By Celia Brackenridge
In the early 1990's a tidal wave of shock hit the world of sports in the United Kingdom in the wake of the arrest and subsequent conviction  of a former British Olympic swimming coach, Paul Hickson, on charges that he had raped two teenage swimmers and indecently assaulted others.
At the time of the Hickson case, David Sparkes, the Chief Executive Officer of the Amateur Swimming Association, said in a radio interview that the HIckson case was "a one-off" - in other words it doesn't (really) happen here. We call this denial.
But David knew, as I and many others did, that his sport had been dealing with allegations of maltreatment for many years. Worth remembering then, that - like mice in your kitchen - there's never only one.
Denial is, thankfully, rare in sport these days. But back then, we lacked an evidence base by which to judge our own knowledge or lack of it, on the subject of abuse in sports.
We faced a Catch 22. It was difficult to get sport to provide any data on this subject, and difficult to persuade the child protection agencies that there was a problem in sport. I could not get permission to do a survey across sports, but could not persuade the government to do anything without such data.
But now, thanks to some systematic quantitative and qualitative research, and help from some brave National Governing Bodies of Sport (NGBs), we have a growing body of evidence on which to base our safeguarding policies and procedures and our all-round approach to athlete welfare.
Research has helped us to understand two basic elements of the issues: first, the behaviour of abuse perpetrators and the consequences of abuse for victims2,3; and secondly, the extent and impact of safeguarding policies in sport.4,5
Here's a list of some of the common myths that we have encountered during our 20 year expedition through the foothills to the peaks of safeguarding. I will try to show how research findings can help to challenge these myths and provide support for you in implementing a Call to Action.
Is sport better or worse than other sectors of society when it comes to child abuse?
Why are some people still surprised by child abuse in sport? We should be surprised if child abuse did not happen in sport. Sport is just one part of our social system, suffering all the good, bad and ugly features of other sectors, including child abuse.
But, there is some good news. We already know that teenage female athletes start being sexually active later than their non-athlete counterparts.6 There is now some limited evidence that sport can help to build resilience against sexual exploitation7 and against delinquent behaviours more generally.8 Thus, to this extent, we should be happy to see that being active in sport helps tackle more than just the obesity crisis.
It also seems from some data that female athletes suffer more harassment outside than inside sport.9 Yet they experience more harassment from their coaches than pupils or workers experience from teachers or bosses. This is explained by the authoritarian hierarchies in sport - with coaches all-powerful and athletes often lacking a chance to express their own opinions or to challenge sport authority figures.10, 11
Are some sports immune from the need for safeguarding?
Abuse happens in all sports.12 We think that early-specialization sports (e.g. gymnastics, figure skating) may present greater risks of sexual exploitation, especially those who for whom intensive talent ID happens just before or around puberty.13 However, this hypothesis is only weakly supported by empirical data, since we have access to so few well-archived and detailed cases. We do not yet know whether there is any relationship between other types of abuse and early/late specialization sports.
Is safeguarding really necessary at the elite level?
It is not uncommon for top coaches to complain about the intrusion of safeguarding into their work, saying that "it gets in the way of performance"14 Wrong! The complete opposite has been found, in studies across several countries. Survey data from Australia,15 the Czech Republic,16 Norway,17 and Belgium 18
show that the higher an athlete progresses up the sporting talent ladder, the greater the risks of being exploited sexually. The latest survey data show that the same applies to emotional abuse of young athletes.19, 20, 21So, far from needing less safeguarding at top level, we actually need just as much there as lower down the talent ladder.
The happy athlete is more likely to achieve than the harassed or abused one: safeguarding athlete development and pushing for achievement are not opposing concepts but are two sides of the same performance coin. If our elite coaches understood this - and were prepared to embrace safeguarding as an essential part of their own preparation - there would probably be far less misery, fewer drop outs and fewer long-term negative consequences among elite athletes. So far, we have only a few research studies on this, plus quite a lot of anecdotal/biographical evidence.22, 23, 24
Does less clothing cover lead to more sexual exploitation?
No: a large survey in Norway found more harassment of female athletes in sports with greater clothing cover.25 This may be due to them being seen as playing more "masculine" sports, and thus provoking homophobic and sexually harassing reactions. It's also possible that scanty clothing is associated with early specialization sports - in other words that peaking age is the important mediator rather than clothing as such.
Is abuse more likely in sports where there is a lot of close interpersonal touching/manual support?
As far as we know, no. There is no proven connection between handling or manual support and the likelihood of sexual exploitation.26 However, just as happens in physiotherapy or nursing, there are common sense protocols that should be observed by any coach or trainer who has to touch an athlete. This helps to secure consent and alerts the athlete and anyone watching about what to expect and why it is being done. Further, no one in their right mind would stop a coach or helper comforting an injured athlete - as I have heard suggested in some coaching workshops.
Are athletes in individual sports are more likely to experience abuse than those in team sports?
No. Abuses of all types take place in all sports.27, 28 No sport is immune. Individual performers are often involved in squad training; team athletes often train alone. The competitive structure of a sport tells us nothing about the type or frequency of safeguarding problems that may be encountered.29 However, we do know that abusive initiations ceremonies - termed ‘hazing' " - are often associated with team sports.30, 31
Are coaches the majority perpetrators of abuse?
No. In fact, athletes perpetrate more sexual harassment on their peers than do coaches.32, 33 Athlete-athlete bullying  is also widespread but we have no systematic data on this. Hazing has been studied a lot in North America and is known to also take place in the UK, among both male and female athletes. We are only just starting to see studies of hazing in British sport but several high profile incidents have appeared in the media in the past few years, including one student death.34, 35
Are perpetrators of sexual abuse in sport drawn mainly from those without proper qualifications?
Not necessarily. On the contrary, coach perpetrators are often very highly qualified and very highly respected  which acts as a mask for their misdemeanors.36 However, it is true that we know very little about people working in the unregulated sector. A notorious U.K. child murderer , for example, used informal sport sessions as a means of accessing young children.37 Hopefully we now have better system in place for background checks  and, as coaching becomes fully professionalised, more people will experience safeguarding training and adopt best practice.
Is abuse perpetrated only by males on females?
No. Women also abuse.38 But since most coaches and athletes are male, there is a statistical probability that most perpetrators of abuse in sport will therefore be male. Women are certainly involved in perpetrating emotional abuse and bullying: we have no studies yet of perpetrator gender and neglect in sport. We do have some data showing that female athletes are starting to mimic male hazing traditions.39, 40 Both men and women, boys and girls, may be victims of any type of abuse. Furthermore, even though there are known cases of homosexual and lesbian perpetrators in sport, sexual orientation is not related to sexual abuse.41Many men who perpetrate sexual abuse are married with children.42 Making assumptions about sexual orientation and abuse in sport simply fuels homophobia.
Is safeguarding an extension of the ‘nanny state' and political correctness? After all, one person's abuse is another's way of toughening up the athlete.
Wrong. This kind of attitude reflects institutional tolerance for maltreating athletes and overlooks the longer term harm that can result from ‘tough' training and coaching regimes. It's very similar to ...
Does success demand that athletes should suffer emotionally?
No. Performance success is linked to support and nurturing as much as it is to mental toughness. There are no gains (but many losses) to be had from athlete abuse.43-48
Is sexual abuse the most common safeguarding issue in sport?
Probably not. Poor practice, emotional abuse  and bullying are probably far more prevalent than sexual abuse in sport, 49,50 but our obsession with all things sexual means we have a distorted concern about this. It is likely that rates of the different forms of abuse vary from sport to sport but we do not have clear sport-specific data about this yet.
Do standards guarantee that children are safe in sport?
No. We have studies showing that there is often a policy vacuum between national and local or club level, and that policy impacts fade unless safeguarding work is constantly refreshed. 51-53
Are children in sport able to offer sensible ideas about their own sport experiences and safeguarding issues?
Yes. But too often we exclude athletes - of all ages - from expressing their own views and or being listened to.54, 55 Thankfully, many NGBs and International Federations now have athlete forums or commissions which allow young people to have direct input into decisions about their training, competition and welfare.56,57 This, in itself, helps us to comply with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child  and also helps to empower young athletes and thus to make them less vulnerable to all types of abuse. That said, we should never forget that adults should always be held responsible for their own actions.
1. Robinson, L. (1998) Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment and Abuse in Canada's National Sport, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Inc. p. 176
2. Leahy, T., Pretty, G. and Tenenbaum, G. (2004) ‘Perpetrator methodology as a predictor of traumatic symptomatology in adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse', Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 19(5): 521-540.
3. Fasting, K., Brackenridge, C.H. and Walseth, K. (2002) ‘Consequences of sexual harassment in sport', Journal of Sexual Aggression, 8(2): 37-48.
4. Brackenridge, C.H. (2004) Burden or benefit? The impact of sportscotland's Child Protection Programme with Governing Bodies of Sport. Research Report 94, Edinburgh: sportscotland.
5. Hartill, M. and Prescott, P. (2007) ‘Safeguarding and Child Protection Policy in British Rugby League', Child Abuse Review, 16(4): 237-251.
6. Sabo, D., Miller, K. E., Farrell, M. P., Barnes, G. M., and Melnick, M. J. (1998). The Women's Sports Foundation report: Sport and teen pregnancy. East Meadow, NY: The Women's Sports Foundation.
7. Fasting, K., Brackenridge, C.H., Miller, K.E. and Sabo, D. (2008) ‘Participation in college sports and protection from sexual victimization', International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Special Issue: Abuse and Harassment in Sport Implications for the Sport Psychology Profession (Edited by T. Leahy), 16(4): 427-441.
8. Nichols, G. (2007) Sport and Crime Prevention: The role of sport in tackling youth crime. London: Routledge.
9. Fasting, K. Brackenridge, C.H. and Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2000) Females, Elite Sports and Sexual Harassment. The Norwegian Women Project 2000. Oslo: Norwegian Olympic Committee.
10. Brackenridge, C.H. (2001) Spoilsports: Understanding and preventing sexual abuse in sport. London: Routledge.
11. Burke, M. (2001) ‘Obeying until it hurts: Coach-athlete relationships', Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 8(2): 227.
12. Fasting, K., Brackenridge, C.H. and Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2003) ‘Experiences of sexual harassment and abuse amongst Norwegian elite female athletes and non-athletes', Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 74(1): 74-97.
13. Brackenridge, C.H. and Kirby, S. (1997) ‘Playing safe: Assessing the risk of sexual abuse to elite child athletes', International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 32(4): 407-418.
14. Collins, T. (in press) ‘Child protection in high performance British gymnastics', C.H. Brackenridge (Ed.) in Sport, Children's Rights and Violence Prevention: A sourcebook on global issues and local programmes. UNICEF: Innocenti Research Centre.
15. Leahy, T. Pretty, G. and Tenenbaum, G. (2002) ‘Prevalence of sexual abuse in organised competitive sport in Australia', Journal of Sexual Aggression, 8(2): 16-36
16. Fasting, K. and Knorre, N. (2005) Women in Sport in the Czech Republic. The Experiences of Female Athletes, Oslo and Prague: Norwegian School of Sport Sciences and Czech Olympic Committee.
17. Fasting, K. Brackenridge, C.H. and Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2000) Females, Elite Sports and Sexual Harassment. The Norwegian Women Project 2000, Oslo, Norwegian Olympic Committee.
18. Vanden Auweele, Y., Opdenacker, J., Vertommen, T., Boen, F., Van Niekerk, L., De Martelaer, K. and De Cuyper, B. (2008) ‘Unwanted sexual experiences in sport: Perceptions and reported prevalence among Flemish female student-athletes', International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Special Issue: Abuse and Harassment in Sport Implications for the Sport Psychology Profession (Edited by T. Leahy), 16(4): 354-365.
19. Gervis, M. and Dunn, N. (2004) ‘The emotional abuse of elite child athletes by their coaches', Child Abuse Review, 13(3): 215-223
20. Gervis, M. (2009) An Investigation into the Emotional Responses of Child Athletes to their Coaches' Behaviour from a Child Maltreatment Perspective. Unpublished doctoral thesis, Brunel University, UK.
21. Stirling, A.E., and Kerr, G.A. (2007) ‘Elite female swimmers' experiences of emotional abuse across time', Journal of Emotional Abuse, 7(4): 89-323.
22. Kennedy, S. with Grainger, S. (2006) Why I Didn't Say Anything: The Sheldon Kennedy story. Toronto: Insomniac Press.
23. Sey, J. (2008) Chalked Up: Inside elite gymnastics' merciless coaching, overzealous parents, eating disorders, and elusive Olympic dreams. London: Harper Collins.
24. Heywood, L. (2000) Pretty Good for a Girl: A memoir. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
25. Fasting, K., Brackenridge, C.H. and Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2004) ‘Prevalence of sexual harassment among Norwegian female elite athletes in relation to sport type', International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 39(4): 373-386
26. Fasting, K., Brackenridge, C.H. and Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2003) ‘Experiences of sexual harassment and abuse amongst Norwegian elite female athletes and non-athletes', Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 74(1):84-97.
27. Brackenridge, C.H. (2001) Spoilsports: Understanding and preventing sexual abuse in sport. London: Routledge.
28. Fasting, K., Brackenridge, C.H. and Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2004) ‘Prevalence of sexual harassment among Norwegian female elite athletes in relation to sport type', International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 39(4): 373-386.
29. Fasting, K., Brackenridge, C.H. and Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2004) ‘Prevalence of sexual harassment among Norwegian female elite athletes in relation to sport type', International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 39(4): 373-386.
30. Johnston, J. and Holman, M (2004) Making the Team: Inside the world of sports initiations and hazing. Toronto: Canadian Scholar's Press, Inc.
31. Robinson, L. (1998) Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment and Abuse in Canada's National Sport, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Inc.
32. Fasting, K., Brackenridge, C.H. and Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2003) ‘Experiences of sexual harassment and abuse amongst Norwegian elite female athletes and non-athletes', Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 74(1):84-97.
33. Fasting, K., Brackenridge, C.H. and Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2003) ‘Experiences of sexual harassment and abuse amongst Norwegian elite female athletes and non-athletes', Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 74(1):84-97.
34. Wintrup, G. (ongoing) Sport Initiation and Hazing in UK Higher Education Institutions. Doctoral research project, Brunel University, UK.
35. Nuwer, H. (2009) "Wasted": The death of Gavin Britton, Exeter University. March 26th, http://britishhazing.blogspot.com/2009/03/wasted-death-of-gavin-britton-...  accessed Feb 18 2010.
36. Brackenridge, C.H. (2001) Spoilsports: Understanding and preventing sexual exploitation in sport. London: Routledge.
37. Dunblane Lord Cullen's Public Enquiry into the Dunblane Tragedy, Scottish Office, Jun 1996.
38. Elliott, M. (2004) ‘Female sexual abuse of children: ‘the ultimate taboo'', www.kidscape.org.uk/assets/.../Femalesexualabuseofchildren.pdf  accessed 18 Feb 2010.
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40. Shire, J., Brackenridge, C.H. and Fuller, M. (2000) ‘Changing positions: the sexual politics of a women's field hockey team', Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal, 9(1): 35-64.
41. Kirby, S., Greaves, L. and Hankivsky, O. (2000) The Dome of Silence: Sexual harassment and abuse in sport. London: Zed Books.
42. Brackenridge, C.H. (2001) Spoilsports: Understanding and preventing sexual abuse in sport. London: Routledge.
43. Gervis, M. (2009) An Investigation into the Emotional Responses of Child Athletes to their Coaches' Behaviour from a Child Maltreatment Perspective. Unpublished doctoral thesis, Brunel University, UK.
44. Stirling, A. and Kerr, G. (2008) ‘Defining and categorizing emotional abuse in sport', European Journal of Sport Science, 8(4): 173-181.
45. Ryan, J. (1995) Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The making and breaking of elite gymnasts and figure skaters. New York: Doubleday.
46. Agassi, A. (2009) Open: An autobiography. London: Harper Collins.
47. Comaneci, N. (2004) Letters to a Young Gymnast : The art of mentoring. New York : Basic Books.
48. Sey, J. (2008) Chalked Up: Inside elite gymnastics' merciless coaching, overzealous parents, eating disorders, and elusive Olympic dreams. London: Harper Collins.
49. Myers, J. and Barrett, B. (2002) In at the Deep End: A new insight for all sports from analysis of child abuse within swimming. NSPCC/ASA.
50. Brackenridge, C.H., Bringer, J.D. and Bishopp, D. (2005) ‘Managing cases of abuse in sport', Child Abuse Review, 14(4): 259-274.
51. Cense, M. (2004) ‘Dutch policies on sexual abuse in sport: Measures and effects', Consensus Conference on Ethics in Youth Sport, Ghent, 24th Sept.
52. Brackenridge, C.H. (2002) ‘So what?" Attitudes of the voluntary sector towards child protection in sports clubs', Managing Leisure - An International Journal, 7(2): 103-124.
53. Summers, D. (2000) Organisational Responses to Child Protection in Voluntary Sector Sport. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Bristol.
54. MacPhail, A., Kirk, D. and Eley, D. (2003) ‘Listening to Young People's Voices: Youth sports leaders - advice on facilitating participation in sport', European Physical Education Review, 9(1): 57-73.
55. Brackenridge, C., Bringer, J. D., Cockburn, C., Nutt, G., Pawlaczek, Z. and Russell, K. (2004) ‘Children in Football: Seen but not heard', Soccer & Society, 5(1): 43-60.
56. British Athletes Commission (2010) British Athletes Commission. http://www.britishathletes.org/  accessed 18 Feb 2010.
57. International Sailing Federation (2010) ISAF Athletes Commission. http://www.sailing.org/sailors/ac-role.phpCreated August 7, 2010; updated November 5, 2015