Sexual Harassment in Sports Essay


In the fall of 2017, a large-scale harassment scandal, which began after accusations against producer Harvey Weinstein, as well as the subsequent MeToo movement, received powerful development in sports. Indeed, sexual harassment is not a Hollywood-only privilege; it occurs in sport industry on a regular basis, has long historical roots, and has similarly been silenced down for years.

Overall, sexual harassment in the workplace is currently understood as any action of a sexual nature, which is expressed verbally (through threats, intimidation, mobbing, obscene remarks and requests for sexual services) or physically (touches, etc.), and humiliates or offends individuals inside the relations of labor, material or other subordination, i.e. when victim’s response to this action may determine one’s job position, career success, salary, as well as psychological climate at the workplace (IOC; Fasting and Brackenridge 21). In contrast to flirting, sexual harassment is a pleasure for only one party, it does not stop after the rejection from another party, and thus, in many cases leads to further sexual abuse.

The first court cases on sexual harassment, including harassment in sports, date back to the 1970s (Fasting and Brackenridge 21). Already by 1986, this concept was established in all spheres of life so firmly that the Supreme Court ruled that workplace harassment was illegal even in cases the victim did not suffer from material damage, but from moral discomfort only (Fasting and Brackenridge 22). However, the continuing increase in the detection of sexual harassment and violence incidents against subordinates shows that the problem is far from being resolved.

In particular, studies have demonstrated that sexual harassment occurs in all athletic disciplines and at all levels, but especially often – in professional sports (IOC; Fasting 438). According to Volkwein et al. (285), Bjørnseth and Szabo (369), and Fasting (439), people from the closest environment of athletes who find themselves in a position of strength and authority in relation to their mentees turn out to be criminals most often. Meanwhile, sexual harassment shows to have serious negative effects on the physical and psychological health of athletes, often leading to the premature retirement (Fasting 440). In this regard, further understanding of the foundations and scope of this issue is crucial for developing effective measures to combat and prevent the spreading of sexual harassment practice.

Problem background

Back in 1960s, sport research first came to a common conclusion that falling in love makes it possible to increase athletic performance (Volkwein et al. 285). Athletes, who were strictly locked up before, started to go on dates as often as possible, and the results exceeded all expectations. Since then, the presence of a love affair before the competition was simply a prerequisite, often organized and supported by coaches, sometimes, even by settling gymnasts and football players in one training camp, for example. Soon, however, experts found that the real effect was provided not by the romantic relationships, but namely by sex: after a night of love, swimmers traveled the distance much faster, and gymnasts performed the program clearly and without errors (Volkwein et al. 285-6). The reason is that sex has a positive effect on the pituitary gland, it relaxes tense muscles and increases testosterone levels which makes it the most legal doping agent of all (Volkwein et al. 287).

Yet, ensuring the access to this type of dope is not always easy in the conditions of competitions, whereas the stake are high. As a result, many coaches decided to take the “remote control” in their hands. “Favoritism” in sport became popular when the mentor formed the necessary energy charge in one’s mentees (Fasting and Brackenridge 27; Volkwein et al. 289). Indeed, by spending 24/7 with each other, coaches and athletes often became closest people to each other. In this regards, even in 1997, a British Olympic swimming coach Paul Hickson, who was convicted of corrupting 11 under-age athletes, stated in count that he just wanted victories for his girls (Volkwein et al. 290).

In fact, this was not the most dubious way of achieving success. Furthermore, sports bosses and coaches found the unique formula of pregnancy. It turned out that in the early stages of pregnancy human chorionic gonadotropin was intensively produced, which served for greatly improving the overall physical condition and aerobic endurance of women and acted as a growth hormone (Volkwein et al. 291). In anonymous testimonies that came to the press in the 1970s, it was reported that some coaches forced almost 13-year-old girls to become pregnant, reach the peak of hormone outburst in nine to ten weeks, and then undergo abortion (Volkwein et al. 292). Being an integral part of this formula, abortion caused the reabsorption of the produced hormones, which affected the increase in muscle mass. After the introduction of strict doping control, such a method became associated with greater risk due to male hormones tests, and these wild times seemed to end.

Further commercialization of sports led to the occurrence of “coach’s couch” trend, producing the rumors that, for example, it was possible to get into the national team only through the pragmatic sexual contact with coaches or sponsors (Fasting and Brackenridge 31). As a response, in 1988, the first conference was held in Ottawa to discuss the correlation of the success formula and sexual abuse of athletes in preparing for tournaments (Fasting 438). However, adequate assessment of situation in sport was hindered by understatement both from the side of sport associations and athletes themselves.

Indeed, the victims of harassment are not always able to tell their story even to the closest people due to fear, shame, and the sense of guilt. It is also worth noting that the facts of harassment are often greatly underestimated, and some athletes may not even understand that their experience has been fully consistent with this definition. Thus, for example, it was found that during classes in large groups, girl athletes often do not realize that various kinds of partner’s or coach’s touches imply sexual nature, even when they do not leave visible and painful marks on the body (Fasting and Brackenridge 32). In addition, it was noted by Bjørnseth and Szabo (371) that many young sportsmen do not understand that sexual harassment can be expressed in a single case, while they are confident that this process must be repeating several times. According to psychologists, this mostly happens due to the lack of understanding the essence of behavior norms due to the first victimization occurring in early childhood (Bjørnseth and Szabo 372; Fasting 440).

Meanwhile, the psychological effects of systemic harassment may include low self-esteem, feeling of oppression, social phobia, panic attacks and obsessive states (Volkwein et al.;Fasting; Fasting and Brackenridge; Bjørnseth and Szabo). Victims of harassment and abuse often suffer from intrusive painful memories and nightmares, paranoia is quite common among them, hallucinations and short-term psychosis are possible as well (Volkwein et al.; Fasting and Brackenridge). People who have experienced such trauma thus often suffer from mood swings, irritability and brain disorders, which can lead to depression, mania, and outbursts of anger. Victims of sexual harassment also often cease to trust others and begin to be apprehensive about people, therefore it is difficult for them to maintain long-term relationships based on mutual trust (Volkwein et al.;Fasting and Brackenridge; Bjørnseth and Szabo). Long-term effects of experiencing sexual violence include psychosomatic and autoimmune disorders, failure of sexual relations, alcohol, drugs, and smoking abuse (Volkwein et al.; Bjørnseth and Szabo).

However, the complexity of identifying the real statistics behind these consequences is recently diminishing due to the growth of open statements of athletes related to sex scandals.

Global incidence

High-profile cases related to sexual harassment that lift the veil of secrecy come in waves in different sports. In the fall of 2017, the world of artistic gymnastics in the United States exploded. Olympic champion McKayla Maroney was the first to report about being sexually abused by a US team doctor Larry Nassar (Macur). Further, athletes one after another claimed that Nassar molested them under the guise of medical procedures and that he had been committing sex-related actions with regard to juvenile athletes with the complete absence of willingness to openly respond from the US Gymnastics for 20 years. Moreover, Maroney, for example, initially received over one million dollars for her silence, and three-time Olympic champion Raisman was even threatened. Eventually, 156 athletes, as well as 18-year-old Jacob Moore witnessed against Larry Nassar (Macur). As a result of the scandal, Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in prison, and the leadership of the US Olympic Gymnastics resigned. In general, according to a journalistic investigation conducted last year by the Indianapolis Star newspaper, for the past 20 years, American gymnastics coaches have been accused of sexually abusing their students more than 360 times (Macur).

If in 2017, all the attention in the United States was drawn to gymnastics, in 2010 the fire of sex scandals was raging in swimming. The loudest was the story of coach Andy King, who, as was established by the investigation, for three decades used to have sexual intercourse with his students (Bjørnseth and Szabo 372). One of them became pregnant at the age of 14 and was forced to have an abortion. King was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Also, former world record holder in swimming Ariana Kukors accused former US Olympic team coach Sean Hutchison of harassment. The athlete said that the coach made nude photos of her when she was a teenager and forced her to enter into an intimate relationship with him when the girl was 16. After Kukors reported to the police, Hutchison’s house was raided, which revealed the electronic media with evidence that the coach also seduced other young swimmers. As a result, USA Swimming Safe Sport Senior Director Susan Woessner and Managing Director Pat Hogan resigned from their posts. According to the findings of the investigation, hundreds of young swimmers were subjected to sexual abuse by coaches and sports officials, while US Swimming has not taken the necessary measures to protect the athletes (Fasting 439).

Another big story that shocked the United States is related to the University of Pennsylvania and American football. Jerry Sandusky, who for decades was an assistant coach at the University and achieved outstanding sporting success, in 2011, was accused of sexual assault. The subsequent investigation revealed shocking facts: Sandusky had sexual intercourse with at least 10 young men from among his players. The investigation succeeded in proving 45 episodes that occurred from 1994 to 2009. Sandusky was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison. Head coach Joe Paterno was fired and died a few weeks later. Head of the University of Pennsylvania was removed from his post, and victims were paid more than $80 million (Macur).

In turn, another institution of higher education is accused of covering up illegal actions of volleyball coach Rick Butler. In 1995, he was prosecuted on charges of sexual harassment and violent acts against three female athletes of Michigan University. But the case was not considered due to exceeding the statute of limitations, as the events took place back in the 1980’s. In connection with the notorious scandal of Nassar, the case of Butler has received a new turn. In general, for a short time in America, nearly 150 coaches were accused of harassment, and more than a hundred were eventually suspended from coaching activities (Macur).

A similar situation is observed in Canada. Thus, for instance, Speed Skating Canada has decided to dismiss one of the coaches of the national team in skating, Michael Crowe, after it became known that at his previous place of work – in the US team – the coach systematically molested athletes. Almost simultaneously, Canadian Minister of Sports Kent Hehr also was forced to resign after a group of women put forward the accusations of numerous harassments in his address in social networks. In addition, former head coach of Canada’s Artistic gymnastics at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and the Director of the women’s team at the 2017 World Gymnastics Championships in Montreal, Dave Brubaker was accused of sexual harassment and violence; Sarnia court reported that the ex-coach was charged with one count of invitation to sexual touch, three counts of sexual interference, three counts of sexual exploitation and three counts of sexual assault (Macur).

A scandal related to the mass confessions of local athletes, who had been victims of sexual harassment earlier also erupted in Brazil, Russia, and Korea. Thus, for instance, the Vice-World Champion in freestyle wrestling Aline da Silva Ferreira declared that she experienced an outrageous case of sexual harassment back at the age of 11, and Joanna Maranhao, the multiple medalist of the Pan American Games in swimming, stated that she was exposed to sexual violence at the age of nine, and then kept the incident a secret for more than 12 years (Bjørnseth and Szabo 374). At the same time, a recent anonymous survey found that 1 in 6 men and 1 out of 2 women in the world of climbing and mountaineering have experienced sexual harassment or sexual abuse (Fasting 440). Having different stories, athletes agree on one thing – this problem cannot be silenced any longer.

Solutions and Recommendations

For a long time, the global community was not ready for the ensuring full protection of athletes, especially women. The Executive Committee of the International Olympic Committee accepted the Consensus Statement on Sexual Harassment and Abuse in Sport only in 2007, when it was already meaningless to hide the obvious. In this unique document, problems and risk factors are openly named for the first time, and possible directions for solutions are first articulated. The purpose of the statement is to improve the health, awareness and the degree of safeguarding athletes through the introduction of preventive measures by local sport associations. Declared prevention strategies incorporate policies associated to the codes of ethics and medical practice, education and training of both coach teams and athletes on the norms of conduct, as well as implementation of new monitoring and evaluation systems (IOC).

It is expected that policies adopted by sport associations and federations will finally put real effort to creating nontoxic and mutually respectful training environments, promote civil rights and well-being of athletes, as well as allow authorities to undertake swift, unbiased and reasonable actions in response to any complaints or allegations, including appropriate disciplinary and penal measures (IOC). Moreover, the provided codes of ethics and practice should explicitly describe the range of acceptable standards of conduct leaving no alternative to interpretation. Along with educational programs on sexual harassment, this can help to minimize the existing opportunities for sexual misconduct as well as unfounded allegations. The implementation of these policies and procedures should also be monitored and evaluated by upper bodies.

However, organizational and educational measures may not be sufficient in effective prevention. In addition, corresponding joint international legislation should be adopted in order to ensure the protection of the rights of athletes. For instance, in 2017, the US House of Representatives with 415 votes passed the bill on prevention of sexual harassment in sports; in the Senate, a parallel initiative has been approved by the Legal Committee (Macur). The bill requires sports organizations to establish strict controls in this area, provides for the mandatory training of trainers and other teachers at the respective courses, drawing up prevention programs, and in case of the slightest violation – a mandatory appeal to the law enforcement agencies. In addition, lawmakers offer to facilitate the recovery of compensation by court decisions in favor of the victims. For this purpose, in particular, the limitation period for filing civil suits is increased to 10 years after an athlete reaches legal age. In cases of proven damages, courts are encouraged to set punitive sanctions based on the amounts starting from 150 thousand dollars. Similar initiative should be developed by all countries. In general, silencing harassment cases should be put to an end through establishing a serious punishment, because experience shows that a sense of impunity in a harasser can lead to rape associated with even more serious consequences.

In this regard, it is also necessary to arrange the availability of timely and effective psychological support to victims of abuse. In particular, the practice of psychological assistance shows a trend to adopt two models of individual psychotherapy: the model of crisis intervention and short-term psychotherapy model (Volkwein et al.;Fasting; Fasting and Brackenridge; Bjørnseth and Szabo). Thus, the main goal of crisis intervention should be to help get rid of the psychological trauma and integrate the experienced event into the general system of life experience, form an adequate and clear picture of what happened, learn to manage one’s feelings and reactions, overcome the state of affect and form behavioral patterns that allow to overcome the effects of trauma (Volkwein et al.; Fasting). Group psychotherapy is also the optimal form of work. As many years of experience show, it is during group therapy that the victims have an opportunity in a calm friendly environment to sort out their own conflicting feelings, analyze internal conflicts and emotions; the sense of isolation is reduced in the course of such work (Volkwein et al.;Fasting; Bjørnseth and Szabo).

Particular attention should also be paid to children sportsmen who experience harassment. Here, the organization of psychotherapy groups should consider such features as higher effectiveness of same-sex groups, positive results shown by art therapy and groups under eight members (Bjørnseth and Szabo 378-83). Group psychotherapy with children should also include parallel work with their parents or guardians who are not involved in sexual abuse. This allows adults responsible for the child to feel their participation and involvement in the process of recovery, analyze their own anxieties, as well as better understand the impact of trauma on the further development of the child. (IOC; Volkwein et al.; Bjørnseth and Szabo).

In sum, after sports system suffered full failure in its inability to identify and register violations, state and social structures should take responsibility for resolving the situation and preventing the inculcation of harassment and abuse in sports.

Works Cited

Bjørnseth, Ingunn, and Attila Szabo. “Sexual Violence Against Children in Sports and Exercise: A Systematic Literature Review.” Journal of Child Sexual Abuse 27.4 (2017): 365-385.

Fasting, Kari. “Assessing the sociology of sport: On sexual harassment research and policy.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport 50.4-5 (2015): 437-441.

Fasting, Kari, and Celia Brackenridge. “Coaches, sexual harassment and education.” Sport, Education and Society 14.1 (2009): 21-35.

Macur, Juliet. “The ‘Me Too’ Movement Inevitably Spills Into Sports.” The New York Times Online, Oct. 19, 2017. Accessed from

IOC Expert Panel. Consensus Statement: Sexual Harassment and Abuse in Sport. IOC, 2007. PDF. Accessed from

Volkwein, Karin A.E., Schnell, Frauke I., Sherwood, Dennis, and Anne Livezey. “Sexual Harassment in Sport: Perceptions and Experiences of American Female Student-Athletes.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport 32.3 (1997): 283-295.

The terms offer and acceptance. (2016, May 17). Retrieved from

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[Accessed: November 26, 2021] (2016) The terms offer and acceptance [Online].
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[Accessed: November 26, 2021]

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"The terms offer and acceptance.", 17 May 2016

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"The terms offer and acceptance.", 17 May 2016

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"The terms offer and acceptance.", 17 May 2016

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