Yesterday, Olympian Ashley Wagner came forward with a story of her sexual assault by another figure skater, when she was only 17 years old. We reached out to a sport sexual abuse expert to gain insights.
For many, the Larry Nassar matter was an introduction to the abuse suffered by many of our greatest competitive athletes. In fact, there was a recently released congressional report about the institutional failures relating to Larry Nassar, as reported by CNN. I, for one, was completely unaware of the potential for abuse in Olympic athletics.
Unlike the Nassar matter, where an Olympic physician was convicted of abusing athletes, Ashley Wagner reported abuse by fellow figure skater, John Coughlin. She was 17 years of age, and Mr. Coughlin (now deceased), was 22 years old at the time of the offense. Ms. Wagner provided a video recording and transcribed statement to USA Today. You can view and read her statement here.
To get a better understanding of the power dynamics and power imbalances described in Ms. Wagner’s statement, I reached out our member Katherine Starr, who is an expert witness in the areas of school and sports-related sexual abuse and harassment. Ms. Starr is also a former Olympian. Please visit her website to learn more about her services and organization Safe4Athletes. Below are my questions and her answers.
NR: Yesterday, Ashley Wagner bravely told a story about a time in which she was sexually assaulted while away at a skating camp. How common are these types of attacks in athletic environments?
KS: Unfortunately, sexual abuse is a very common occurrence in athletics, especially at the elite levels. Training camps and international competition often lack any type of formal education and prevention modalities. The risk of sexual abuse to a minor athlete increases exponentially, as they are now susceptible to sexual abuse from an adult-athlete, program staff members and coaches. There are generally no safeguards in place with minimal resources and structures for an athlete to seek the help and protection they need.
Safe4Athletes did a survey on abuse in sport with a focus on elite athletes, the questions asked were in regard to frequency and duration of abuse, all forms of abuse. We found that abuse was more likely to occur over multi-years and multi-occurrence then a single occurrence of sexual abuse. We also found that over 25 % of the participants in the survey were sexual abused, 80% that responded to having been sexually abused had competed at the international level.
We also found that sexual abuse is common across sport, the level of accomplishment is what makes the athlete vulnerable to being targeted for sexual abuse.
For additional review, a survey can be found on the Safe4Athletes website at www.safe4athletes.org/resources/survey-results.
NR: Ms. Wagner posted a video of her experience and went into great detail. In one part of the video, she discusses the “dynamics of my sport, where uncomfortable power imbalances thrive to this day.” Do sports-related sexual assaults usually involve power imbalances? And, can you expand on these imbalances for our readers?
KS: The power imbalance that Ms. Wagner has shared transpires across all sport and is a direct result of the talent of the athlete. The inherent structure of sport in itself is an imbalance of power. The imbalance of power first becomes exposed when the athlete reaches its “peak age of involvement” in the sport and the imbalance of power continues to widen as the talent reaches the top of its sport.
The power imbalance does not discriminate or change in regard to type of sport, what changes is the peak age of involvement in the sport. For example, gymnastics peak at around 13 and can compete in the Olympics as young as 13 and a typical elite career will last until 20’s. That sport is vulnerable to an abuse of power structure very young were in a sport like cycling the youngest age of Olympic competitor is 18, and last well in to their 30’s. In both instances, athletes are exposed to same abuse of power dynamic.
The imbalance of power and the dynamic develop at all talent levels and environment, often the star of the team is a target abuse. One of the other vulnerable structures is the group of athletes that are good but haven’t reached the great level, they show promise. It is the promise that is always in reach but never obtained.
NR: How can the athletic organizations improve athlete safety?
KS: First and foremost, implement effective policies, which have an external reporting structure.
Athletic departments should not do their own investigations, oversight and training modules. It appears as a conflict of interest. Seek outside help to set up structures that can actually address the power imbalance that is inherent in the system.
Most importantly, the oversight teams of these issues, needs to be educated and trained themselves to be able to understand how the voice of an athlete works.
NR: Often, it seems competitive athletic organizations fail to recognize the dangers. Or, they choose to “sweep it under the rug” when it comes to misbehavior. How should organizations respond to issues of abuse?
KS: As a result of this very issue, all our programs require an “Athlete Welfare Advocate” that is there for the athlete to seek the help they need, when they are ready. If the athlete doesn’t feel comfortable with that option, they always have the choice of speaking with Safe4Athletes directly to obtain the help and resources that they need to respond to the issue.
We customize policies for the sports environment (schools and sports programs), making sure the key ingredients are in place, to allow for an effective program to respond to the inherent abuse of power in the system.
NR: What steps can athletic organizations take to better protect athletes (many of whom are children, as Ashley Wagner was at the time of the incident)?
KS: Invest in athlete safety and protection equally as one would invest in the success of the athlete and the program. Provide the same vigor and fortitude that one puts into the athlete and the program a structure to combat these issues. One cannot have, a truly successful athlete and program without a system to address the inherent dangers that an athlete is susceptible to.
Effective programs understand the needs of “the athlete” coupled with the “level of participation” and are able to adopt and implement those nuances to respond effectively to issues and concerns.
There will be more to come on these matters. For parents with children involved in competitive athletics, please stay informed. Katherine Starr is a great resource!