Adults Need to Build Cultures that Protect Young Athletes

Gymnast applying chalk to her hands

What happens when adults in the room fail to protect the young and vulnerable?

Few can forget the avalanche of survivors from the U.S. gymnastics team who came forward to disclose their experiences with sexual abuse from Larry Nassar, a doctor the organization long defended by dismissing survivors who reported his behavior. Rather than listening to survivors and acting swiftly to protect them, adults within the organization silenced the young athletes who came forward.   

This month, RALIANCE’s blogs have focused on sexual misconduct in the world of sports, and the U.S. gymnastics team is a case study of the horrifying trauma and widespread abuse that happens when adults fail to speak up for young athletes. When organizations foster a culture of silencing and belittling young athletes, they permit sexual assault, abuse, and harassment to proceed unchallenged.

A recent documentary focused on these events explores exactly this problem. The film – At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal – exposes not only Nassar’s actions, but the systems and powerful people who let him get away with decades of abusing hundreds of young girls and athletes. The film makes clear that Nassar could not have committed his abuse without the complicity of coaches, athletic administrators, universities, and other powerful adults around him. In the documentary, survivors tell of a pervasive culture of abuse throughout elite gymnastics – the culture’s focus on an ethos of “no pain, no gain” became a weapon for their exploitation.

But what does a healthier culture look like? Leaders and others within athletic organizations have an opportunity to create cultures that embody three principles:

1. Young athletes deserve to be valued as human beings – not just as athletic competitors. This means actively practicing respectful and open communication with young people, which includes listening to and acknowledging their questions. It also means prioritizing the safety and overall mental and emotional well-being of young athletes over “winning at all costs.”

2. Speaking up and taking action to protect young athletes is everyone’s responsibility. Trainings that encourage everyone to do something if they find out an athlete is being abused can help to build a culture where each person within the organization is incentivized to protect the vulnerable.

3. Survivors who come forward deserve to be listened to, believed, and protected. This requires training staff to screen and monitor behaviors between adults and youth.  Adults working with youth should know how to prevent and respond to suspected and reported child sexual abuse.

Resources for how adults can be supportive in preventing sexual abuse against youth are available at RALIANCE’s Sport + Prevention Center – these resources can support organizations who want to uphold norms that support survivors and center the safety of youth.  

At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal is streaming on HBO, and has resources and viewer guides on their website.

RALIANCE provides consulting, assessment, and employee development services to help build more equitable workplace cultures and create environments free from sexual harassment, misconduct and abuse. We stand ready to support your organization’s goals – contact us today at [email protected] to get started.

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