’t be wise to pick a fight with any of the competitors – that’s for sure.
While elite athletes show incredible mental and physical resolve on the field, they often endure terrible forms of abuse off the field. In gyms, locker rooms, and trainer’s rooms, from coaches, parents, and peers, these athletes can face an array of threats.
No case illustrates this threat more clearly than the series of abuses committed by Larry Nassar.
The Game Over Commission: A Case-Study of Systemic Abuse in Sports Perpetrated by Larry Nassar
Larry Nassar was the chief medical coordinator for USA Gymnastics and an employee of Michigan State University. He had access to vulnerable young women in gymnastics for decades and used his position of power and authority to take advantage of these girls under the guise of medical care.
Over 300 victims bravely came forward to help bring Nassar to justice and hold Michigan State University accountable. A group of survivors, including Simone Biles, even testified in front of Congress to speak out against Nassar and the failure of civil authorities to protect them from abuse.
The case motivated CHILD USA to convene the Game Over Commission. The panel included a group of leading experts in the United States who heard testimony from survivors and provided insights from academic, economic, legal, medical, and child protection perspectives to explain systemic failures in the Nassar case.
During the Commission’s investigation, CHILD USA also surveyed a group of Nassar’s victims. The results we found were shocking.
68% of the survivors said someone else was present in the room while Nassar abused them. 42% said they were abused more than 10 times. And almost a third of the victims never reported their assault.
The results of the survey and the findings of the Game Over Commission illustrate deep flaws in the world of elite athletics. Athletes lack the knowledge and support needed to report instances of abuse. When they do report, law enforcement often fails to act swiftly and in the best interest of victims.
Overall, college and Olympic athletic programs in the United States are too focused on exploiting athletes for financial gain rather than keeping them safe and supporting their personal development.
The Elite Athlete Study is breaking new ground on athlete research.
Unfortunately, sexual abuse is only one of the dangers that athletes face. CHILD USA’s Elite Athlete Study, a survey of over 400 athletes in multiple different sports, is one of the first studies to examine the prevalence of athlete abuse in the U.S.
Our first published article in this series showed that 3.8% of athletes we surveyed were sexually assaulted in sport as a child. Upcoming articles will show that physical assault and emotional abuse are serious issues for this population as well.
A majority of athletes we surveyed experienced some form of emotional abuse – being intimidated, verbally abused, or threatened with violence. Many athletes also reported that an authority figure withheld food or water from them.
Our findings confirm what other researchers have documented for several decades – the culture within elite athletics is rotten to its core and is in dire need of reform.
The abusive culture in high level sport starts with coaches.
We have found that athletes most often experience abuse by coaches. For athletes at the pinnacle of their sport, their coaches represent the ultimate authority figure. Coaches often control almost every aspect of elite athletes’ lives – what and how much they eat, who they socialize with, and how much energy they can devote to academics.
For some athletes, their coach takes on the role of a parent, and the influence of their real family members is diminished. For others, parents are the coaches, and the demands and expectations placed on athletes rise to extreme levels.
In this position of power and authority, coaches set the tone for what’s normal and acceptable in sport. The popular model of a successful coach is one of driving athletes into the ground, screaming, demanding total commitment in pursuit of success.
Sport culture promotes the idea that, if you want to be the best, you must make sacrifices. It’s a powerful idea that coaches use to push athletes to reach their fullest potential.
Self-sacrifice can be noble. It can even propel athletes to great achievements. But no athlete should have to sacrifice their safety, dignity, or self-worth to achieve greatness.
It’s time to make the world of sport safe for children and young adults.
At the systemic level, organizations like SafeSport and the USOPC need to implement better athlete well-being policies. Legislation to establish independent oversight of these organizations would certainly help.
But policies and oversight are only one piece of the puzzle. Everyone who engages with sport, as a passionate observer, a parent, or a player, needs to push our culture in a better direction.
It starts with coaching. Rather than praising coaches who act like out-of-control lunatics in the name of success, we should support coaches who use positive reinforcement and supportive practices with athletes.
More broadly, we need to rethink our cultural obsession with winning at all costs.
Everyone wants to be the GOAT (Greatest of All Time), but we can’t continue to normalize the idea that kids should blindly submit to every demand of coaches or trainers. It isn’t healthy, and it isn’t worth the costs.
Look, I’m as much of a sports fanatic as anyone. I was there, screaming my lungs out as the Phillies knocked their rivals, the Atlanta Braves, out of the MLB playoffs this year. But I’d trade away our magical World Series run in a heartbeat if it would make a difference in keeping young athletes safe from harm.
Because a championship gets your name in the paper for a day. Abuse stays with you for a lifetime.
AJ Ortiz, MSSP | Social Science Director at CHILD USA