Athletes from across the globe are in Tokyo competing for one of the most prestigious prizes in sports — an Olympic medal. The world’s eyes are on the Games as observers lionize competitors of the highest levels. But beneath the excitement also lies an ugly, pervasive truth that has traumatized millions of aspiring Olympians for far too long: The sexual abuse of child athletes across America and the world.
The world might know about high-profile cases such as Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics physician who abused more than 300 women and girls — including American gymnast Simone Biles — and it might know about scandals impacting everything from USA Swimming to the NCAA to Penn State football. But sexual abuse among young athletes of all levels is truly an epidemic nationwide.
It’s shockingly widespread in every corner of America — and this isn’t an issue limited to one institution or one sport. In fact, one study found that 13 percent of all student athletes are survivors of sexual assault through their participation in sports. A devastating one in 12 athletes experience sexual abuse at the hands of a sport official or peer athlete — and a pattern of underreporting means the true number is likely far worse. How has the crisis become so widespread?
Most institutions that cultivate young athletes don’t have basic policies in place to protect against child sexual abuse and neglect. Further, research shows that 69 percent of athletes around the world were not always aware they had rights when they were children participating in sports. There is neither a regulatory regime of basic protections, nor the space to report red flags.
This week, a national coalition of advocates launched an effort to change the status quo. CHILD USA and the Army of Survivors introduced a “Child Athlete Bill of Rights” outlining commonsense policies that every sports training facility can implement to protect the well-being of young athletes. It’s grounded in a simple message: Every child has the right to be safe.
It includes recommendations such as conducting multiple levels of background checks for every employee or volunteer, from criminal history to sex offender registries, as well as third-party reference checks. It calls for ensuring separate sleeping, changing and bathing accommodations for adults and children during overnight trips, and prohibiting staff and volunteers from providing one-on-one transportation for children.
Critically, youth-serving sports organizations must promote a culture that prioritizes the safety of children at its core. That starts with having a clear code of conduct — an outline of how adults should maintain appropriate relationships with youths, one that clearly states what behavior is appropriate — and what is not. Of course, it’s incumbent upon facilities to convey those commonsense safety steps and the code of conduct to the children and families they serve, because when abuse — or even signs of abuse — occurs, studies show that 75 percent of elite athletes in the U.S. today don’t know or are unsure where to report a sexual assault.
These might seem like basic protocols, but the stark reality is that child athletics — at camps, gyms or clubs — are largely unregulated, unaccountable and lacking basic safeguards. Parents sending their kids away to summer sports camps, no matter how elite or prestigious they might be, have no guarantees their kids’ coaches have gone through even a basic background screening. And with no governing body or real regulatory framework for preventing sexual abuse in sports training facilities, abusers can fly under the radar from state to state.
With millions of families in the dark about the sheer scope of the crisis, sexual abuse among children in sports has continued unabated. It’s one reason why there are millions of survivors overcoming the lasting and often debilitating consequences — from developmental effects, to post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, and much more.
We know about abuse that reaches the Olympic level, but the simple reality is that it happens in cities and towns nationwide. That makes the Child Athlete Bill of Rights and policies a long-overdue necessity.
The bottom line is that sports are a refuge for children to develop skills they’ll utilize throughout life. With the Olympic Games under way, we all have the opportunity to celebrate athletes who have dedicated their lives to their craft.
But we, as a society, also must recognize the trouble within sports here at home, and we have a moral imperative to act by creating procedures and norms to protect this generation of young athletes — and the next — from the epidemic of child sexual abuse. Our children deserve no less. Every child athlete has the right to be safe.
Julie Ann Rivers-Cochran is executive director of The Army of Survivors, the nation’s only organization advocating for and supporting child athlete survivors of sexual violence. She previously worked for the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma and Mental Health.
Marci Hamilton is founder and CEO of the nonprofit CHILD USA, and the Fels Institute of Government Professor of Practice and a resident senior fellow in the Program for Research on Religion at the University of Pennsylvania.