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February 11, 2021

Three Myths of Athlete Abuse

Roxy was a member of the USA cycling team. It is alleged that she was psychologically manipulated and sexually assaulted by her coach. She reported the abuse to the U.S. Center for Safe Sport. The coach was suspended, for only two years.

Roxy understood the abuse she endured through three mistaken beliefs. First, she was convinced that her path to athletic success could only be achieved with the help the coach: “… with his help, I’d become a national champion, twice…”

Secondly, Roxy believed that she allowed or welcomed the coach’s abusive conduct. She wrote “… I felt responsible for what had happened, even though he encouraged it. Even after I was assaulted, I still cared about him and I didn’t want to hurt him.”

Third, Roxy feared backlash from her teammates and retaliation from the coach: “I was afraid my coach would try to hurt my career if I reported the assault…”

Like most high-level sports, members of the cycling community are a small and close-knit group of determined individuals bonded together through the athletic struggle. A small community fosters connection where all individuals are moving toward and struggling to achieve a personal and a collective goal.

Scientific studies have long shown that humans need to belong to a community for mental and physical wellbeing. Sports provide such a community and a special sense of belonging. Athletes who experience abuse by a coach or peer must consider whether speaking out will cause others to expel them from the community.

In 2019, Ciara McCormack, a Canadian professional soccer player, spoke about the abusive conduct of national team coach, Bob Birarda. In the End of Sport podcast, Ms. McCormack discussed how athletes can exist in the bubble of their sport. That bubble distorts a wider reality. That bubble leads parents and athletes to mistakenly believe abusive coaches and poorly managed governing bodies possess complete power over the athlete’s options for relief and justice.

Myth vs. Fact

“The whole world was still and dark, every corner, everywhere; until I woke up and went outside into the light.”

It is common for abusive coaches, teammates, and even well-meaning parents, to perpetuate the following fictions:

Myth: “This coach is the best; you need this coach to get you to the next level”

Fact: The next level is the growth of the whole person. You cannot sever your emotional, psychological and physical safety for the advancement of athletic achievement. Your whole being must advance to the next level if you want sustainable growth. Accordingly, if your coach is abusing you verbally, physically or sexually, that coach will never take you to the next level.

Myth: “I never said no; I never told anyone; It wasn’t like I was forced...”

Fact: There is a power dynamic inherent in the coach-athlete relationship. The power is rooted in trust. That power can only stay balanced in the hands of a mature, trained coach.

A trained and conscientious coach understands this power and safeguards boundaries. Trained coaches do not degrade, personalize an athlete’s failures or hold grudges. A trained coach is watchful of an athlete’s physical growth and mental development.

Contrast this to a coach who is reckless or an intentional wrongdoer who exploits the relationship and grooms athletes for additional abuse.

Grooming is a course of conduct where the perpetrator uses physical touch, verbal and nonverbal expressions to manipulate the athlete, and sometimes the parent. Grooming is the process whereby a coach plants doubt in the mind of the athlete.

Grooming, when perfected, is the act of coaches manipulating parents, athletes and maybe even an entire sports community. The slow and steady pace of grooming results in athletes and parents believing they should have seen, known or prevented the abuse. This belief is not true.

An athlete trusts and believes a coach. High-level competitive coaches present themselves as an expert, a resource and a friend. A coach who violates that trust cannot later claim the athlete contributed to the abuse and breached the athlete-coach relationship.

Myth: “My career will be over if I tell; I will never play again.”

Fact: It is estimated that there are over 53,000 coaches worldwide and more than 17,000 coaches in the United States.

In a 2019 essay, Ciara McCormack described the pure stress and abuse she and her teammates suffered. She believed she would commit career suicide if she spoke out. After she left the allegedly abusive coach, she experienced a happy and fulfilling soccer career. Ms. McCormack joined another team and lamented that she stayed in the toxic abusive relationship with Bob Birarda for far too long.

Athletes will find true and viable options outside the bubble and the closed community of their sport.

These options involve an Action Plan to move forward and gain understanding of the law that applies to such situations.

If you believe you are being abused by a coach or peer, take these Next Steps:

  • Surround yourself with trusted confidants who validate you;
  • Create a new community of supportive professionals, such as an integrative practitioner, psychologist and/or an attorney;
  • Stop or curtail all interaction on social media. Seeking support, understanding or alliances through social media is futile and may harm your future legal actions.

If this information was helpful, please share it with friends and family. If you have any questions, please visit my website at jsaunderslawfirm.com to learn about your options and join others who are creating Action Plans. Judie Saunders can be reached at 212-709-8141.

The above information is not legal advice and shall not create an attorney-client relationship. This information is general and may not be applicable to your particular circumstances. You should review your particular circumstances with an attorney.     The information provided in this message does not and is not intended to constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content and materials available in this message, attachment and linked online websites are for general informational purposes only.  Information on in this message may not constitute the most up-to-date or other information. If this message contains links to other third-party websites.  Such links are only for the convenience of the reader, user or browser; attorneys and/or staff at the Law Offices of Judie Saunders do not recommend or endorse the contents of the third-party sites

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