Creating a space or creating space: Sexual abuse in sports organizations

Sexual abuse is still taboo, although being among the most important problems of sports worldwide. Breaking the silence and acknowledging the existence are first steps.

The audience falls silent as Karen M. Leach makes her final statement as a sexual assault victim ending the session at the Play The Game Conference on Sunday night November 26th.

“If I am still sitting in this seat fifteen years from now, we are failing as adults to protect the children around us,” stated Karen M. Leach, professional swimmer who has been a victim of lack of adult supervision and the horrid events that follow young children for their entire life. She extensively talks about the need she had from her family and community to listen and support her.

Sander Roege, consultant at Dutch football club PSV Eindhoven, who has listened to five different survivors tell their stories after years of hiding in the dark, spoke about the healing children can receive when meeting other victims. PSV has been open about sexual abuse happening inside the organisation. 

With the focus of the conversations that night being on kindness and support, the Council of Europe’s prevention methods were also presented. Speaker George Nikolaidis, a Psychiatrist and Director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, gives lists of prevention tactics from the Council of Europe’s Convention: Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse. This included:

  • screening procedures,
  • sex education at a young age,
  • SOS helplines,
  • new legal concepts that limit the repetition of their traumatizing story,
  • higher measures for sex offenders,
  • and many other communication methods.

However, there was no talk of what the Council of Europe is doing to help parents handle these situations properly.

Prevention methods are only half the battle. The Council of Europe has yet to tackle the core of the problem. An agreement amongst the speakers was that there is a culture of poor listening skills, passing blame, and almost no regulation on coach’s relationships with athletes.

George Nikolaidis suggests, “We need to work on making this environment safe for children and have effective procedures built within the sports sector in order to protect children.”

A question was posed if an organization like WADA: World Anti-Doping Agency, an organization that aims to prevent athletes from doping, could be created for sexually abused young athletes.

WADA uses education, research, law, enforcement, and other resources just like sports organizations use for handling sexual abuse. It focuses mainly on drug usage in sports and holds athletes accountable for transparency. The question floating around is why not create a specific organization like WADA to handle sexual abuse crimes in sports and hold coaches to the same standard of transparency as athletes.

George Nikolaidis claims, “We cannot build a separate organization in every country just for that. What we need is to raise awareness in this sector and make it more transparent, more effective.”

“The key element is to accept that this phenomenon exists and to apply policies to tackle it.” George Nikolaidis

The answer may not be an organization like WADA or the Council of Europe creating new prevention policies, but it is the creation of an open space for children to share their stories, feel loved, and be protected within sports organizations.

Watch a recording of the entire panel debate here.

Photo By: Thomas Søndergaard

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