Protecting Child Athletes from Exploitation

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In some ways, it’s every parent’s dream. We sit in bleachers for untold hours, enduring endless practices and weekends driving to competitions. But then, a trainer recognizes your daughter or son’s extraordinary abilities. And that well-known coach tells you your child has real talent and they are ready for the world-class training reserved for future Olympians. Imagine the pride, and the excitement as you start to picture your child on an Olympic podium, with the national anthem blaring and waving to you. And imagine then, the heartache and pain when something in that journey goes horrifyingly wrong.  

Last week, Senator Diane Feinstein of California led a bipartisan group of senators in passing S. 534, the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sporting Act. Earlier this year, the Senate held hearings that exposed a dark part of America’s amateur athletic program. Three of our pipelines for training future Olympians—gymnastics, swimming, and Taekwondo—have been accused of covering up instances of child sexual abuse by trainers and doctors at their facilities.  

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The story of Olympic Bronze Medalist, Jamie Dantzsher, is typical of the testimony the Committee received. Jamie and her family are from a middle class family in California. The parents had other mouths to feed and children to raise, but Jamie’s coaches told her parents that she had an enormous talent, and so they made the difficult financial sacrifice and time commitment to get her elite athletic training. It paid off, she made the US Junior National Team at age 12, and would be a member of the team every year up to her Olympic debut.  

And it is unsurprising in the whirlwind that followed. Parents confronting an unfamiliar world placed their trust in people who seemed experts. Whether modeling, acting or elite sports, it is hard for parents to know what is normal, what should be expected, whom to trust. And it is even harder for a 12 year old girl, suddenly thrust into the spotlight, being asked to do almost superhuman things with her body, isolated from her usual friends and family support network, to gauge what is actually happening.  

And that is precisely the space that child sexual predators of all stripes like to occupy, whether they are pimps, traffickers, trusted family members or team physicians.  

Jamie’s brave testimony explains:

It was then that I was introduced to the US National Team Physician, Dr. Larry Nassar.
What I have only recently come to understand is that the medical treatment he performed for my back pain and other in injuries was sexual assault. Dr. Nassar abused me at the USA National Training Center in Texas, he abused me in California and at meets all over the world. Worst, he abused me in my hotel room in Sydney at the Olympic Games.
When I first spoke out about my abuse at the hands of Dr. Nassar, I thought I was the only one. I was disbelieved and even criticized by the some in the Gymnastics community for bringing this disturbing issue to light.
Now I know that I am not alone. More than 100 women have come forward and shared stories that are shockingly similar to mine.

Tragically, the reaction from the amateur athletic associations followed a familiar pattern. They heard all the rumors, did nothing, and found excuses for why their hands were tied. USA Gymnastics, the governing body for the amateur gymnastics in the United States, is headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana. And it is largely due to the intrepid reporting of the Indianapolis Star, that these cases have come to light. A recent report by the Star recounts the reality that some of the keys to good coaching easily translate into the grooming process that we see in most forms of child sexual abuse.  

“[Q]ualities that make a coach successful—a close coach-athlete relationship, legitimate authority, blind trust and a successful reputation—can easily be exploited to groom and sexually abuse young athletes. In a study of elite female gymnasts and swimmers abused by their coaches, Gretchen Kerr and Ashley E. Stirling of the University of Toronto found several common themes: The victims equated “the power of the coach to that of a priest whose absolute knowledge is not questioned or challenged.  Many of the girls were in awe of coaches, in part because they held the key to the athletes’ potential success.  Parents deferred to coaches they believed had the expertise and access to resources to ensure their children's competitive success. Troubling behavior often gets a pass because of a coach’s winning reputation.”

It is difficult for a parent or a child to know what to do, but predators know exactly how to put themselves in a position to have access to vulnerable children. Sometimes it is in the sports world but child are exploited in many other areas as well.

Though the Star’s investigation uncovered 368 allegations of sexual abuse by young gymnasts, until recently, very little had been done. In a circumstance that echoes the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church, coaches would quit and move from gym to gym keeping the allegations at bay. Furthermore, these numbers are likely the tip of an iceberg, as so many of these cases have likely gone unreported. And yet, years later, the abuse continues to impact the lives of these victims.  

But, in finding a silver lining, these shocking allegations have prompted action in Washington. The Senate-passed bill makes several important changes in law, to help protect these young, talented athletes from sexual predators.  

First, the bill amends existing Federal law, The Victims of Child Abuse Act of 1990, to expand the list of entities mandated to report instances and evidence of child abuse to law enforcement.  Under Senator Feinstein’s bill amateur athletic organizations would be added to the list of “mandatory reporters” which now includes occupations like doctors and teachers.  

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Secondly, the bill changes the Ted Stevens Amateur and Olympic Sports Act, the law that organizes U.S. Olympic participation, by requiring that all amateur athletic organizations establish a mechanism, in coordination with child abuse experts, to allow for easy reporting of sexual abuse allegations. Furthermore, the bill requires that all training facilities adopt policies to prevent minors from being left alone with non-parental adults without observation by another adult.  

This legislation marks an important first step in protecting children who are pursuing the Olympic dream. It is one of the many strands of protection that make up the safety net needed to protect children from abuse and exploitation. These kids are literally giving their last ounce of strength to make our country proud. It seems little to ask that we protect them from sexual exploitation while they do so. S. 534 passed the United States Senate unanimously, and it awaits action by the House of Representatives and signature by the President.

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