Sport

With more and more revelations of sexual predators lurking unchallenged within sporting bodies and in the wake of the royal commission, what progress is being made towards signing on to the National Redress Scheme? By Tracey Holmes.

Sexual abuse and the National Redress Scheme

Former USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar (centre), who has been sentenced to 175 years’ jail for sexual abuse.
Credit: Reuters / Brian Snyder

It’s been described as a culture of “medals over morals” – when reports of sexual abuse in sport are ignored, hushed up or written off as fantasy, with eyes firmly remaining on the prize rather than the victims.

In the pursuit of sporting glory athletes usually start young. They are keen, impressionable and trusting, making them particularly vulnerable to predators.

Families often rely on the support of others in getting their budding stars to training, competition or camps where the kids are billeted out or will stay in hotel rooms with teammates supervised by the few parents who can spare the time or money to make the trip.

Rogue coaches or officials prey on the power imbalance in the relationships in which they find themselves. Finding a victim in such a fertile environment is not difficult, it seems.

We’ve read of the 400 or more victims of American gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. He’s been sentenced to 175 years in prison for his three decades of abuse.

Fifty-four Olympians in France published an open letter in February hailing the “crack in the wall of silence” after moves were finally made against a high-profile figure skating coach and his decades-long abuse of some of those in his charge.

Afghanistan’s national women’s soccer team, encouraged by their American coach, Kelly Lindsey, have been courageous in opening the eyes of the world to the systemic rape, sexual abuse and violent threats made against them and their families by Afghan football officials.

The world governing body FIFA has expelled one official for life while other alleged perpetrators are suspended pending an investigation – an investigation that is all too slow, it must be said.

Player unions such as FIFPro, which represents 65,000 professional male and female soccer players globally, are now actively campaigning for governing bodies to step up and make sport the safe space it is supposed to be. FIFPro’s chief women’s officer, Amanda Vandervort, tweeted last week:

“A Framework for Ending Abuse at @fifpro #LegalCongress by @KatCraig1… a poignant & powerful reminder that football officials are often the ‘gatekeepers to players’ dreams’ and that ‘we must have both the courage+system to support people who come forward.’”

For sexual abuse to be so endemic it requires a substantial number of people to look the other way Victims are blamed. Whistleblowers are shunned. Careers are sacrificed. The perpetrators remain to ruin more young lives while the mostly adult bystanders choose not to get involved.

There is barely a day in the American media where sexual abuse cases are not reported on and sports governing bodies are now paying the price. American gymnasts have sued not only USA Gymnastics, but also the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, the sport’s chief executive and team managers. USA Gymnastics filed for bankruptcy in 2018 because of the sheer number of claims. A $US215 million compensation package has been offered, with details emerging in the past week.

If the settlement is accepted, some victims will receive $US82,550, while about 60 others, including Olympic champion Simone Biles, will be awarded $US1.25 million each. Lawyers for the hundreds of gymnasts making the claim say it’s not enough.

While a trickle of sexual abuse cases in sport have been seen in Australia there is growing concern that only the tip of the iceberg has been exposed.

When the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was first announced by then prime minister Julia Gillard in November 2012, it didn’t take long for the president of the Australian Olympic Committee to get in touch with the commissioners.

“My friend Peter McClellan was the chief commissioner,” John Coates told The Ticket podcast this week. “I rang him and said, ‘Look, is there anything in the early findings that we should be implementing with our Olympic teams and sports?’

“And he changed the terms of reference to include institutional response in sport. He invited us to come along and give evidence about what we were doing.

“It’s something I take very, very, seriously.”

So why then have most sports – including all Olympic sports – not signed up to the National Redress Scheme that pays up to $150,000 to victims? The truth is most sports – aside from the big-money earners such as the football codes and cricket – would become insolvent even if only a handful of claims were made.

The Australian Olympic Committee, as the representative for 44 sports, has been in and out of meetings for the past five months with insurers, the National Redress Scheme and the minister for Families and Social Services, Anne Ruston, looking for a solution.

AOC chief executive Matt Carroll says all Olympic sports are committed to the scheme and adopting the royal commission recommendations.

“We are actively involved in engaging with the scheme and putting in place new procedures to ensure that such abuse doesn’t happen again. The issue is around being able to meet the financial requirements of the scheme … In order to sign up you need to pass a financial test; most sports would fail,” he told the ABC.

Volume 14 of the 17 that make up the royal commission’s final report is dedicated to sport, recreation, arts, culture, community and hobby groups.

“For the most part, children have been, and are, safe in sport and recreation environments. However, the sexual abuse of children has been reported in sport and recreation contexts.”

The following pages make for sobering reading. In private sessions there were more than 400 survivors who told the commissioners of their experiences that occurred in more than 300 sports and recreation institutions.

There are five key areas the commission found most concerning in the sports environment:

•    Pursuit of excellence at any cost

•    Protection of reputation as a primary concern

•    Culture of physical abuse and bullying

•    Not following child protection policies

•    Not reporting externally

Part of the problem was each state and territory had its own child safety initiatives.

Victoria, Queensland and South Australia had mandatory child safety approaches, while New South Wales, Western Australia, Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory opted for voluntary approaches.

The royal commission’s first recommended initiative was for a national approach.

“Some institutions have developed their own child safety policies and mechanisms in the absence of other guidance. Some institutional policies and practices have been guided by a peak body; however, some institutions have not developed any child safe policies and practices.

“We know that there are online resources that are appropriate to guide child safe practices in sports clubs, although not all clubs or recreational businesses are aware of their existence.”

Soon after its appearance at the royal commission the AOC amended its own team selection by-laws, requiring all Australian Olympic sports to adopt and implement a member protection policy as a condition of their athletes’ participation.

Unfortunately, till now, that has not included signing up to the National Redress Scheme.

However, on Monday this week AOC boss Matt Carroll emerged from a meeting in Canberra with Anne Ruston and the minister for Youth and Sport, Senator Richard Colbeck. “It was a very positive meeting and all parties have agreed to work together to find a solution – pronto,” Carroll said.

National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 29, 2020 as "Slow off the mark".

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Tracey Holmes
is a journalist and presenter for ABC News.

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