On day two of a high school tournament showcase I stood on the sidelines taking scout notes. I reached into my backpack for some water seeking a moment of relief from the heat. My notepad list of players to watch had grown longer as the day went on. As another team on the field closest to me at the complex finished up, I watched a quite well-known young male coach pull a player in close near the sideline after the team shook hands.
Based off this description alone, one might read this and think nothing of it. I watched him continue to grin and pull her a little closer as his hand went a tad lower than the small of her back. The high school player and her male coach shared what looked like a mutual giggle and all but touched foreheads, which instantly gave me a bad vibe. I thought to myself: Am I the only one seeing this? Did her teammates or parents see?
Just then, I heard two male adults near me who were quietly addressing the interaction.
"Wo, that was a little too close," the first man said.
"Yeah, _________ is popular with college girls." the second man responded. "I heard the high school girls love him too."
"Don't you think that's a little weird?" the first man asked.
"Nah, he seems to know his stuff and if any of the girls were uncomfortable then I'm sure they would say something." the second man said.
"I guess so." the first man replied, sounding unsure.
"I mean, young guy like that, probably not easy being around all those young girls all the time. I'm sure it's nothing but... I mean, as long as it's not my daughter." the second man said.
As long as it's not my daughter? My eyes widened and I looked up as both their backs were to me walking away.
The saddest part about this exchange was that that was not the first time I had heard something similar about this particular coach. However, my double take of that dodgy scenario I witnessed with my own two eyes, was so defining. Fast forward to the present where countless coaches and even athletes have since made comments about this particular coach's alarming closeness and control of his athletes.
As many inside the women's rugby community know, there are pockets of tightly woven groups all over the US where even the strongest rivals during the college season can be found playing side by side in summer pro league or women's senior clubs.
It is in that rugby circle that talk is so overly plentiful where players have even admitted to their teammates that they have been uncomfortable by this coach's advances or shared a bad experience. More recently I received an inquiry from another coach seeking counsel on what steps to take in reporting on what they had overheard and were disturbed by, concerning this coach.
With each stomach-churning "hearsay", I had had enough. I write to express not only to the rugby community but the sports community that there is a way we can stop this but must all first understand how detrimental our own apathy is to victims.
In general, across the sports communities this dialogue occurs and although it's not viewed as acceptable, it appears to be permitted to occupy a surface that few want to scratch. If you are among those who have questioned ethical behavior or looked the other way because, "It's only hearsay", "do not want to be involved" or that "the athlete said she didn't want anyone to know", I implore you to read further.
To hear these stories again and again, all with strikingly similar patterns is maddening not just an intercollegiate coach but as a human being. For me, the hardest reality to swallow is knowing that while there are watchdogs and victims who do come forward, we are still outnumbered by the apathetic witness community. I've blown my fair share of whistles in sports where safety and injustice is concerned. Despite the battle often feeling fruitless where the victim(s) decided not to come forward or have rescinded their complaint out of fear or embarrassment, it will not change my personal response or recourse for others.
Unfortunately, many still believe that unethical adults leading athletes into these situations are the full extent of the problem. However, the witness population that recuses themselves from getting involved or refuses to acknowledge this behavior is enabling it.
The journey so far is mere inches compared the miles of movement that will continue to be necessary in order to create lasting and effective change for those who are still finding the courage in the sport arena to speak up. Inappropriate coach-athlete relationships, athlete abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and inequitable treatment are a prevalent and historical toll that has and will continued to be paid by female athletes unless we recognize some of the most overused questions and then vow to stop asking them.
"If these girls, women or teams are being hurt or treated unfairly why haven't any of them spoken out? Where are the interviews, charges, testimonies?" and "Why now?"
Allow me to explain.
1. These questions somehow assume that every athlete, parent and coach has cornered the market on having the most accurate and trustworthy information on safety and access through the organizations to which they belong.
This is a hasty generalization as the system breakdown for reporting is clear from the case involving former USA Olympic Gymnastics team physician Larry Nassar. Nassar, was sentenced to 60 years in prison for multiple sex crimes involving of 140 female athletes in his care.
Additionally, long overdue ousting of sexual predator/coach Rick Butler of USA Volleyball is a disturbing match for USA Swimming's head shaking mishandling of countless sexual abuse complaints. As these NGB's have egregiously failed to protect their athletes, why is anyone surprised that victims would hesitate to come forward immediately?
2. From high school, college, to elite female athletes, many forget that pipelines to the national teams can involve a wide range of age groups and levels of experience. We must begin to explore and understand just how much power a spot on an elite squad, national team or successful travel team can hold. With these opportunities at stake, it should be no surprise how much silence can be negotiated and delivered by the athlete.
3. Regardless of what sport, athletic organizations that wreak of inequitable or illegal practices are typically quite seasoned in the area of fostering a culture of fear through control. They can do this through a board, a CEO, a committee, a manager, an athletic director, coaching staff and even token players.
This culture of fear is not isolated to any one sport, but is very much sewn into the fabrics of the experiences of our young girls and women. We must understand and dissect this before we judge. At the very least, I hope that this subject will continue to be exposed.
4. Leadership is lonely and advocacy can be isolating. In my career I've been told on more than one occasion by a superior to "shut my mouth", "keep quiet", "stop asking so many questions", "he's not perfect", "let the school handle it", or that it's pointless to speak up when those who are in power, are assumed to always be in power.
One of our basic human desires is to be loved and to fit in. Stepping outside the fray of the herd who watches injustice and responds with silence isn't fun or comfortable nor will it make you popular. However, for the female athletes, fans and coaches in the USA, I want to reach out and tell you ALL that while we can certainly retweet #METOO and #TIMESUP, the more effective action item and a physical entity to turn to, is SafeSport.
For Olympic or high performance athletes SafeSport Center handles ALL reports of sexual abuse within the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Movements. You can make a report to the Center if you have a reasonable suspicion of sexual misconduct such as child sex abuse, non-consensual sexual conduct, sexual harassment or intimate relationships involving an imbalance of power. Under the wings of the USOC are all NGB's who are also obligated to report to SafeSport.
Too often the hollywood portrayal of what happens after a report of this nature is made, bravery can be stifled or muted where survivors feel overwhelmed with the prospect of telling their story and/or identifying their abuser or attacker. I've been there, I get it. It's an awful feeling but allow me to say before you picture police stations, hours of invasive or accusatory questions, know that SafeSport is an organization specifically designed as a resource for the athletic community that allows you to make a report electronically and anonymously. You can fill out an anonymous report by clicking here.
5. While the process for coming forward with any information can be daunting and scary, the anonymity you are afforded is clearly defined by SafeSport.
Anonymity means that either (a) your identity is unknown to the Response & Resolution Office (an anonymous report), or (b) your identity will not be shared with anyone.
(a) The Response & Resolution Office allows individuals to report anonymously—meaning that the reporter’s identity is unknown to the Response & Resolution Office.
(b) In addition, if the reporter’s identity is known to the Response & Resolution Office, it will not share the reporter’s identity with anyone.
Anonymity does not mean that the information you provide will be protected. If we tell you that information is being accepted or used anonymously, it means your name will not be used under any circumstances.
*CONFIDENTIALITY with SafeSport
It means your identity and the information you have shared will not go any further than the person you have shared it with. If a Reporting Party would like the details of an incident to be kept confidential.
Even if you are not a victim yourself you may know an athlete who has gone through this or is struggling to figure how and where to seek guidance. Perhaps you know a coach who has asked for help in dealing with a colleague or another coach. I urge anyone to share this if you think someone may find it helpful.
Ultimately, no amount of writing or article encouragement may make a difference when it comes to alleviating the fear and anxiety of victims of abuse. However, the volatile view of inappropriate coach/player relationships must shift to the utterly unacceptable.
We must come out of talking about this issue quietly in small spaces, to openly confronting those who abuse their position of power while safeguarding the athlete's well-being as if she is EVERYONE'S daughter.
*Definition content and text on confidentiality and anonymity courtesy of SafeSport.