Fighting for Justice: Lessons From the Struggle Against Abuse in Sports

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During the Olympics a troubling report was unveiled by the Indianapolis Star (full report here), detailing an extended history of USA Gymnastics, the gymnastics’ governing body also responsible for supervising gymnast teams for the Olympics, routinely ignoring allegations of sexual abuse by gymnasts’ coaches. The timing of the release of the Indianapolis Star’s report was likely strategic: at any other time of the year it might have gotten little attention, since gymnastics isn’t a sport that is followed consistently in America.

According to the report, USA Gymnastics had allegations of abuse filed against over fifty coaches. Many of these allegations were never reported to the police, which is illegal in all states. Three of these coaches are now convicted and serving lengthy prison sentences for their abuse, while one coach committed suicide in prison after his conviction.  Each convicted coach had several allegations reported to USA Gymnastics without any action being taken to investigate the allegations and protect children.

In 2013, a gymnast who was allegedly victimized in Georgia sued the organization. Her lawsuit claims she was abused for over seven years by a coach who had already had four complaints filed against him. Under oath, two former USA Gymnastics officials admitted the organization’s policy of rejecting anything other than first-hand or second-hand testimony (ie: a report filed by either the victim or their parents). Lisa Gansar, mother of the Georgia victim, said: “USAG failed at this … It didn't have to happen to my daughter, and it didn't have to happen to other little girls.” (For a more in-depth summary, see Christina Cauterucci’s Slate article for an excellent analysis of USA Gymnastics’ numerous failures to protect children.)

Another article by Elliot Almond published earlier this month by Mercury News details the career of San Jose lawyer B. Robert Allard, who took on USA Swimming for similar failures to protect children. Allard’s career has made him so aware of the way in which abuse is often deeply embedded in sports culture that, he says, "I would never watch the Olympics, much less with my wife and children. It brings back too many beliefs that these athletes are exploited in every way."

The enormous difficulty involved in getting the sports industry to do what simply must be done to protect children reminds me of how reluctant industries or “systems” of any kind typically are to take abuse seriously. For abuse of children to be addressed, the victim or potential victim needs to be more important than the industry (or church, or school, or denomination) “looking good” or profiting or believing the best of its leaders, which is why purely internal policies without any external supervision often fail abuse victims. In Allard’s work targeting athletes exploited under the supervision of USA Swimming, Allard has a deliberate strategy in place to protect children while forcing the institution to change. According to Almond, “He lets the criminal cases take care of the pedophile, then uses civil courts to raise awareness, empower the victims and try to force the institutions to create better safeguards.”

Allard’s strategy reminds me that we will make little headway in protecting children unless we are both knowledgeable about how our given “system” works and its flaws, and willing to fight—to do whatever it takes to work around the system and find ways to shift it towards justice. Protecting from abuse should be a given, but in most organizations, achieving real justice will be an uphill battle.

Allard and others’ advocacy work on behalf of abuse survivors in athletics has caused some progress. USA Swimming, for example, now has a published list of coaches banned for violating codes of conduct, mandatory background checks, and has initiated a program called Safe Sport which educates about abuse in athletics and provides a way to file complains. Allard remains committed to his model of advocacy, however, distrustful of the conflicts of interest involved in a program led by USA Swimming leaders.

USA Gymnastics also has taken steps toward a Safe Sport program, but Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic medalist who was involved in drafting the blueprint for the program, remains frustrated by the slow progress—although launched in 2014, the program 2 years later still has no director and the center has yet to begun to be built. In the slow progress towards a more safe and just culture, we can be thankful for leaders like Hogshead-Makar and Allard who show us ways we can be part of a force for change and justice long before institutions and communities as a whole do the right thing to protect our children.

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