The past two years have revealed disturbing news across the country regarding abuse in sports. When you drop off your kids for practice, most trust that the staff are trustworthy and will keep an eye on them while the children are in their care. However, violence, discrimination, physical and sexual abuse is undeniably common in the sporting community.
We’ll walk through the signs of abuse, how to file a claim and how to seek help if you or your child experiences abuse in sports.
Abuse in sports can happen anywhere
Everyone has the right to enjoy the sports they love in a safe, friendly, welcoming environment. When abuse starts to occur, this can leave the victim scared, ashamed, intimidated or embarrassed. This takes the fun out of going to practice or participating in the sport at all, as abuse can affect someone physically, emotionally and psychologically over time.
A study led by Mike Hartill from Edge Hill University and Bettina Rulofs at Wuppertal University collected data on child abuse in sports. They found that 65% of adults reported they experienced psychological abuse as children, and 44% reported physical abuse. The study covered 10,302 adults in Germany, Spain, Romania, Belgium, the U.K. and Australia.
Let’s dive a little more into the details of abuse and what signs to look out for if you suspect someone you know is experiencing abuse in their sport.
Who are abusers and who can be victims?
No one is exempt from harassment or abuse in sports. Some examples of abuse in sports to highlight this fact include:
- An abusive coach excluding an athlete.
- An athlete using harsh language to abuse a referee or other athletes.
- A parent intimidating a coach.
- Athletes ganging up on or secretly harassing another athlete either on their team or an opposing one.
- Spectators verbally abusing athletes or throwing things at them.
- A physical trainer sexually abusing an athlete in need of treatment.
There is no single way a person or group of people can experience violence and no athletic field is exempt. It can happen in one-off situations or grow into ongoing abuse. The issue can span anywhere from the locker room or the playing field to the training room or walking home. Mistreatment could even occur virtually.
People who are bullied could:
- Become uncharacteristically uninterested in the sport.
- Have bruising or other unexplained injuries.
- Get nervous, worried, shy or withdrawn about their sport or an aspect of it.
- Be the last one picked for teams or group activities.
- Burst out into physical or verbal aggression.
- Lose money or possessions more easily than normal.
Any abuse that involves extensive emotional, psychological and especially physical injury is against the law. Bullying that involves discrimination like racial or gender identity can also constitute a lawsuit. The reason abuse happens is any number of points, but it’s important to remember that the victim does not deserve to be abused no matter the circumstances.
How to file an abuse claim
It is everyone’s responsibility to make a sport organisation a fun, and safe place to be. Organisations that fail to report abuse or harassment are liable under civil or criminal law. This includes any person associated with the organisation, a person of authority, or someone relevantly associated with the organisation like an employee, owner or agent.
You can choose how you’d like to proceed with the allegations depending on the severity of the abuse. Such as:
- Complaining with an external authority.
- Writing a formal complaint with the authorities in charge of the organisation.
- Informal discussions with the perpetrator.
- Appealing to the higher authorities because you did not receive fair consideration.
- Mediation within the courts.
- Trying to sort the matter out yourself.
There is always a policy within sport organisations of where to lodge such complaints if you choose to handle the matter yourself. However, you may run into more legal jargon or be waved off as an untrue allegation if you choose not to seek legal advice initially.
Be wary that if someone in a management position (such as a President or Executive Officer) of the organisation is committing the abuse, you may find the best luck lodging a claim to your state or child protection agency.
Under the CRIMES ACT, 1958 – SECT 49O someone in authority who is aware or who has been made aware of abuse must take action to prevent further abuse. Failing to do so is grounds for claims in criminal law.
Filing a criminal offence claim will involve collecting evidence and testimonies from those involved who are also aware of the problem at hand. Keep documentation of when you became aware of the issue, when you told someone in authority of the crimes and what events followed that did not either reduce or eliminate the chance of further abuse.
Civil liability claims
Sports organisations have a duty of care to protect their members from abuse and harassment. Failure to act can result in a civil liability claim as well as long as the abuse occurred while the person was in the case of the organisation.
In this type of claim, you should collect evidence to support the claim, but if there is enough probability that the organisation did not take preventative precautions against the abuse, this will work as well.
Not taking a complaint seriously can result in either criminal or civil lawsuits. Organisations should:
- Listen to both sides of the issue.
- Never take sides.
- Keep all parties informed on any steps being taken.
- Maintain confidentiality of the complaint and those involved.
- Take disciplinary action should there be a breach of policy.
- Ensure the person filing or the accused is not victimised as a result.
The goal of all organisations is to ensure that those who elect to participate in the institution are safe from harm. Policies surrounding abuse are mandatory for all Australian organisations and participants should be made aware of these rules and regulations before signing up. Therefore, if any of these agreements are broken, everyone involved can be held accountable for their actions.
Organisations and policies that protect you from abuse
There are several policies across the country that protect sporting participants.
Sports Integrity Australia has taken a zero tolerance stance on child abuse that protects families from having to deal with abuse on their own against the sporting league. It’s a preventative approach for child athletes and takes regular assessments of Australian Sports Commission programs, services and facilities.
The Commonwealth Child Safe Framework is a “whole-of-government policy that sets minimum standards for Australian Government entities to create and maintain behaviours and practices that are safe for children… The Framework is mandatory for all Commonwealth non-corporate entities,” according to the Child Safety landing page by the Nation Office for Child Safety.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has put in place policies and regulations within their Sports Corruption and Abuse in Sport 2021 report. It addresses several international legal policies that not only protect young athletes but professional athletes and staff members from having to deal with abuse on their own. Within the report, IOC urges organisations to implement comprehensive legislation that prohibits all forms of violence, including sexual assault with mandatory safeguarding policies and procedures. There should also be all-encompassing care, rehabilitation and recovery services for victims.
Human rights, anti-discrimination and equal opportunity agencies also work toward protecting all people from hate crimes no matter if you’re a young male athlete, a female athlete, in the Special Olympics league, your gender identity or racial background.
Abuse impacts more than the victim, but the organisation, the sport and the confidence people have in sporting organisations as a whole. It’s everyone’s responsibility to take action against such abuse, speak with legal representatives for advice and make action plans to seek justice.
Time frames and compensation
In a July 2022 Reuters report, Australia has set up a fund to compensate all athletes who have suffered abuse of any kind. The Australian Sports Commission (ASC) has offered payouts of up to $50,000 for athletes who were part of “the Canberra-based Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) between 1981 to 2013.”
Additionally, there is no timeline to when you need to report child abuse as it’s widely understood that this crime can take a while to process and come forward. Emotional abuse from sports organisations or even large entities like a member of the Olympic committee should be held accountable for the damage and long-term consequences.
It’s common for athletes to not report abuse because their teams are often considered their family. Coming forward about abuse could, in their mind, put this relationship at risk and result in rejection. Before the #MeToo movement of 2020, coming forward about allegations was not common, and athletes were either threatened or shamed into remaining quiet about the abuse.
No matter the reason, Gerard Malouf & Partners is here
As soon as you are aware of any type of abuse within your sports community, you should seek legal advice from Gerard Malouf & Partners violence and abuse lawyers. Whether it’s a coach or a fellow athlete, it’s important to feel supported on your athletic journey — especially if that journey no longer feels safe. We offer a no-obligation consultation to discuss your case and set you up with a game plan for how to handle the issue.