sexual harassment and abuse in sport

What is sexual abuse?

 - Sexual abuse is behaviour towards an individual or group that involves sexualised verbal, non-verbal or physical behaviour, whether intended or unintended, legal or illegal, that is based upon an abuse of power and trust 
 - Sexual abuse involves any sexual activity where consent is not or cannot be given
 - Sexual abuse often involves a process known as ‘grooming’


How is grooming done?

Stages of grooming/The grooming process in sport

Targetting a potential victim

·      observing which athlete is vulnerable
·      finding occasions to test her out for secrecy and reliability
·      checking out her credentials as a susceptible person
·      striking up a friendship
·      being nice

Building trust and friendship


·      making her feel special
·      giving gifts and rewards
·      spending time together
·      listening
·      being consistent
·      setting down basic conditions for each meeting
·      beginning to bargain “You have to do this, because I have done that” 

Developing isolation and control; building loyalty

·      refusing the child access to significant others and or demeaning any previous sources of friendship and support
·      restricting access to or reliance on parents and carers and non-sport peers
·      being inconsistent, building up hopes and joy one moment and then punishing the next to increase the child’s desperation for attention
·      checking the child’s commitment through questioning and setting small tests

Initiation of  sexual abuse and securing secrecy

·      gradual incursion into ambiguous sexual boundaries
·      if athlete objects saying “you didn’t mind last time” to entrap her
·      invoking co-operation “you owe me/it’s the least you can do”
·      invoking guilt “now look what you’ve done”
·      offering protection “I won’t tell/it’s our little secret”
·      discrediting the victim so she has no choice but to remain “others won’t understand” or “nobody will believe you”
·      threatening the victim “if you tell anyone I’ll hurt you/tell others what you’ve done/hurt someone you care about/drop you from the team…”

Source: Brackenridge, C.H. (2001) Spoilsports: Understanding and preventing sexual exploitation in sport. London: Routledge, p. 35.

 - The abuser slowly builds up trust and cooperation from the athlete before starting to abuse them 
 - Grooming often involves manipulation and entrapment of the athlete


The abusive relationship

Types of Power/Sources of Power


 Basis within sport


Expert power

Ability in the sport

Demonstrating a performance technique

Referent power

Knowledge of sport and its internal workings

Knowing where and how to network to recruit a new player

Legitimate power

Official appointment

Made head coach or a team by governing body of the sport

Coercive power

Physical or emotional force applied to make athletes compliant

Bullying by shouting at an athlete

Charismatic power/

Personal power

Attractive and persuasive personality

Charming athletes to train harder

Enabling power

Ability to facilitate

Giving athletes a say in selection meetings

Reward power

Ability to give or withhold rewards

Selecting or cutting a player from the team

Positional power

Occupying a high social status

Being widely respected because of the credibility of the job

Resource power

Intellectual, technical or physical resources

Having a wide repertoire of tactics

Relationship power

Relative standing in a social system

Being a male coach in a women’s sport

Information power

Knowing useful information

Knowing scouting information about opposition athletes

Sources: After French and Raven (1959), and Tomlinson and Strachan (1996)
Source: Quotations taken from Brackenridge, C.H. (2001) Spoilsports: Understanding and preventing sexual exploitation in sport, London: Routledge, p.83.  

 - There is a power difference in an athlete’s relationship with members of their entourage (coaches, scientific and medical staff, administrators etc.) because athletes are dependent on these experts and usually have complete trust in them. If misused, this power difference can lead to exploitative sexual relationships with athletes
- Coach-athlete relationships at the elite level of competitive sport require a significant amount of time to be spent together in an emotionally intense environment. This situation has the potential to put the athlete at risk of isolation within a controlling relationship where his/her power and right to make decisions is undermined
- In some cases, team mates or other young athletes can be sexual abusers.

The risk of sexual and abuse is greater when there is:

- a lack of protection (such as child protection policies and procedures, education and training),
- high motivation by the abuser
- a high level of athlete vulnerability (especially in relation to young age and maturation)

Sexual harassment and abuse happen in all sports and at all levels. Prevalence appears to be higher in elite sport. Members of the athlete’s entourage or peer athletes who are in positions of power and authority appear to be the majority of abusers. Males are more often reported as abusers than females. Both female and male athletes can be victims


How does sexual abuse affect your health?

- Sexual abuse in sport seriously and negatively affects athletes’ physical and psychological health because they may feel hurt, humiliated, upset, or lacking control
- It can also result in sleeping problems, lack of concentration and impaired performance and can lead to athlete drop-out
- Psychosomatic illnesses, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, self harm and suicide are some of the serious health consequences
- Sexual abuse also damages relationships with coaches in general and causes a reduction in trust by athletes in coaches


What effect does sexual abuse have on teammates?

 - Sexual abuse can undermine team cohesiveness because it sets up jealousies, and apparent favouritism, thus negatively affecting performance
- Team mates who are aware of the problem and feel powerless often suffer from psychological stress and drop-out early from their sport 

Case study « Sheila »

Sheila is a 17 year old woman. She is a talented 1500m runner and hopes to make the Olympic team this year. She is selected for the qualifying squad and moves city to be near the training facility and coach, Tom.

Tom praises her performances saying that if she follows his directions he will make her dreams come true.  It is obvious that the coach likes Sheila, giving her encouraging comments and praise. Initially, she is happy with how her coaching relationship is going. But later Tom gives her special attention which her teammates notice and comment on.

Sheila is not achieving well at school and one day Tom offers to tutor her in her school work after practice in his office.  He drives her home after the tutoring session and buys her dinner on the way home.  After a few weeks, Tom changes the tutoring sessions from being held at his coach’s office to his home in the evenings. 

The night before the 1500m qualifying race, Tom calls Sheila to his hotel room for a “special pre-competition talk”.  While sitting on the bed together, he puts his arm around her. She begins to feel uncomfortable as he places his hand on her thigh. He says that if she performs special favours for him, he will ensure her success tomorrow.

As Sheila leaves the room, she passes by the team manager and her team mates.  Although visibly crying and upset, they turn around and walk away. 

Case study « Helga »

Helga is a 16 year old discus thrower on the National Youth team. Helga just recently travelled to the National training centre from her home town for a training camp to prepare for an important competition.  Trond, 17 years old, is a hammer throw athlete also on the National Youth team.  As they are both throwing athletes, Helga and Trond are scheduled to train together both in the weight room and on the field. At first they are friends and she accepts him on her Facebook site. But every day during the stretching session, Helga notices that Trond repeatedly stares at her breasts, making her feel uncomfortable. He starts to send her lots of inappropriate text messages and to post sexual comments about her on his Facebook site.

One day, as he passes her on the way into the weight room, Trond comments in passing, “Let’s work out hard today – keep that butt nice and firm!”  Helga feels herself turn visibly red.

During the next training sessions, Helga tries to keep her distance from Trond.  One evening however, when she leaves the stadium to go the subway, Trond surprises her as she passes by a wall.  He had been waiting for her to walk by.   When Helga passes by, Trond says, “My parents are away – come to my house and we can play. I know that you want to”



What could help an athlete like Helga or Sheila?

Knowing that she has a right to be protected
 - Knowing that it is not her fault
 - Knowing that she is not alone and that there are people to listen to her/ask for help
 - Talking to an adult who she trusts (such as: welfare officer, team doctor, team chaperone, nurse, parent, older sibling, friend or teacher)
 - Using a helpline

What could Helga’s teammates do if they are worried about her?

- Understand that it is not their fault and they should not feel ashamed or guilty
- Tell an adult that they trust about their concerns
- Seek help for their own feelings

What can you do to protect yourself from sexual abuse in sport?

- Understand your rights and responsibilities
- Follow your organisation’s procedures if there are any
- Know what to do to prevent and report concerns
- Look out for each other
- Challenge inappropriate behaviour by others
- Share your concerns with someone else


As a coach what could I do to help Sheila or Helga?

- Listen calmly to her if she wishes to talk
- Tell her that she has a right to be protected
- Tell her that it is not her fault and that she is not alone
- Tell her that you may have to report the problem to someone else who can help
- Learn where and how to report athletes’ disclosures of sexual abuse (such as: the contact for a team chaperone, welfare officer, doctor, nurse, or a helpline)
- Challenge inappropriate behaviour by other coaches or athletes
- Report colleagues or athletes who you suspect or know are maltreating athletes

Follow the highest possible standards of behaviour and ethics in your coaching

Testimonies of how coaches groom athletes

I can see now that it’s a pattern … there were locker room scenes where he would turn out the lights and [he’d] say “Oh let’s all get undressed” and then, you know, “We’ll turn the lights back on again after we’re dressed”. So it was titillating to us. We thought it was so exciting but it was very seemingly innocent, there was no touching or anything and we couldn’t see each other, so starting with very small things like that. Or late at night on a moonless night we would skinny dip and, again, we would stay in our separate corners of the pool and he began playing games, I guess, that involved taking off clothes. Then he would drive us home at night, my two good friends and me, and he would drop off each of them at their homes first and then I was the last one. And we would be in the middle of some good conversation and we would go park somewhere and just talk and … you know not much more happened than that the first summer. So he was gaining my trust and feeling me out in an emotional way leading to feeling me out in a physical way, and all that … happened very slowly with his hand on my thigh, you know, maybe every night for weeks and then eventually progressing to kissing so … I see now that he was very scared, he was scared he would end up in jail for statutory rape … and he was going very slowly in order to gain my trust and make sure I was not going to turn him in.

(Female victim of sexual abuse in sport)