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How Prolific Is Child Abuse in Sports?

Sexual abuse: On November 4th, 2011, a grand jury report was released containing horrific information that former defensive coordinator for the Penn State football team, Jerry Sandusky, had sexually abused eight young boys over a period of fifteen years. Later findings revealed that Sandusky abused ten young boys during his time at Penn State. Making matters worse, several Penn State officials knew this was happening and failed to report Sandusky to authorities.

Image of Jerry Sandusky | Steinger, Iscoe & Greene

If one good thing came from the scandal, it brought to light the reality of sexual abuse in sports. In light of this event and others, here’s a closer look at sexual abuse in sports programs.

Is sexual abuse common in sports?

It’s hard to get accurate data regarding exactly how prevalent sexual abuse is in sports. Many cases go untold by the victims due to the shame associated with the horrendous act. However, a study conducted at the University of Edinburgh found that of 6,000 students, 34 percent of them had experienced sexual abuse as it relates to sports.

What happens to victims?

Moreover, the effects of sexual abuse can be debilitating to one’s health. Information collected from various psychological studies indicate that victims often experience depression, poor self-esteem, substance abuse, self-destructive behaviour, psychopathology disorders, and an increased risk of suicide. These symptoms are often present while the act is occurring, the effects are often lifelong.

How can we stop sexual abuse in sports?

Stopping sexual abuse in sports is not an easy task. Often, potential victims trust their coaches and team staff—a trust that only increases as time goes on. This creates a power imbalance. The nature of sports, particularly as it approaches an elite level, functions as an autocratic system—where the coach typically holds all of the power.

This coach is often in personal contact with athletes, and in a locker room that breeds secrecy—as it isolates the victim from his or her peers for a period of time. For these reasons, sexual abuse can go undetected for an extended period of time without anyone knowing about it.

Final thoughts

Sports can be a wonderful thing that brings entire communities together. No athlete should have to feel as though they are going to be a victim of sexual assault. Programs like SafeSport are working to protect athletes, but there’s still more to be done to stop these horrific acts.

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