Safe sport series - Athlete abuse in the public sphere

Published 06 June 2018 By: Nikki Dryden

Group of runners

Athletes are on an achievement pathway in their head and they are told in sport they should to tolerate anything that happens to them, even if it is injurious, or dangerous or evil and you should tolerate that on your path to greatness.

People think discipline, rigor, tough training is on same continuum as bullying and abuse, and it's not. You can be rigorous and demanding and push young people and indeed athletes to the envelope of what they tolerate but you can do that with their long-term health and safety in mind.John Amaechi, 1 Retired NBA Player

This is the author’s second article in a safe sport series.

The first article, available here 2 , explained the different types of abuse in sport, before looking in detail at the sexual abuse of minors in the context of the USA Gymnastics (USAG) case. In doing so, it also examined how the governing autonomy enjoyed by sports organizations can contribute to creating systemic problems; the need for greater athlete representation; and the response by US law makers that was led by changemaker, Nancy Hogshead-Makar.

This second article moves on to examine in more detail some of the other types of abuse present in sport. Whereas the USAG abuse happened in private where it was tricky to isolate, this piece will focus on other types of abuse that is happening out in the open. To do this, it will focus on:

    • Familial abuse in tennis

    • Sexual harassment and the National Collegiate Athletic Association

    • Sexual violence by student athletes

Familial abuse in Tennis

Tennis is one sport in which the abuse suffered by players can be front and center for everyone to see. The list of sufferers 3 includes household names like: Mirjana Lucic, Jennifer Capriati, Andre Aggassi, Jelena Dokic , Bernard Tomic, Steffi Graf and Mary Pierce, all champions, male and female, from a diverse set of countries. As well as being champions and title holders, all of these players were also victimized in the pursuit of their sport. Not by strangers turned trusted adults, but instead by their parents, who sometimes double as coaches or agents.

One of the worst cases is Jelena Dokic, former World No. 4 who played for Australia and then Yugoslavia. She writes in a book published in late 2017, Unbreakable, that she was beaten unconscious 4 by her father at tennis tournaments, left out of the hotel to sleep at the courts after losing the semi-final at Wimbledon, verbally abused, and forced to change her nationality to avoid scrutiny.

Dokic told Australia media , 5

The beatings happened almost on a daily basis, but I also struggled with the emotional situation. Not just the physical pain but the emotional [pain], that was the one what hurt me the most … when you are 11, 12 years old and hear all those nasty things … that was more difficult for me."

Tennis Australia admitted 6 they knew something was wrong with Dokic and her father, but did all they could. According to reports some” at the organization went to the police, but nothing went further because Dokic was unable to cooperate. Dokic's father was a known troublemaker ; 7 he was convicted for criminally threatening behavior towards a public official and was expelled by the WTA on numerous occasions, including for violent and belligerent behavior .8 However, he was able to force his daughter out of Australia to Yugoslavia (then Serbia) where she played for another 5 years before returning to Australia. After the book was released even the Australian sport media 9 accepted blame for not doing more to help Dokic.

Tennis Australia was also the target of an Royal Commission on Child Sex Abuse inquiry in 2016, which investigated historical sex abuse at the state level. One outcome of the Commission involved recommendations to set up a grievance mechanism for those who wanted to report abuse. A help line 10 was supposed to be launched in March 2018 (but there is still no mention of it on Tennis Australia’s website as of early May 2018).

Royal Commissions occur often in Australia and tackle everything from sex abuse in the Catholic church and sport to the banking industry. They are the highest form of inquiry on matters of “public importance.” However, the Australia Law Form Commission recently published recommendations to make them more powerful due to the fact that Royal Commissions do not have the power to compel the provision of information as well as lack the ability to communicate information about unlawful behavior to law enforcement bodies.” Several Royal Commissions into sport revealed the high esteem Australian’s value sport in their society, but their shortcomings have meant that real change may yet to occur in sport.

Sexual harassment and the NCAA

As early as 1997, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) issued guidance on their sexual harassment policies and referenced US Supreme Court cases that helped define “Title IX” (see below) outside the sporting arena. In 2014, the NCAA issued a handbook on sexual assault and interpersonal violence along with a toolkit on sexual violence prevention in 2016. In 2017, the NCAA issued a broad-reaching policy on sexual assault.

Before that, the US Supreme Court had already provided the NCAA and universities across the country with some powerful rule of law on sexual harassment including coach-athlete, athlete-athlete and same-sex sexual harassment.

Many in sport would have heard reference to “Title IX” as the key to success of women’s participation in NCAA athletics because it provides that female and male student-athletes receive athletic scholarships proportional to their participation, that both sexes are provided equitable opportunities to participate in sport and receive equal treatment of benefits. However, Title IX is much broader than sport. Title IX of the Educational Amendments (1972) is US Federal law which provides that,

"[n]o person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." 20 U. S. C. § 1681(a).

In Davis vs Monroe Country Board of Education the US Supreme Court ruled that under Title IX, discrimination in education included student on student sexual harassment when the funding recipient is deliberately indifferent, had actual knowledge, and that harassment is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it deprives the victim of access to educational opportunities. The court also held that a n implied private right of action for money damages exists under Title IX.

This US Supreme Court ruling can be applied also to athletes in the university sport system, however amateur athletes outside the NCAA system would have difficultly proving an athlete on athlete sexual harassment legal claim as most laws relate to the workplace and may focus on coach-athlete sexual harassment.

Sexual violence by athletes

Athlete on athlete, and athlete on citizen, sexual violence is not always in the public sphere but there are enough stories to know it is all too common. The author’s research has revealed countless dehumanizing cases, including hazing-sexual assault cases (athlete on athlete) and gang rape by athletes against women as a form of bonding cases11 . Or the athletic departments 12, clubs or police who fail victims when athletes commit sexual violence. While bonding is an important way to build trust within many social groups (especially team sport athletes), it is illegal under most law for any type of bonding and hazing activities to include violence against others.

In August 2017, partly in response to Michigan State’s involvement in the Nassar gymnastics abuse case and partly in response to larger societal problems of sexual and domestic violence, the NCAA issued their policy on sexual violence 13, which went beyond athlete on athlete violence into the world of athlete on student sexual violence.

Some argue that this policy, addressing sexual violence by athletes on non-athletes is outside the scope of abuse in sport, while others argue that it does not go far enough to get to the heart of the problems with sport and athletes more broadly.

Brenda Tracy 14, another changemarker and a survivor of American football player gang-rape, is part of the NCAA’s commission to combat sexual assault on campus. She speaks to university sport teams with the tag #SetTheExpectations (that sexual assault and violence are never okay) but thinks that NCAA athletes who commit sexual violence should not be able to play university sports due to the privilege and prestige that these high profile athletes have on university campuses.

"I don't feel like anyone should be banned from their education," Tracy said . "But I do think that playing sports is absolutely a privilege and not a right. It's a privilege to be an NCAA athlete. To be a scholarship athlete…And so we have a duty and a responsibility to make sure we're driving conversations that effect attitudes and beliefs and how we view these issues correctly.

"And we're not. We're basically saying if you can run fast enough and throw a ball and make enough money for a school or a sports program then you can do whatever you want. You can break a woman's face. You can stomp her. You can rape her. You can do whatever you want as long as you're a good enough athlete. And that's wrong.

Her goal is for the NCAA to create a policy like that of Indiana University 15, which bans sport teams from accepting any athlete “who has been convicted of or pleaded guilty or no contest to a felony involving sexual violence.” It defines sexual violence to include dating violence, domestic violence rape, sexual assault or sexual violence.

While there is an appeal process that lies outside the athlete department, some lawyers equate this to a “life sentence 16,” for some athletes convicted as juveniles.

According to news reports, a similar policy from 2016 is presumed in place in the Southeastern Conference (which includes 14 US universities) whereby transfers into the conference cannot have a history of sexual violence (sexual assault, stalking or interpersonal violence) (a search of the SEC website could find no such policy). This followed an initial policy in 2015 which reportedly bans against "a transfer student-athlete who has been subject to official university of athletics department disciplinary action at any time during enrollment at any previous collegiate institution due to serious misconduct (sexual assault, domestic violence or other forms of sexual violence) shall not be eligible for athletically-related financial aid, practice or competition at an SEC member institution."

In 2016, the Drake Group, issued policy guidance for the NCAA and university athletic departments around sexual violence. They “examined current issues related to collegiate sport sexual and other violence, concluding that:

  1. no uniform approach exists at any level of policy making to deal with the issue,

  2. athlete sexual and other physical violence is condoned by an unacknowledged collegiate athlete subculture that neither educational sport leaders nor college presidents have addressed, and

  3. institutions of higher education are frozen by self-interest, hence unlikely to address such violence unless immersed in a media or legal crisis, in which case they act alone.”

Founded in 1999 and based at the University of New Haven in the US, the Drake Group’s 17 mission is to defend academic integrity in higher education from the corrosive aspects of commercialized college sports and their list of issues is extensive, getting to the heart of problems in sport, from racial exploitation and NCAA reform, to Congressional intervention and transparency and reporting.

The National Association Against Violent Athletes takes the next step in ending abuse in sport. Kathy Redmond Brown 18 is another changemaker and founded the organization in 1998 after she won a law suit against the University of Nebraska relating to her rape by an American football player at the university. She works to eliminate “off the field violence by athletes through the implementation of prevention methods that recognize and promote the positive leadership potential of athletes within their communities.

What exists in the NCAA is a combination of academic oversight from actors as such as the Drake Group to Supreme Court enforcement of laws that protect athletes from sexual harassment and abuse, yet both continue. Even where laws are strong and incidents of abuse are clearly illegal, abuse continues. For this to change the mystic around sport and sports unique culture must change.

This concludes the second piece in the series. The final part will look at the international safeguarding movements that have developed in response to sport’s now-apparent systemic abuse problems.

Related Articles


Nikki Dryden

Nikki Dryden

Nikki is a two-time Olympic swimmer from Canada and a human-rights and immigration attorney in New York. She competed at the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games, with a top finish of 6th place, and covered the 2004 and 2008 Olympics for SwimNews Magazine. She has a BA in International Relations from Brown University and a J.D. from Brooklyn Law School.