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Protesting Athletes from Sexual Harassment and Violence
One hundred and fifty-six young women were abused by the same man: former Team USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar who had already pleaded guilty to 10 counts of sexual assault for abusing young girls under the guise of medical treatment. Among these victims, there was the famous American gymnast, Simone
Women who filed criminal complaints against Nassar spoke out at the public hearing. They said that after he had abused them, they were intimidated by his powerful status. For the young athletes, reporting the offence - if they understood that they had been subjected to an offence at all - felt almost impossible.
Nassar had a pattern in the way he abused young women, the vast majority of whom were gymnasts. By projecting a sense of normality from his position of authority, Nassar made his victims think they were mistaken to believe this was abuse, and that they would be in the wrong if they complained.
As the scandal widened, officials from several organisations – including U.S.A. Gymnastics, the governing body of the sport; the United States Olympic Committee; and Michigan State University, where Nassar also worked as a doctor – were ousted or charged in relation to the case. Steve Penny, the president and chief executive of U.S.A. Gymnastics, was forced to resign in 2017 under pressure from the U.S.O.C. and was arrested the following year on a felony charge of evidence tampering. Paul Parilla, the chairman of U.S.A. Gymnastics’ board; Jay Binder, the vice chairman; and Bitsy Kelley, the treasurer also resigned under intense pressure as women spoke out at one of Nassar’s sentence hearings. The rest of the Board resigned within days, after the head of the U.S.O.C. threatened to decertify the organisation.
These are not the only cases, there are others that have appeared in the media in recent years. For instance, the world of college American football was rocked in 2011 when Pennsylvania State University assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was indicted on dozens of counts of child molestation. Sandusky, who coached one of America’s most illustrious college football teams, recruited his young victims through a charity he founded for troubled youths.
Another case had Andy King as a main actor. He was a coach who was sentenced to 40 years in prison after authorities discovered a pattern of sexual abuse that stretched over three decades at clubs up and down the West Coast and involved more than a dozen teenaged female victims – one of whom said she had an abortion after he got her pregnant when she was 14.
Unfortunately, these are not the only cases and due to the very characteristics of the attacks and the victims, most of these crimes remain hidden. Nevertheless, there must be thousands of cases similar to those described. What is interesting in this case is the existence of common traits of sexual harassment in sport: a) the behaviour of the offender, usually someone who has a sense of superiority over the victim; b) the reaction of the victims – normally, young athletes, and c) the passive attitude of the entourage, mainly the sport authorities. Following the two issues I intend to develop, there is the unethical culture that protects the actions of abuse or harassment, called omertà, and one tool adopted to break that silence culture: the reporting channels. But before this I will analyse some general aspects of harassment in sport.
Reactions against these scourges have long been adopted; probably the most comprehensive has been the IOC toolkit, which establishes a wide analysis of the problem and measures that could lead to diminishing the threats.
There are certainly many aspects that should be analysed when it comes to establishing protective measures for athletes in cases of sexual harassment and violence. However, a diagnosis of the problem and the measures to be adopted for its prevention should also consider aspects such as:
a) sexual assault and violence are not the same, even though they are often dealt with together. In the concrete case of harassment and abuse, the IOC toolkit points out that it encompasses psychological and physical abuse, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and neglect. The way in which this latter form of abuse is reproduced is especially important as it focuses on the role of “coaches or other persons with a duty of care towards the athlete to provide a minimum level of care to the athlete, which is causing harm, allowing harm to be caused, or creating an imminent danger of harm”. As we will see later, this passivity is most of the time provoked
by a clear lack of ethical culture in the sport organisation.
b) The distinction between victims: women, minors, minority groups, etc.
c) The prevalence according to the different athletic modalities.
d) Every kind of attack has particularities that characterise the sexual harassment of violence.
e) The different role of the authors: coaches, sports colleagues, managers, doctors, parents.
f) The means by which sexual decline can be exercised, especially the impact of social networks.
g) The different types of prevention mechanisms, leading to a distinction between psychological measures - for mental strengthening of athletes both to repel attacks and to reveal their existence - and institutional mechanisms that can be established for both preventive and punitive purposes.
It is impossible in such a short space of time to examine so many and such complex subjects. Instead, it seems more reasonable to choose one of these topics and develop it in depth, and in this case, it will be the reporting channels. Of course, these channels were created specially to combat doping and sports corruption, but there is nothing to prevent them from being used to deter and report sexual harassment and acts of violence.
Some examples of reporting channels are those set up by FIFA, UCI, and IOC. However, despite the fact that some sports organisations have implemented such platforms to incentivise whistleblowing, they do not seem to have had the expected and desired effect. The truth is that the effectiveness of the whistleblowing system and the achievement of its objectives seems to presuppose several requirements or characteristics:
1. That it is supported by the governing bodies. Each sport should ensure that all members of that body enter into a contractual obligation to always act to maintain the integrity of the sport and for each member to confirm that they will call out any conduct that undermines the integrity of the sport through the whistleblowing procedure.
2. That the recipients of the mechanism were previously informed. Any policy must not be restricted to one area of vulnerability. The policy should be open to all people (not just those within the sport), but particular emphasis should be provided to potential sources, whether it is the participants, coaches, support staff, or officials.
3. Guarantee that the system is accessible, proportional and that it protects the documentation and data submitted. The whistleblowing procedures should be easy to use. The information and policies to users should be clear and easy to understand.
4. Independence of the complaints management body. Each sport must provide the necessary administrative support to enable disclosures to be investigated and must take action when necessary. A Whistleblowing Guardian with specific responsibility to report on the effectiveness of any procedures, together with oversight of any reporting procedure, is a good start.
5. Completeness of the system of infractions and sanctions. The feedback between the organ in charge and the whistleblower is important. The organ should take care to ensure that steps taken as a consequence of their disclosure help them to feel engaged in the process and to feel that they will be listened to and taken seriously.
6. Each governing body must report publicly on an annual basis on the effectiveness of its whistleblowing procedures and how it plans to implement lessons from its experiences in the future.
7. The protection of the complainant or alerter.
The IOC toolkit is completely aware of the relevance of reporting channels and it questions itself how to facilitate the disclosure of sexual abuse or harassment
given a context where the fear of reporting is generalised according to numerous studies.
Focusing on the first and last requirement, one of the reasons why it is difficult for athletes to dare to speak publicly is the existence of a code of silence or omertà. Under this threat of internal reprisals, athletes often prefer to remain passive and not report. As we have seen above, many gymnastics authorities instead of coming forward and speaking out about Nassar’s sexual harassment, kept silent and protected him.
Generally, these alert mechanisms implemented by sport governing bodies have been unsuccessful due to:
1. Insufficient legal protection, given the fact that the whistleblower can be indicted of violation of obligations under employment contracts or revealing of business secrets.
2. Fear of reprisal by employers or stigmatisation as a “snitch”.
3. Ineffectiveness of the organisation in reacting: belief that whistleblowing would not lead to any change.
4. Fear that coming forward implies an impaired relationship of trust with the “colleagues” or with the supervisor.
5. Breach of the bond with colleagues or supervisor: that coming forward can be interpreted as disloyal behaviour or, even worse, that speaking out implies a breach of a culture of silence.
We will delve into the first and last problem. The first element, the whistleblower protection, has always been the Achilles’ heel of the whistleblowing systems. As mentioned above, this is an essential aspect for the effectiveness of the preventive system that any sports organisation wants to establish. A system of complaints that does not protect the whistleblowers’ interests will not be enough to encourage these alerters to come forward. For them, the existence of effective policies that react against reprisals from the organisation or their colleagues is decisive. Moreover, sometimes, even measures to protect their physical and economic integrity may be required as the consequences of the disclosure may result in a serious economic or sporting loss. In cases of sexual harassment there is an added risk of psychological damage.
The protection must not only include confidentiality, but also the guarantee that reporting will not lead to any retaliation, in any way. Unfortunately, and as has been pointed out before, there are many ways in which retaliation can take place on behalf of the club or the comrades themselves. We just need to remember how Pat McQuaid, former UCI president reacted to the revelations by Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis against Lance Armstrong, calling them “scumbags”.
This is what makes the whistleblowing channels implemented by sport bodies even weaker, given that they do not mention nor provide the specific protection offered to whistleblowers. If the consequence of disclosing malpractice is having to flee to another country and start a new life, as happened with the Stepanov couple after the declarations of systemic doping in Russian sport, the probabilities of other sports people taking that same risk are minimal. The safety of whistleblowers should be protected, and ensuring their safety is a matter for governing bodies.
Regarding the last problem, the culture of silence or omertá in sport, most of the time this practice is implicit and can take place in a limited environment such as a specific team that includes coaches and medical staff. In this regard, Anderson points out,“Because doing nothing is exactly what is expected in sports, where a version of the mafia or a code of silence prevails, snitching is completely contrary to the accepted notion of playing for the team.”
The consequences of breaking the omertá, the code of silence among the members of the group, is ostracism and sometimes being pushed out of the sport. The risk of opening up is that the brave individual who dares to speak out is sanctioned by the rest of the group.
Although it is difficult to say that all sports are surrounded by a culture of silence, there are some disciplines where omertá is an intrinsic part of its culture. We could understand “culture” here as “a series of customs, attitudes and behaviours absorbed and practiced by a group of people, perhaps over more than one generation, until they become embedded in the group as norms. A culture shapes and influences how the group and individuals conduct themselves”
(CIRC Report, 22).
The relevant question is how a culture of omertá arises, and how it becomes more important to that group than the moral or legal rules. There are various elements that can be mentioned to explain why omertà develops in sport, although not all of them have the same relevance: 1) the particularities of some sports; 2) the coercion from the leader or the group; 3) the connivance of sport authorities; 4) the self-interest of sports people; 5) the link between omertá and group loyalty.
Regarding the fifth trait that explains the emergence of omertá, the link between omertá and group loyalty is paradoxical. It is known that in the dynamics of any team such codes can be important for the protection of tactics or technological development, but also to encourage the spirit of the group. In fact, this is usually the excuse and justification for such a phenomenon among teams and groups of athletes (and their technical staff). This omertá or code of silence promotes, therefore, a connivance among the group members to cover up this relevant information in the face of external interference. Such coverage then implies covering up for each other, which prevents anyone speaking out.
A problem in the process of disclosure of omertá and in the fight against it is the distinction between omertá and similar phenomena such as group cohesion and loyalty which are both psychological phenomena that are promoted in sport as factors that benefit sporting performance. The problem is that it is easy to cross the line that splits loyalty from omertá: the more cohesion and loyalty there is in a team or group, the more likely it is that they will maintain a code of silence. This is precisely what Bell-Ten Have-Lauchs refer to when they point out that “the dark networks operate under cover and keep imposing an omertá that is similar to that of the mafia.” Cohesion and loyalty can be the prelude and the objective condition prior to the omertá because they generate a “false consensus effect” in which the members of the group perceive their own actions as common and normalised behaviours. The anomalous behaviour, then, as illicit behaviour becomes a subculture or way of life, in which the perception of legitimacy is essential for the resilience of the group (Bell-Ten Have-Lauchs, 62).
According to some studies, there are five fundamental elements that influence the development of loyalty in a sports team: a) domination, b) identification,
c) commitment, d) integration and, e) alignment of goals. Domination refers to the extraordinary power that is invested in the coach and the influence and control he exerts over all aspects of his players’ lives. This domination is also reflected in the fact that anyone who enters a sports team undergoes a “re-socialisation”, a sometimes intimidating process by which the newcomer must accommodate to the group’s internal conventions. The newcomer can even suffer some kind of initiatory ritual, under threat of degradation or exclusion.
The identification is fostered by the coach, the main founder of the team’s ideology or programme. This ideology is integrated with the goals pursued by the group and the means to achieve them, including here the mythological stories, the history of exemplary behaviour, etc. The members of the group are pushed to internalise the aims and ideals that shape the team identity.
Another element that plays a major role in the development of loyalty is the commitment to the “programme”, which is sometimes internalised with some kind of ritual, which may be a signature or an oath. This ceremony seals the beginning of the relationship with the team.
The integration of the players into a cohesive team can be achieved in different ways. Sometimes it can take place abruptly if the coach or team exercises a dominant or dictatorial authority, even isolating the members to promote cohesion. But in most cases, the usual process is through common experience or shared rituals. A study by Engelberg et al. (2015, 23) shows that the integration process usually also includes the group of professionals that surround the athlete such as coaches, support staff, and even older athletes (Brissonneau and Ohl, 2010; Engelberg et al., 2015; Lentillon-Kaestner and Carstairs, 2010, Ohl et al., 2013).
But how can we explain the jump from cohesive or loyal behaviours – which in most cases are positive for the achievement of the group’s ends – to behaviours that are contrary to ethics or law? Watts and Buckley point out that an important factor is that some organisations adopt “toxic” patterns, one of them is precisely the reward of silence. A toxic organisational culture is characterised by several features that influence the complaint process of the moral agents. Specifically, the characteristics of toxic organisational cultures include (1) the lack of communication of ethical standards, (2) the weak credibility of the leaders, (3) the general lack of personal responsibility to inform or correct organisational irregularities, (4) lack of support for the employee making decisions; (5) the reward of employee silence; (6) the punishment of internal reports; and (7) inadequate access to legitimate reporting channels (Watts and Buckley, 7).
This is what happens in the field of sport in regard to sexual harassment and violence, sometimes they remain hidden given the existence of a culture of silence. And this is the danger and the threat that the sport organisation must fight by boosting an ethical culture among all the members of the sport staff, finding an equilibrium point between omertá and a moral sense of loyalty.
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