Ohio State recently became the latest university to make the news for reported sexual abuse, this following previous scandals at Michigan State and Penn State. All three schools were accused of various crimes relating to sexual predatory behaviors, from Jerry Sandusky’s pedophile interactions with kids, to Dr. Larry Nassar and Dr. Richard Strauss’ sexual abuse of student athletes while masking their behaviors as normal medical procedures. An additional law suit at Ohio State filed by Eszter Pryor alleges that an Ohio State dive coach sexually abused her and the university failed to act. While each of these cases is unique, there are some very important common questions that must be examined, including:
- Are there specific people and situations unique to sports that leave kids/student athletes vulnerable and exposed to danger?
- Are there warning signs that victims and institutions routinely miss, thereby allowing potentially dangerous situations to develop?
- Do pedophiles and other sexual predators find athletic venues to be easy places to carry out their crimes?
- Why have these cases rarely been reported previously, and are universities entirely culpable for creating and allowing these kinds of cultures to exist?
Sexual predators and pedophiles come in all sizes and shapes, making it difficult to pre-determine individuals that might present a high-risk for future sexual crimes. That said, there does appear to be some common traits witnessed when examining perpetrators, as well as common psychological characteristics pertaining to leadership and group dynamics that play in to the puzzle.
When examining individuals who seem to be able to successfully carry out their sexual deviancy, the following characteristics are often witnessed:
- They have official titles, including coach or doctor.
- Beyond their formal titles, these individuals are often revered and recognized for their status and/or previous accomplishments.
- They are seen as powerful people, potentially capable of making/breaking an athlete’s future career.
In addition to the individual commonalities presented above, there are basic psychological concepts that contribute to these stories:
- Human beings have been found to be compliant and obedient to authority figures, as first discovered by the famous Stanley Milgram studies. In many cases subjects have followed through on tasks they personally didn’t agree with, yet continued only appease the authority figure making the suggestions. In the cases involving coaches and doctors, it’s quite likely that their authority status played a significant role in subjects being obedient to their advances.
- There are group dynamics to also consider, meaning that oftentimes individuals will think and act differently in a group than they might as individuals. An example of this might be an athlete following through and allowing inappropriate touching by a perpetrator thinking that if others have done the same, it must be normal.
- There is also a diffusion of responsibility when it comes to how individuals act/react in a group setting. In the case of sexual predators, oftentimes individuals who are concerned something might not be right assume someone else on the team must also know there is a problem, and certainly someone has reported it. In these examples nobody takes action because of the false belief someone else will (or has).
- Finally, it is not uncommon for victims to feel shame, embarrassment, and humiliation — often blaming themselves for being abused. It is for these reasons that many victims do not come forward and report.
These are just some of the reasons why perpetrators often get away with their crimes, and why some victims remain quiet even when they feel they have been victims of abuse.
Working toward a better, safer future
There have been too many confirmed sexual abuse stories in sports to not pay close attention to athletic personnel, venues, and culture. Increasingly more student athletes are speaking out, and schools/individuals are being held accountable. Still, there is much work to be done before we see a new, safer paradigm develop where student athletes can be assured of their safety at all times.
What institutions can do:
- No hire should be bigger than the program. Schools need to be very careful in the hiring process, and always maintain a philosophy that the program is bigger than any single individual.
- Offer regular training and inservice education. With so many terrible stories breaking in recent years, ongoing professional training today needs to be mandatory and ongoing.
- Anonymous reporting. Every student athlete should have access to reporting their concerns anonymously and without negative consequence.
- Zero tolerance. This should be a no-brainer — if you cross the line you not only immediately lose your job, but that the case is automatically turned over to the police.
- Offer counseling and support. If there is a crime and a victim comes forward, schools need to offer professional counseling support (both on campus, as well as options not related to the school in any way).
What individuals can do:
- Trust your intuition. If you feel like something just isn’t right, be it during a physical examination or just in the manner in which a professional is speaking to you, tune in to your intuition. In these moments athletes should consider reporting their concerns to coaches, teammates, and administrators, and steer clear of being alone with the concerned individual while allegations are being examined.
- Document and report. If there is potential verbal or physical indiscretion, take a moment to record what happened, the date and time, and any other individuals who might be privy to the situation.
- Dismiss the idea that there is a common “type” of abuser or abusing environment. There isn’t a specific characteristic or observable trait that clearly identifies potential sexual predators, as we have seen witnessed perpetrators of various age, ethnicity, and gender.
Sadly, these kinds of stories where kids/student athletes experience sexual abuse do not appear to be going away, as just since this writing yet another story has been reported at Arizona State. There is a lot more for us to learn about why these crimes are occurring, and what schools and individuals can do in the future in order to mitigate risks. For more help with training to offer your coaches, teachers, and administrators click here to learn about Tough Topics, Practical Solutions.