Safe sport series - The international responses to athlete abuse in sport

Published 06 June 2018 By: Nikki Dryden


“At a time of success for British sport in terms of medals, championships and profile, this raises challenging questions about whether the current balance between welfare and winning is right and what we are prepared to accept as a nation...

Questions are being asked about the price being paid for success. It is clear that the drive for success and desire to win should not be at the cost of the individuals involved. Allegations about the past need to be thoroughly investigated, but the focus must also remain on those in the current system to ensure that they are protected and free from harm, bullying, harassment and discrimination. Although there are processes and safeguards in place, the right culture is still required to ensure they work. Sport cannot think of itself as special or different and able to behave outside what are considered acceptable behaviour patterns.” Tanni Grey-Thompson, Paralympic Gold medalist.

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

The first article, available here1, 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 piece, available here, moved on to examine in more detail some of the other types of abuse present in sport, in particular familial abuse in tennis, and sexual harassment and violence relating to collegiate athletes.

Having gained some appreciation for the systemic scale of abuse present in sport, this final piece in the series examines in more details a number of the safeguarding responses happening around the world to try to address the problem. A number of these have been highlighted already in the first and second articles, principally by authorities in the US in response to the USAG case and collegiate sexual abuse. This piece moves on to examine responses by other bodies and authorities, including:

  • The UK’s recent Duty of Care Review, undertaken by Baroness and Paralympic Gold medalist Tanni Grey-Thompson;

  • The English Football Associations response to historic abuse in football;

  • The role of individual ‘changemakers’:

    • Celia Brakenridge, SafeSport International

    • Kari Fastin, WomenSport International

    • Katherine Starr, Safe4Athletes

  • Responses by International Federations:

    • International Gymnastics Federation

    • International Tennis Federation

    • FIFA

    • International Olympic Committee

  • International legal options: United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

UK Duty of Care Review

In the Duty of Care Review, Baroness Grey-Thompson issued 7 priority recommendations2 the most notably a “Duty of Care Guardian” on all national sporting body boards. Someone to own the issue across all levels of the sport. Another top recommendation was “independent” government funding to the British Athletes Council to support Olympic and Paralympic athletes who are not unionized as well as a “Duty of Care Ombudsman3.

In the Safeguarding section many recommendations were made including suggestions to conduct more research, that a national children’s charity, the NSPCC, would be given more resources to help the sporting community through their Sport Unit, and a national coaching license scheme should be created. Other highlights include:

  • Government should review the Sexual Offences Act 2003 to include sports coaches within the definition of “Positions of Trust”, in order to provide additional safeguards for 16 and 17-year-olds. (This has been now taken up by the Sports Minister4).

  • Government to consider introducing a Duty to Report in all sports organisations. This would mean that if a person knows, or has suspicion of, any abuse taking place, they must report it to the relevant body for action to be taken.

  • Where talent pathway sports remove young people from the club structure (where safeguarding officers exist), signposting to safeguarding processes must be included in the induction progress.

  • All organisations should have their safeguarding policy clearly available on their website and in other materials, and clearly lay out the steps to be taken to make a complaint.

  • Further work is required on how to provide information about doping within sport for young athletes.

Recognizing that sports’ biggest hurdle is that it is run by volunteers at many levels, Grey-Thompson’s report raises important suggestions for how government can support sports who make safeguarding a priority:

The importance of safeguarding measures is paramount, and yet a lack of resources at the organisational level sometimes means that welfare and safeguarding leads sometimes have to fit in their duties alongside other roles. It can be a lonely job and the role can often lack clout within an organisation. More support is needed in this area. Consideration should be given by NGBs about how they could work together to provide more comprehensive round-the-clock support. At the grassroots level, safeguarding will normally be the responsibility of volunteers. The government and sport organisations should consider how they give these volunteers some recognition of the important work that they do, for example through additional time in lieu for continuing professional development (CPD), or even tax incentives. Government could encourage employers to recognise the benefit of volunteering in sport and community work and support staff appropriately.

English Football Association

English Football is still unearthing decades long sexual abuse at clubs of all levels across the nation with more investigations happening across the UK. It took several high profile players to come out publicly, including Andy Woodward5 and Paul Bennett6.

As of December 2017, Operation Hydrant has reported 839 alleged victims, 294 alleged suspects, arising from 2094 referrals, impacting 334 clubs.

Of the allegations, ten men have been charged with historical sexual abuse. Eight are awaiting trial and one has since died. The worst offender, Barry Bennell has been in and out of court with additional charges being added regularly over the past two years. In February 2018, Bennell was convicted on 50 offences and was jailed for 31 years, but there are pending charges from another 87 individuals.

What is not historical and is the same strategy taken by USAG is that as recently as 2015, one player was paid to keep quietabout the historical abuse. “The former Chelsea player Gary Johnson has said he was paid £50,000 by the Premier League club not to go public with allegations that he was sexually abused by the club’s former chief scout Eddie Heath.7

I think that they were paying me to keep a lid on this,” Johnson said in the Daily Mirror, which reported that Chelsea had waived the confidentiality clause in Johnson’s settlement, which was made in 2015. “Millions of fans around the world watch Chelsea. They are one of the biggest and richest clubs in the world.

All their fans deserve to know the truth about what went on. I know they asked me to sign a gagging order and how many others are there out there. They may have paid others for their silence. I hope and pray no clubs are allowed to cover this up – no one should escape justice. We need total transparency now for the good of the game. What makes me so angry is that I went to them to say I had been abused and they basically said, ‘prove it’.

The response by the FA was swift. They set up a helpline with help from a children's group that received 1700 calls8 within three weeks. The FA also started inquiries9 into what the clubs knew when and what the FA knew and when. This was passed to an external party, Clive Sheldon, QC10 whose team is still working through the inquiry as of March 2018.

However, some are questioning11 the FA's inquiry12 and reports indicate that some sexual abuse is not historical and is still happening. In April 2017, it was reported that Operation Hydrant had received reports of incidents within football after 2005 (the FA inquiry's cut-off date), with 46 alleged attacks said to have occurred from 2005 to 2016, including 23 since 201113.

In November 2017 it was announced that the law would be changed14 to make it illegal for sport coaches to have sex with 16- and 17-year-old children in their care.

The role of key individual changemakers

In the first article in the series, we covered the work undertaken by Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who has been at the forefront of tackling abuse in sport, and has established her own organization, Champion Women, which spearheaded recent legal change in the US that will make the reporting of sexual abuse mandatory for sport organizations.

Three other notable "change-makers" in the space are as follows.

Celia Brakenridge, SafeSport International

The “grandmother” in the fight against abuse in sport is Celia Brakenridge who wrote both of the IOC's Consensus statements on sexual abuse in sport. One of the world's leading experts on abuse in sport, her selected writings on the topic were published in 2017 and span 30 years of important research on the topic. She is responsible for much of the change in the UK and now is proud to say that The FA, where she previously advised, has one of the best policies in the world15 on abuse in sport.

In the 1990s awareness of child protection needs was low, political will was lacking and expertise related to sport was virtually zero, but it was not just football; these cases will be found in every sport,” Brackenridge told the Guardian. “In 2001 the NSPCC formed the Child Protection in Sport Unit (CPSU), and excellent work has been done, although we can never say the problem has been eradicated. I am definitely not an apologist for the FA but I would argue that for the child protection work they do now, they are the leading sports governing body in the world.

Brackenridge is the also co-founder of Safe Sport International, along with Starr. SSI seeks to end violence and abuse against athletes through coordinated international efforts. Organizations including the International Paralympic Committee agree, and have partnered with SSI. Most importantly, SSI collaborates to develop and support the implementation of international frameworks for safe sport. Two other experts in this field, Sandra Kirby (an Olympic rower) and Anne Tiivas sit on the SSI board, bringing their expertise from Canada and the UK respectively. Kirby was named to the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame16 in April 2018 in the “Builder” category for her work in this area, while Tiivas is the current head of the UK’s Child Protection in Sport Unit overseeing dramatic changes in the UK. 

Kari Fastin, WomenSport International

Dr. Kari Fasting another changemaker and is the past president of the International Association for Sociology of Sport, a founding member and past President of WomenSport International (WSI) and represents this organisation in the International Working Group for Women in Sport (IWG).

A co-writer of the IOC's Consensus Statements (see below) with Brakenridge, Fasting's research has been concerned with various aspects related to “equality and diversity” in sport, with a focus on sexual harassment and abuse in sport. Her empirical studies have been critical to gaining buy in from sporting organizations who want to see the statistics.

Her latest empirical studies have been carried out in Southern Africa under contract with the Norwegian Olympic, Paralympic and Confederation of Sport (NIF), assisting them in a project regarding increasing awareness and understanding of gender issues in sport. A large part of this project was to assist NIF in the development of participant-based recommendations to reduce gender-based violence using Zambia as a program model to contribute to awareness of the issues.

Katherine Starr, Safe4Athletes

Katherine Starr is also a changemaker and has been working for change since at least 2011. At the 2012 IOC Women’s Conference in Los Angeles, her friend and fellow Olympian Diana Nyad stood up in the main hall and told the audience she was raped by her swim coach. Starr followed with her own story of sexual abuse by her coach, the 1988 Olympic head coach. The audience applauded, but the IOC didn’t mention abuse in their closing outcomes, despite it being a re-occurring theme at the conference. Starr was abused by Paul Hickson17 in the UK before coming to the US and starting the organizing Safe4Athletes, which provides extensive support, samples, and research to support community sporting organizations in creating a safe space for athletes.

In describing her abuse18 she talks of how others knew but no one did anything to help, "I was the only girl with five other (male swimmers). What I found out, (Hickson) purposely kept me as the only girl," says Starr now. "I don't think I had the words to say, 'He was raping me.' Every time I resisted, he would retaliate, or he would punish me. I would tell him openly on the pool deck, 'Get away from me.' Nobody heard my cries, but people knew what was going on. That's the sad part. There are so many other athletes in the same situation with their coach."

To change this, Starr created Safe4Athletes, which creates opportunities for others to help. Their mission is to advocate for athletes that have been abused, bullied or harassed by their more powerful coach or teammate. 

Katherine has acted as an advocate for athletes involved in coach-athlete sexual abuse, athlete on athlete sexual abuse, athlete cyber-bullying, athlete sexual hazing as well as many forms of athletic abuse in general” reads her bio on Safe Sport International, an organization she co-founded.

Starr is also clear that abuse in sport is a particular phenomenon due to the intimate nature of sport. She writes19,

The competing athlete has something at risk, for example, dreams of being an Olympian, a college scholarship, playing time or financial gain. There is a complex ‘hook’ keeping the athlete engaged in a relationship even when abusive and unhealthy. The athlete has to make decisions for the family, the team and the coach. When speaking up about the abuse, the athlete could be subject to retaliation from the team if there is a perceived threat of their dreams being compromised as a result of the coach removal; the parents that sacrificed everything to make sure that the child-athletes dreams are fulfilled or the coach that convinces the athlete that the only reason for her/his success is because of the 'coach.'

International sporting organizations

International Gymnastics Federation

The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) and the International Olympic Committee must be thankful that the American gymnasts have not thought to include them in their lawsuits, however the FIG and IOC could be brought in as abuse by Nassar occurred at several of their sanctioned events. McKayla Mahoney said abuse by Nassar happened at the 2012 Olympic Games in London and the 2011 World Championships in Toyko and other gymnasts reported they were abused at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

In 2017, FIG President Morinari Watanabe of Japan said the FIG should be allowed to issue sanctions20 in cases of misconduct. Similarly, the FIG should also be liable if there is any finding that they were negligent.

Given the age of athletes in elite gymnastics FIG comes very late to the game, publishing abuse polices as recently as March 2018. The guidelines, “Policies and Procedures for Safeguarding and Protecting Participants in Gymnastics” includes the establishment of an Ethics Foundation which contains a new security and protection group, a compliance committee, a disciplinary commission and an appeal tribunal. However, the creation of the Foundation will not be voted on until meetings in late 2018.

"This new entity, which will be independent of the FIG authorities, will be responsible for dealing with any issue related to ethics, misconduct, aggression and other rule violations. It will be responsible for contacting the relevant legal authorities and offering support to those affected by these incidents," the FIG stated.

A link to the actual policy could not be found on the FIG website as of early May 2018.

"As FIG President, I declare that we will not tolerate abuse or sexual harassment in the gymnastics community," Watanabe said. "In the sporting community, we observe the rules because we are educated to do so. But rules cannot be observed only through education and legislation. Severe sanctions are needed. The same level of severe measures as anti-doping is necessary for eradicating harassment."

International Tennis Federation

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) has had a Player Welfare division since 2007 and their Player Welfare Policy (which only applies to Tour Events) provides a grievance process outline that can lead to sanctions and is led by an independent Review Board. The appeal process eventually ends with the Court for Arbitration in Sport. Despite this positive policy, tennis players are also getting abused by fans, and it is serious.

Americans Bob Bryan (doubles), Madison Keys (No. 19), and Donald Young have all reported abuse, "Abuse?” says Bryan, “Death threats21? It's every match. If I go check my phone now there will be some crazy gamblers that are upset with me."

Keys, who is an ambassador for the anti-bullying organization FearlesslyGiRL, and Young have both suffered racial abuse including the following tweet directed at Young, "You'll never win a major title cuz you SUCK. 'Typical n----- with his drama seeking theatrics22.'

Despite this, the ITF recently agreed to a 5 year US$70million sponsorship deal with Swiss-based data and betting company Sportsradar23. The deal allows for data from all matches at all levels (including Futures events [the lowest rung of the professional circuit] to the Davis Cup) to be given to Sportsradar by the ITF.

Tennis players told the Sydney Morning Herald24 that this deal (and the fact that Tennis is now the third most gambled on sport in the world behind football [soccer] and horse racing) is the root cause of abuse they suffer from angry gamblers.

There are those, including British 19-year-old Jay Clarke, the journeyman Briton Marcus Willis, and 17-year-old Canadian rising star Felix Auger-Aliassime who believe social media abuse could be drastically reduced for lower-ranked players by banning gambling at Futures events. A betting ban would also go a long way towards tackling corruption since it is at these lower-level events where the vast majority of match-fixing occurs, with players making such paltry sums that they can be tempted to take a bribe,” reports the Sydney Morning Herald.25 Despite these concerns about the deal with Sportsradar, it appears the ITF has focused on helping players deal with the abuse by providing mandatory education and welfare programs and urge their players to report it. Positively, the Tennis Integrity Unit works with social media organisations to close down offending accounts and contacts the police in extreme cases.

However, according to media reports26, “The problem is players feel they cannot report every threat because they are often receiving hundreds at a time.


FIFA was pushed by its corporate sponsors to take on major governance reform that included human rights. In May 2017, FIFA issued their first Human Rights Policy which included mention of Player rights but not specifically abuse, “Moreover, the strong desire to become a professional footballer and the lure of financial benefits can create fertile ground for adverse human rights impacts, in particular with regard to trafficking and other issues relating to minors.” (emphasis added).

In the FIFA Human Rights Advisory Board's first report, they too alluded to athlete abuse but did not specifically mention it, “The Board intends to explore a number of areas in more detail in its future meetings and will seek the secretariat’s support in arranging appropriate briefings. These areas include: FIFA’s connection to impacts on children’s rights and the measures it has taken in response; the human rights of players, in particular regarding their employment, transfer and access to remedy; the matter of anti-doping (which touches on issues of legal personality and data protection, the right to due process, as well as the health of individual players)...

International Olympic Committee

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had a good start in 2007, consulting with industry experts: sports sociologist and former national coach Celia Brackenridge of the UK, and founder and former President of WomenSport International, Professor Kari Fasting of Norway to create the IOC Consensus Statement, Prevention of Sexual harassment and Abuse in Sport.

Key recommendations of the 2007 consensus where mostly educational and included that all sports organizations should develop policies and procedures for the prevention of sexual harassment and abuse; monitor the implementation of these policies and procedures; and evaluate the impact of these policies in identifying and reducing sexual harassment and abuse. Despite this, it took FIG a major abuse case and 10 years to follow these recommendations. The IOC was only 1 year ahead.

Unfortunately the 2007 consensus agreement failed to provide a grievance mechanisms and put the onus of sexual abuse protections onto other organizations. If an athlete was sexually abused at the Olympics, there was no form of recourse or accountability by the IOC.

Fortunately, the IOC updated their policy with the 2016 Consensus Statement on harassment and abuse in sport and further instructed sports organizations in the development of their policies. Also in 2016, Olympic athletes were finally given recourse to abuse which occurred during the Olympic Games. In November 2017, the IOC also created a comprehensive toolkit for member nations and IFs to create their own abuse policies.

Given the IOC reached a consensus on sexual abuse in sport as early as 2007 but failed to implement a policy to protect athletes during the actual Olympic Games, they could be found negligent in delaying creation and implementation of a policy until Rio 2016, which marked the first Olympics with an abuse policy27 in place. It will be interesting if McKayla Mahoney and her teammates who were abused at the Olympic Games will draw the IOC and FIG into their lawsuits given the IOC gave itself and FIG a 10 year warning that it needed an effective abuse policy.

The IOC has taken great steps, but issuing the toolkit is not enough. It should be mandatory for participation in the Olympic Games for all NOCs to adopt comprehensive policies and push NOCs to advocate for legal changes to their nation’s laws to protect against abuse in sport.

International legal options: United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

The Mega-Sporting Events Platform for Human Rights (of which this author has participated) is mostly focused on human rights abuses connected to mega-sporting events. In their white paper on athlete human rights there is no mention of sexual abuse issues. The World Player's Association Universal Declaration of Player Rights28 (UDPR) does not mention sexual violence or abuse specifically, but does provide protection from violence more broadly.

However, the key to both the MSE Platform and the UDPR is that they are based in the 2011 United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), which provide a framework for any human rights violation, including sexual abuse, to be rectified.

The UNGPs provide three main guidelines for business enterprises and government to protect, respect and remedy the impact of human rights from business, in particular, the UNGPs are grounded in recognition of:

  1. States’ existing obligations to respect, protect and fulfil human rights and fundamental freedoms;

  2. The role of business enterprises as specialised organs of society performing specialised functions, required to comply with all applicable laws and to respect human rights; and

  3. The need for rights and obligations to be matched to appropriate and effective remedies when breached.

According to the UNGPs, the guidelines apply to every nation-state and to all enterprises, “both transnational and others, regardless of their size, sector, location, ownership and structure.” While most sport organizations are non-profit organizations, they fit squarely within the definitions of enterprises for purposes of the UNGPs.

As part of their duty to protect against business-related human rights abuse, States must take appropriate steps to ensure, through judicial, administrative, legislative or other appropriate means, that when such abuses occur within their territory and/or jurisdiction those affected have access to effective remedy.

The final guiding principle exists to ensure principle one and two can be realized by affirming the state's duty to provide effective remedies for their citizens. Looking at the recent Safe Sport Act passed in the US, this law now meets the UNGPs for athletes in the US while the UK Duty of Care recommendations, if implemented would go a long way to meeting international legal standards.

Technological help

Currently there is little evidence of young people reporting their issues to adults29. “This can be due to peer pressure, fear of repercussions from perpetrators or, in cases of abuse from coaches and staff, they can feel unsure of who to talk to, or even intimidated by the perception that the coach or staff member is highly revered or seen as a role model.

Technology can now help sport administrators both professional and volunteer to implement safeguarding policies. tootoot sport, is a safeguarding and listening platform that allows members to anonymously report any concerns or issues directly to their club via an app and through their website. It is designed for players, members, welfare officers and clubs as a support system at all levels, assisting clubs with their responsibility to listen to and safeguard members.

Core Integrity is a whistleblower hotline for SafeSport Solutions.

Both companies did not start in sport but realized that sport needs their technology and knowledge.

Final comment

Something is deeply wrong with sport. There are many causes and many issues related to abuse in sport. One thing is clear is that sport cannot be allowed to remain separate and apart from society. Athletes are not Gods, coaches are not Kings, and sport administrators are not above the law. While policies, guidelines and toolkits are certainly needed and provide the most basic groundwork for safe sport, it is not the end. We need strong laws to protect victims, police and prosecutors who trust and support survivors, a media who stops venerating the world of sports, and a sporting world that opens itself up to outside intervention and oversight.

On the whole I think my sporting career was positive. Through my journey as international Olympic swimmer and NCAA athlete, I am certainly luckier than many. My relationship with sport is complicated because there is so much to love, but so much more that needs changing.

If everyone who reads this commits to doing 3 things to make their sport less abusive we can hope to make progress beyond what is already happening. I will start with myself. I have reached out to tootoot sport and connected them to one of Australia’s top sport federations as well as Safe4Athletes. I commit here to also connect them with a local ice hockey club as well. My number three has been to reach out to volunteer as a compliance officer with the local swim club where I occasionally swim with the master’s team. Let’s do this.

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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.