Continuing its work of tackling some of sports’ most pressing, most complex and most timely issues, the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Sports Communication and Media recently hosted a panel titled “Broken Trust: Sports in the #MeToo Era,” in hopes of fostering a discussion on “the dynamics of power, responsibility and fair play amongst athletes and those in positions of authority, ostensibly to support their development and achievement.”
Documentary filmmaker Jill Yesko, a CSCM fellow, moderated the discussion, and as a precursor to the panel, snippets of her upcoming documentary “Broken Trust: Athletes Betrayed” were presented to the audience.
The panel’s ensuing conversation is well worth a watch if you have an hour and a half to spare.
If not, here are our top takeaways from the event.
1. Language matters.
Yesko opened the panel with a question about language: how does the way we talk about sexual assault and all the related offenses change the way the issue is handled and thought about?
Panelist Katherine Starr, a former University of Texas swimmer and a two-time Olympian for Great Britain (under her former name Annabelle Cripps), founded the organization Safe4Athletes in 2012 to help create policy and advocate for athlete welfare, and she said when she first started writing policies, the word often used to describe incidents of sexual abuse was “misconduct.” That didn’t seem right to Starr, herself a survivor of abuse at the hands of a coach.
“When I first wrote policies … it started off as ‘misconduct’ and that’s often the language that’s used within the university system, within the workplace environment, they reference the word in such a dismissive way and that I think is very harmful for the society and the community at large to comprehend the harm and the destruction and really taking away an individual’s ability to participate in life,” Starr said.
Lacking the language to describe her abuse also kept panelist Jessica Armstrong, a lawyer and former gymnast, from being able to reveal and process what she had gone through until many years after it happened.
“There were many years that I was unable to say ‘I was sexually abused by my coach.’ I can say that easily now because it’s a more common thing that people are talking about,” she said. “But when this first happened to me, I had no words for this, and my parents had no words for it. So it really kept things from being exposed.”
2. “We need to talk to kids about sex more.”
The quote from which this bullet point gets its title came from panelist Mary Bock, an associate professor in the UT School of Journalism.
“We watch a lot of it, and they watch a lot of it, but we need to get our children comfortable talking to us about it and being comfortable ourselves as parents to talk to children about sex,” she said. “Use the right terms. Our children need to be comfortable saying ‘penis’ and ‘vulva’ and all the other things as much as they’re comfortable saying ‘ankle’ and ‘elbow.’”
If we do this, Bock said, when something happens, children will be more likely to tell their parents or another trusted adult, instead of hiding it out of shame or embarrassment.
Luther joked that if she ruled the world the first thing she would do is mandate sex education starting in kindergarten.
“You can have conversations with 4-years-olds about consent, you don’t have to talk about sex, per say,” she added. “We’re constantly negotiating consent in a whole range of ways. So for my son … I’m always like ‘Everyone is in control of their own body and just like you wouldn’t want someone to do something to your body without permission, you need to do that with everyone else.’”
3. The impact of sexual assault and abuse goes beyond the immediate victim.
Panelist Eva Rodansky, a former Team USA speed skater, highlighted this idea by telling her story of how her former coach Michael Crowe’s sexual relationships with athletes resulted in suffering for everyone on the team.
Bock eloquently described the impact on the entire team thus:
“When that sort of hypersexualized atmosphere is happening around a team, everybody is affected, whether they are touched or flirted with or not,” she said. “Because what that means is that women are less valued, or children are less valued, a particular class of people is less valued. And so we have talk about the value of people and the humanity of people as well as talking about the abuse cases.”
4. More women in the room matters, but perhaps not for the reason you think.
Yesko asked Bock if having more women coaches or more women in sports media and other positions of power would bring down the numbers of incidences of sexual assaults.
“I disagree on the idea that having more women in any organization will necessarily combat abusive situations,” Bock answered, “because women can be complicit just as men can, and women get caught up in the power structure, just as men are.
“I think what is positive about having more women, people of color, different kinds of people inside newsrooms and also represented in media in different ways is that it normalizes women in what are traditionally male spaces.”
People find it easier to bully or abuse or ignore women when they are in a position or job that is not traditionally feminine, Bock said.
“As we have more women in power in decision-making positions in media, not just appearance positions in media, as we have more women in editing positions in sports and more female coaches with real power, then it’s normal to have men or women making big decisions and having a certain amount of power and that is the power that lifts all boats.”
5. Policies aimed at keeping athletes safe and dealing with abuse when it happens should be mandatory and centralized.
In the world of sports, there isn’t one clear way of preventing sexual abuse of athletes and disciplining abusers. In fact, there are many, many different policies. The AAU has a different set of rules and guidelines than USA Gymnastics’, which will no doubt vary from those adopted by Little League or an individual dance studio.
“Unless you have a legal structure with clear definitions a way to respond and the court system be able to handle it, you’re going to have inconsistencies across sports,” Starr said.