For my thesis project, I wrote about the on-going systemic issue of female athletes experiencing sexual assault in their sport. I felt as a female sport journalist it was my duty to cover this issue and shed light on how this is a current and present issue. The system needs to change and society needs to recognize these victims and not only believe them, but understand them.
Female athletes continue to be sexually abused in their sport and it is a systemic problem. Journalists need to play a bigger part in this and cover these stories. In 2021, the world saw a rise in female athletes coming forward and sharing their stories with sexual violence. The most notable case was the USA Women Gymnastics Team, with gymnasts Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney and Maggie Nichols testifying against former trainer Larry Nasser for sexually assaulting them. Allegations in the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) against Portland Thorns former coach Paul Riley and Canada Soccer and former Vancouver Whitecaps coach Bob Birarda were also reported. The system needs to change. Women athletes are being abused in sport due to the power dynamic between athletes and coaches, because of the lack of trust society has towards victims and because organizations are not taking accountability for these tragic events.
One of the most severe cases of a female athlete being sexually assaulted was pro WTA Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai. Shuai publicly posted on social media and accused ex-vVice pPremier of China Zhang Gaoli, of coercing her into sex, according to The Guardian. The post was made on Nov. 2, 2021 and since then Shuai has ‘disappeared’. The Chinese Tennis Association has said Shuai is safe, but the Women’s Tennis Association has been unable to connect with her personally. Although Shuai has been located and remains in China. For her to come forward in a country that is much less forgiving and against a Chinese official could have been life-threatening.
These athletes spoke out despite risking their careers in their sport. By going public with their stories, they helped increase awareness of sexual assault in sport and put pressure for change. But the change has been slow, and the process is long.
“Perpetrator acts, abuses these people, it ruins their lives, they report when they’re in midlife usually, rarely do they report when it’s happening because their brains are just decimated. They suffer for 20 years, then they report, it’s a scandal and then it goes away. Press reset we do it all over again. So, nothing ever changes,” says Dr. Jennifer Fraser. Dr. Fraser is the founder of The Bullied Brain and a published author who focuses on the effects of abuse and abuse can stay with victims for their entire lives. Fraser wrote Teaching Bullies: Zero Tolerance in the Court or in the Classroom and just this year released her latest book The Bullied Brain: Heal Your Scars and Restore Your Health.
Dr. Jennifer Fraser, published author
Fraser says that all forms of abuse are damaging. Sexual abuse versus physical or emotional abuse or verbal abuse, holds a lot of weight because of how disturbing the act is. All forms of abuse are abuse and can have extreme implications on the victim.
Sports are meant to be a positive environment, says Martin Painter. Painter is the head coach of both the women’s and men's soccer teams at Western University. It is a space for athletes to not only compete but learn life skills such as discipline and leadership.
Fraser worked with Ciara McCormack, former Vancouver Whitecaps soccer player. McCormack wrote a blog post accusing Bob Birarda of sexual abusing and mistreating players. Her blog post is the reason he is no longer a coach. Fraser and McCormack worked with one another and they are both advocates for safe sport environments.
“We're constantly sort of strategizing on what we can do to make change. Why is it so hard to change this? It's such a serious problem. It's so damaging. And yet why are the lawmakers not making any changes? Why is it acceptable in our culture to treat young people this way? And you know, sport is just one of the many cover ups for child abuse,” says Fraser on her and McCormack trying to analyze this issue and why it is still occurring.
Ciara McCormack, former soccer player
Ciara McCormack is a former soccer player for the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Republic of Ireland’s national team. She is an athlete who experienced abuse, she came forward and exposed her coach and continues to fight for players rights. In 2019 McCormack wrote a blog post exposing ex-coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Canada U-20 Women’s team, Bob Birarda for sexually assaulting players from 1988-2008 according to The CBC. There wasn’t recognition against Birarda until 2021, two years after McCormack published the blog post with the allegations and several years after the abuse occurred. Birarda pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual assault and one count of sexual exploitation for sexual touching on Feb.8, of this year. His sentencing date has not been set, says Global News.
Birarda was dismissed by Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps initially in 2008 and only pleaded guilty 14 years later, this year.
“Finally pled guilty. There are so many stories. Like the guy would be coaching teenage girls if I had not written that blog and nothing has changed. And to me it's so ridiculous and the fear before was he hasn't been charged, he's pleading guilty to four sex charges for victims. And literally this guy, the only reason why he's not on the field is because of a blog post and nothing's changed in the system, but yet, like nobody still wants to cover that. It’s really frustrating,” says McCormack on Birarda pleading guilty. Her frustration targets journalism when it comes to this issue and that journalists should be covering these sexual violence stories much more because the public need to be made aware of this issue.
Katie Strang is a journalist for The Atheltic who has written, reported and investigated several stories regarding sexually assaulted athletes. Strang says that it is important for journalists to continue to report on these types of stories as well educate themselves on sexual abuse.
“I think there is a lot of empirical evidence to suggest that audiences really appreciate that level of journalism and feel it's important. So, I think just maybe continuing to seek out in pursuing these stories is what we, as an industry can continue to do and do better. And then also I think, you know, from a best practice’s perspective, you know, really educating ourselves and how to report on trauma in a way that forms and educates the reader,” says Strang.
I asked McCormack if Canada Soccer had reached out to her since her blog post and now with Birarda’s guilty plea since this organization initially dismissed his case in 2008.
“No, they still haven’t…”
McCormack says she found her experience with Canada Soccer similar to what she has read about the women in the USA Gymnastics case with their coach Larry Nasser, with so many not believing the athletes coming forward. Several gymnasts came forward against Nasser and were dismissed by the organization similarly to soccer players coming forward against Birarda and being dismissed. In both scenarios it took years for a charge to come to fruition.
“I was watching all of that with the Larry Nassar thing and that to me, I was like, oh my God, I am not going crazy in this actually what I'm feeling is being validated through what I'm listening to,” says McCormack.
Abuse is not something that should ever be taken lightly. Whether it be sexual, verbal, physical or emotional. It is something that stays with that person for the rest of their life if untreated, says Kristen Whitfield, a master’s student at Ryerson University studying clinical psychology. Again, in a space where so much positivity and potential success can occur, abuse in sport is absolutely unacceptable.
“Sorry, it's, it's still hard to talk about, I just feel like I just couldn't move forward in my life unless I did something,” says McCormack on dealing with coming forward and accusing Birarda.
Whitfield explains how trauma can lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“PTSD is considered a disorder of non-recovery. So, it's actually very typical for people to experience a lot of PTSD like symptoms, right after a traumatic event. So, falling at sexual assault, you might be having intrusive thoughts and nightmares and wanting to avoid different things that remind you of the sexual assault, but, with most people, those symptoms decrease with time, but with PTSD, those symptoms stack and they don't go away, they continue with time,” says Whitfield.
“I mean to be honest I could not step foot, like I hated Vancouver for the last 15 years, hated Vancouver. Like you know, all my family, all my friends lived there, and I was so uncomfortable. Like I hardly lived there in the last 15 years and when I was there, I just didn't even want to be there. You know, like only because of family and friends and stuff. It's just because it's going back to the scene of a car accident and it just reminded me of all the crappy people in the city that in my eyes turned a blind eye or like, what is it allowing this to happen,” says McCormack.
Although abuse comes in many different forms, in all different environments, the basics remain the same. Fraser says abuse is very cyclical, somebody abuses the power they hold over someone else, the victim becomes hurt, stays quiet, years later decides to speak on it, the media and organizations react and that it's all forgotten about until the next case. This is what needs to change. It shouldn’t be up to victimized athletes coming forward and sharing their horrific stories in order for the organizations to recognize there is something wrong. The organizations should be doing their due diligence to work on preventing it from happening in the first place, or immediately dealing with the issue instead of concealing it.
Jamie Strashin, a reporter for CBC, has covered the Olympics and sports extensively. He says organizations try to conceal these stories because once the story is out, they have no more control of it.
“All these sports, they don't want to move forward. They want to keep the process internalized. Because the second it's not internalized, they lose control of the narrative of it,” says Strashin.
Strang expands on this and emphasizes that many organizations will try to keep these issues under wraps to protect themselves as opposed to protecting the athlete.
“These things very rarely happen in a vacuum or no one knows about it. Like often cases. There are reports, there are concerns escalated. There are people that are told, there are red flags that are raised. People are ringing the alarm and those concerns are falling, not on deaf ears, but on ears of people who are sort of willing to put their own self-interests above like the protection of the athletes,” says Strang.
Strang says that many of these occurrences are not out of the blue. People are aware of inappropriate behaviour. Organizations have heard allegations come up. Athletes should be able to compete in a sport they love without feeling uncomfortable or unsafe and should be able to trust their teammates, coaches and organizations. Especially their coaches. A coach and player’s relationship is so important and so unique.
“Not to over-generalize, but I think it's not rare to see a predator or an abuser exert a position of power, authority and influence to their advantage,” says Strang.
There have been several cases where the coach is the perpetrator and the person abusing the athlete but there are so many coaches trying to do their part in order to provide a safe environment for their athletes.
“One of the key elements of a good coach athlete relationship is the relationship and getting to know each other, knowing what makes the athlete tick and what motivates her and building up that trust,” says Matthew Holmberg, the women’s hockey coach at Queens University who works on providing a safe space for his athletes.
Canadian sociologist and Olympian, Sandra Kirby knows this issue well. Competing in the 1976 Olympics in rowing and now a professor at the University of Winnipeg, she is an advocate for female athletes.
Dr. Sandra Kirby, Olympian and sociologist
Kirby says there is a power imbalance because it is easy for those to take advantage of those less powerful. Coaches (especially male coaches) use the power they hold over their athletes and manipulate it. Especially on the higher level, coaches can hold this power over the athlete’s head. They can determine who will make the national team or who will go to the Olympics.
“The coach can position him or herself to be the holder of the key for the athletes dreams and goals. The athlete comes to believe, probably quite rightly, that it’s going to be very hard for him or her to regress without that coach’s assistant, facilitation or guidance,” says Kirby.
Strang agrees with Kirby and says a predator, or an abuser exerting their position of power to influence or take advantage of an athlete does happen
Unfortunately, Kirby says many athletes believe that they have to put up with the abuse because if they do not, they won’t have the same opportunities. Sexual abuse becomes accepted by platers because the coach essentially holds this power over their heads. If the athletes want to get to the national team, the Olympics, whatever it may be, they have to allow it to continue.
McCormack agrees with Kirby and says that her coach was a gatekeeper in terms of who made the national team. She says that she remembers players who stood up for themselves and their rights suddenly had opportunities taken away which had been given prior to speaking out. McCormack says that organizations have absolute power and that they believe they can do whatever they want.
Athletes can condition themselves to think that they have to adhere to the abuse in order to have their dreams come true. Because the coach is such a key factor in making these dreams come true, unfortunately, many times, athletes allow themselves to be treated like this.
“You can convince yourself where your fault was, your fault that you shouldn't have done that if it wasn't for this, this wouldn't have happened or if you fought harder or, you know, if he did any of these things and it wouldn't have happened, or it wouldn't have been as bad. And they think that that voice can be very strong and can lead people to feel ashamed and afraid to speak,” says Whitfield.
So, what are the organizations doing about this on-going sexual assault of women athletes? Why is it still happening?
The process of a female athlete coming forward is remarkably difficult and an immensely emotional process. Not only are these athletes accusing someone (and most likely someone they know, and someone involved in their sport) of sexually abusing them, they also have to explain what happened to them and relive their trauma.
“If they're going to fight it, they're going to try to make it look like it didn't happen or that. It wasn't that perpetrators' fault. So, it's a very intimidating process to actually pursue, not to discourage people from doing that. But I think also a lot of women in society know what, what are the chances that you're going to be believed sometimes?” says Whitfield.
There is an underlying societal issue at when it comes in to sexually abused female victims. We live in a society where we don’t want to trust the victim. Dr. Kirby wrote about this in her journal, Women under the Dome of Silence: Sexual Harassment and Abuse of Female Athletes. One of the major points Kirby emphasizes is that female athletes do not come forward after they have been sexually assaulted because more times than not, the result will be negative. How is it possible that we as a society do not want to believe a victim of sexual violence?
There are a few factors here. One is money. In the capitalistic world we live in, money makes the world go around. Looking at the USA Gymnastics case, it took several gymnasts to band together and work with a lawyer to make their claims. Not all athletes have these resources, especially those who aren’t pro. Think about minor athletes or even those at a university level, they don’t have money for a lawyer. But, even if these athletes do have the money to fight this fight, organizations will do almost everything to back the coach and cover the story. They would rather make it go away than deal with it. This is arguably the biggest issue at hand.
Organizations should be dealing with situations like these head on and immediately to allow them to occur again, instead, they do not take accountability and they cover it up says Coach Holmberg.
“A good organization needs real leadership, they understand the issues and they, but these issues front and centre so when issues do arise, they’re dealt with, they’re dealt with effectively, with a view that’s athlete centred and leads toward remedy for the athletes and the organization,” says Dr. Kirby.
If these athletes do not feel like they will be heard by their organization, society, friends, family, teammates, they will not want to come forward. They will not feel supported and not only could this lead to the preparator going on to abuse future athletes, but it can do serious harm to the athlete themselves.
“Another really big part of developing PTSD is social support. So more often you'll see people developing PTSD when they don't have, don't have either a really strong sense of social support or don't feel like they have people that they can go to, to comfort them through that. And that doesn't mean that they don't have loved ones in their life, but a big part of it is their perception of that social support,” says Whitfield.
The victim athletes of sexual abuse can develop worse symptoms because they do not feel supported.
Dr. Fraser talks about the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde theory when it comes to coaches. Many coaches are well immersed in the community, they are known for their skills and helping athletes, while trying to bring success to a team. It is very difficult for society to think about these “beloved” coaches as someone who could do something so absolutely heinous. People’s brains actually have trouble understanding how someone could do something so awful and it actually tries to fight it.
“So, what the brain does in that situation is it generates what's called counter facts. So, because you can't reconcile these two things, it doesn't make sense to you. You've never seen it, your brains never seen it and your brain bulks at that possibility. So, you develop counter facts,” says Dr. Fraser.
It is important to mention that there are many coaches who help their female athletes and provide a safe environment. Duaine Bowles is the coach for Humber College’s Women Softball Team and said he always makes sure he has a female presence in his coaching staff.
Coach Duaine Bowles, Head Coach of Humber College's Softball Program
“I'm very big on making sure I have a female presence on my coaching staff,” says Coach Bowles on his assistant coach Maddie Pasma who was a previous player.
“I've always had a female assistant coach on staff always, always always, that is a must because I want to mentor young females to get into coaching,” says Holmberg echoing Bowles.
This not only allows for their female athletes to feel safer, but it also protects these coaches. For the male coaches, they do not want to put themselves in a bad position either.
“When I have a meeting with a player, I never do a one on one because I would like to be able to hold myself accountable. But be like, there also there has to be protection for not only myself, but the athlete. So, I think I coaches I think coaches are trying to do a better job of it now. After understanding that, A) your athletes mental health matters. And B), you don't necessarily want to put yourself in a situation where it can be a he said, she said situation and you have no one to back you up because it's only you and another person in that situation. So, I think with the coaches, it's being able to understand that you probably need a little bit more support and you need a little bit more education,” says Bowles.
So, what can organizations do? McCormack says the system needs to change. There needs to be more help provided to athletes making sure that they feel safe and that they feel comfortable talking to someone about this.
“It's okay to make a complaint, right? And that they know what the complaints process is. And you don’t make the complaint to the coach,” says Holmberg. Holmberg explains that athletes should feel comfortable enough to come forward with their concerns or complaints and should not feel scared to do so. Holmberg says that athletes should not be going to their coaches and Strashin echoes this. He says athletes who are victims of sexual assault need to go to police and not to the organizations.
“If you think a crime has been committed, go to the people investigating crimes, not some quasi-judicial body that's not equipped or willing to deal with it,” says Strashin.
There should be specific people that work with sport organizations to provide aid and relief to these female athletes, says Kirby, especially major national organizations, because they have the resources. In 2021, Alex Morgan of the U.S. national women's soccer team went public with accusations of coaches sexually harassing players in the NWSL. A week before Morgan's revelations, the North Carolina Courage management fired its coach Paul Riley over allegations of sexual misconduct toward players says ESPN. Riley has since been fired and U.S. Soccer and FIFA are investigating the matter. The North Carolina Courage had fired coach Paul Riley a week prior to Morgan’s statement, after allegations were made towards Riley on a decade of sexual misconduct towards players he had coached.
The NWSL Players Association says it is creating an anonymous hotline and making sport psychologists available for players, present, current or past, to help deal with issues relating to abuse. These are steps in the right direction, but Morgan has said in media interviews these steps have only been made because the players are asking for it, it is not the league trying to change and alter its system. These changes in the NWSL were made due to players coming forward, putting the organization on blast and doing something about the issue themselves. Dr. Kirby emphasizes there should be designated people who are skilled equipped to deal with sexually abused victims and help them
“They need a designated safeguarding officer. They need a designated person who is not a CEO, who is not in HR, who is not an equity person, who is safeguarding for that organization. And that officer has the power to set up what safeguarding looks like at various events, competitions and so on,” says Dr. Kirby.
Dr. Kirby says education plays a key factor in an organization bettering itself and “anybody who has access to the athletes absolutely needs some education, training, or certification.”
Coach Painter agrees and says organizing bodies are responsible for education and implementing safety.
“That’s our first priority,” says Painter.
The organizations need to accept that they have made sure they are providing a safer environment for their athletes and we know this is going to happen again, but it’s a matter of how it is dealt with, says Painter.
Dr. Fraser says journalists should work together to give these stories a voice and not produce reactive stories to accusations against the preparator. Fraser says journalists should give insight to how these incidents occur and how perpetrators are getting away with it. The laws need to be changed. There needs to be more coverage by journalism on the laws and how the laws need to change, says Fraser and that journalists should be allies to athlete victims of sexual abuse and be the ones to call policymakers and law makers to enact change.
“Journalism, because I believe that journalism is the only thing right now standing between abuse occurring, and the perpetrator getting away with it, and the athlete being destroyed,” says Dr. Fraser.
There is some good that happens. The journalism that has been done has raised public awareness and interest, Strang says.
“So, I think just maybe continuing to seek out in pursuing these stories is what we, as an industry, can continue to do and do better. And then also I think, you know, from a best practice’s perspective, you know, really educating ourselves and how to report on trauma in a way that forms and educates the reader,” says Strang.
Kirby also emphasizes that when she was starting work in this field, they were still trying to define the correct terminology such as “sexual harassment.”
When the Canadian Women’s National Team was competing in the 2019 World Cup, McCormack made a conscious effort not to make any comments at this time not to draw focus away from the team. She says they didn't reach out and show their support when her blog post came out, but they did when NWSL allegations were made.
“Even when the whole thing came out with the NWSL in October, all these Canadian national team players were tweeting support for the NWSL when we had this massive situation going on in their own backyard,” says McCormack.
With the rise of the Canadian Men’s National Team and their success, qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, there is so much positive attention and energy surrounding Canada Soccer. McCormack says she can’t support it.
“With Canada soccer I don't cheer for Canada in soccer. Like it's really like how could you, right? When you are dealing with an organization, that's just so openly causing so much harm with zero accountability,” says McCormack.
Education is key, says Kirby. Educate athletes on their rights. Educate children on their rights and what is allowed and what is not in terms of their bodies. Educate coaches constantly on the changing rules. Educate training staff on what sexually abused victims look like. Society needs to recognize that we need to constantly educate ourselves on this matter in order to battle it moving forward.
“We don’t ask athletes through a meaningful way, regularly, how they are doing,” says Kirby. “Early intervention, athletes understanding their rights, coaches understanding what their rights are, not abusing their power and being responsible for the cavalry of coaches, that they take responsibility for each other to do a better and better and better job for the athlete.”
Coach Bowles echoes the need for more education and more room for improvement. He says he is not done with pushing for change and creating a safer space for female athletes and that he can always be better. Coach Holmberg also talks about the regular meetings to keep lines of communication open and to have regular check-ins with how athletes are doing.
“In fact, as coaches these are mandatory meetings, we are provided with the documents and it's not just a tick a box type of a situation right, it's brought to the forefront and it's discussed and, and made very, very clear to the coaches that here's what our expectations are, and breaches of these expectations are going to be dealt with quite swiftly and significantly,” Holmberg says about Queen’s University’s expectation of their coaching staff.
“It's so far behind. All these cases have come forward this year. I think it's just one of those things where it's literally like, okay the system is broken and something has to change because now there's like no doubt in anybody's mind the harm that's been perpetuated, you know?” says McCormack.