How abuse is embedded in American sports

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As someone who has researched, written and taught about women’s and women’s sports for the past 15 years, I was not surprised by the recent revelations of sexual and verbal abuse by National Women’s coaches. Soccer League.

There is a tendency to explain such horrible behavior in strictly individualistic terms – as a sign of personality disorders or moral deficiencies. But this type of response misses the larger picture of how organized sport itself contributes to abusive and even sadistic behavior.

My book on the hyper-commercialization of women’s sports identified numerous cases of verbal and physical abuse of girls and young women at the youth and college levels.

More recently, some colleagues and I have explored the structural causes of college athlete stress and anxiety. A pilot study of several hundred athletes (of all genders) at large and small schools revealed disturbing examples of abusive training behaviors. These examples were identified more frequently in women’s sports and were present in both large and small colleges.

“It’s like being in the army”

Our study – which involved more than 600 surveys and 40 interviews – did not explicitly uncover any cases of sexual abuse.

The results, however, suggest that abusive behavior can take many forms aside from sexual assault. The surveys we administered did not ask about abuse in any form. We only discovered examples of abuse during interviews. Most of these examples were offered without direct prompting, but when “coaching behavior” was discussed more generically.

We have found that there is often an overt disparagement of an athlete’s other academic responsibilities. In the survey portion of our study, 80% of athletes reported spending well over 20 hours per week in their sport. This violates NCAA Rule 17.1.7, which sets limits on weekly and daily sports participation.

A woman in a small college program told us, “Coach was clear that if I missed ‘willing’ conditioning to complete a lab report, I might forget to play next season. Another athlete from a larger program said, “The 20 hour rule is a joke; they think our whole life should revolve around [the sport]. They who preach balance are a load of bulls – for parents and recruits.

A second form of abuse concerns the facilitation of authoritarian behaviors. Sociologist Sarah Hatteberg has written about college sport as a “total institution,” much like prison or the military.

As Hatteberg argues, in total institutions, managers have complete control over subordinates and have the power to establish strict rules and the freedom to impose sanctions. My colleagues and I believe that this “militarized” aspect of organized sports encourages and legitimizes abusive behavior by coaches by reinforcing authoritarianism.

Our interviews regularly revealed elements of militarization.

“Coaches tell us when to eat, when to sleep, when to s—, what to wear, what lessons we take,” one soccer player told us. “It’s like being in the fucking army.” A softball player remarked, “When I asked why we had 6 a.m. practices during finals when the field was still available, [the coach] shouted, ‘because I said so; harden yourself or lose yourself.

Blame the bad apples

The last thread of abuse we discovered is the simplest: emotional abuse or non-sexual physical abuse.

Emotional abuse consists of ridicule, embarrassment, and demoralization, usually in a public setting. Physical abuse can include forcing people to lift a dangerous amount of weight or to walk up and down stairs until the athlete vomits or passes out, often resulting in more ridicule.

As one baseball player said, “Coach would go crazy and start throwing baseballs at us if we made a mistake during practice. He hit two guys in the head. No one said anything because they feared being benched.

It’s easy to say that the allegations against National Women’s Soccer League coaches, along with the arrests of sex offenders like former US gym doctor Larry Nassar and former Penn State assistant soccer coach Jerry Sandusky , represent hideous aberrations.

Fans hoist a banner in support of the players after the release of a report documenting systemic abuse in the National Women’s Soccer League.
Matthew Ashton/AMA via Getty Images

But our data – along with other research – strongly suggests that abusive behavior is widespread and embedded in the very essence of organized sports.

Although none of the people who took part in our research mentioned sexual abuse, we wouldn’t be surprised if some of them were victims or knew of a coach’s abusive sexual behavior. Studies from the US Center for Safesport estimate that 90% of athletes who are victims of sexual abuse do not report the offense in real time. A study commissioned by the Lauren’s Kids Foundation puts that figure at 75%.

The prevailing wisdom in organized sports is that physical and emotional antagonism—it is rarely called “abuse”—makes better athletes, just as it is supposed to make better soldiers. But sports competitions are not wars. They are games – at least they are meant to be.

Firing, suspending, or fining wrongful and offensive individuals will not by itself address the systemic conditions that enable this type of behavior in the first place. Imagine for a moment if teachers publicly ridiculed a student for making a mistake. Or if they had an entire class purged when a student arrived late to class.

College and high school administrators, as well as national supervisory boards, tend to attack abusive coaching by blaming bad apples rather than examining the conditions that allow bad apples to thrive. For decades, the media has fallen into the same trap.

As long as organized sports continues to emphasize winning at all costs, abuse is unlikely to go away — no matter how many bad apples are thrown around.

Rick Eckstein is a professor of sociology at Villanova University.


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