The recent news of multiple acts of sexual abuse by the team doctor for USA Gymnastics Larry Nassar to dozens of gymnasts in his care over several decades has been heartbreaking and angering.
Listening to the harrowing accounts of so many gymnasts who were abused while so many adults enabled the horrendous acts to continue for decades is so disturbing, it’s almost hard to imagine it could have happened.
But it did, and for every public account we hear about a very prominent sports doctor, we must know that there have been thousands more of similar accounts to young athletes that we don’t know about.
It’s time for those to come to an end for good.
If the brave testimonies of so many gymnasts in recent weeks tell us anything about the human spirit, it’s that it is meant to survive.
As the #metoo movement was born this past year and hundreds of women from all professions came forward publicly to speak out against sexual harassment and sexual abuse, our society is coming to grips with a very dark cloud that has hung over it for generations. And sadly, the sports world has not been immune.
Female athletes in particular have experienced the unfair dichotomy that exists with having a fit and athletic body, but also a vulnerability and dependency on coaches and doctors and teachers crucial to their training. Adding an adult who is mentally sick and without a moral conscience to this equation makes it possible to understand how this nightmare scenario developed.
As parents and coaches, it is imperative that we are paying attention to our athletes and noticing signs that could help us recognize when a sexually abusive situation is taking place and needs to be both reported and stopped immediately.
In his book Shame: The Power of Caring, Kaufman states, “Shame is a natural reaction to being violated or abused. In fact, abuse, by its very nature, is humiliating and dehumanizing.”
This is one of the main reasons abuse goes unreported, and as therapist Beverly Engel says, shame is what makes us feel unworthy and want to hide.
“Most people who have been deeply shamed take on the underlying and pervasive belief that they are defective or unacceptable,” she says. “They feel unworthy, unlovable, or ‘bad.’”
Ninety percent of sexually abused children are abused by someone they know, love, and trust, likely making it harder to report. Mayo Clinic recommends some key red flags to look out for such as the child withdrawing from friends or usual activities, changes in behavior (i.e., aggression, hostility, school performance declines), depression, anxiety, sudden loss of self-confidence, reluctance towards things, rebellious behavior, or suicide.
But there are also other consequences that we should look out for particularly among our young athletes where sexual harassment and abuse is concerned.
For some of our athletes, sexual abuse by an adult in their past or perhaps just a lack of self-esteem can make them particularly susceptible to sexual predators in other areas of their lives. That experience is something I have dealt with in my own life.
I was sexually molested as a 5-year-old by a man considered a family friend at the time, and the impact that sick man had on me was deep. My shame over being molested distorted my view of myself and what was attractive about me as a person, and I tended to view it only as my body. Being a gymnast, my daily environment tended to reinforce this in an unhealthy way.
I was fortunate that my coaches never abused their power over me because I would have been easy prey. But as an adult in working environments, with bosses who didn’t understand this boundary, I was sexually harassed multiple times.
All of these instances - whether it is the extreme with sexual abuse or mild to even severe sexual harassment - have devastating effects on the victims. As people involved in the training and development of our young athletes - whether in sports or in life generally - we need to be doing so much more to prevent any level of abuse.
Valerie Kondos Field, a former professional dancer and current head women’s gymnastics coach at UCLA, recently wrote a phenomenal yet scathing indictment of USA Gymnastics for its debilitating culture - something that existed long before Larry Nassar or any one of the abusive coaches the sport has produced.
The gymnasts coming forward were wronged by so many. They weren’t protected by
parents, coaches, or the organization and consequently they lost their innocence, their voice, and their mental strength. United as the Army of Survivors they are taking back their voices and finding their strength, one brave story at a time.
Hopefully, the silver lining in all the women coming forward to reveal past sexual abuse sheds light for all young athletes that this is not the price anyone has to pay for their dreams.
And we as the mentors and counselors for our athletes must do better. We will do better.
*A special note of thanks to my sister, Laurie Lattimore-Volkmann, for contributing to this post.