Also in sport, sexual abuse and harassment are a social urgency

Complaints about situations of abuse in sport continue to arrive. Most of them do it in formats of “public escrache” or “social complaint”, rather than through formal channels (complaints processed in the Justice). Both their growing number and the formats in which they arrive are symptomatic elements of a culture perpetuated in sport: a culture of abuse, of impunity, of confidentiality agreements, of shame, of vulnerability, of unequal relationships. It is, at this point, almost obvious to say that we need a deep reflection on the ways in which we relate to each other in sport, however, at times, the obvious is obscured by customs. It is clear that the issue is complex and requires various approaches, but here are some lines that, in my opinion, can guide paths of reflection and action. Furthermore, I believe it is essential to continue putting on the table – the board or the court – some ideas about what should begin to be seen as a social urgency.

Give it all, all

Sport is sacrifice, it is effort, it is giving up pleasures and privileges. To play sports you have to put up with the pain and fatigue of the body, put them aside to continue training. “Give everything”, “try your best”, “endure”, “give up”, “don’t give up”, “the rewards are for those who give their best in each training session”, “leave life in competition”. These are common, everyday phrases that we not only hear in advertisements. They are discourses established in the mass media, in the promoters of sports policies, in sports organizations and, mainly, in athletes. But the discourse of individual effort is not an invention of sport, it is a classic cliché of the liberal economic system that permeates all areas of culture and society. The particularity of sport, compared to other production and consumption markets, is that the raw material is the very body of the people who play sports, and the products with added value are the techniques deployed by the athletes from training, control and improvement of their own body: the creation of hyper-complex sports techniques that become a show of almost unparalleled massiveness in the entire cultural industry.

The exploitation of the body is immense; the exploitation of man by man, more. This is because no athlete is considered – at least in our country – as a worker. They lack any labor rights: minimum wage, Christmas bonus, eight-hour law, Salary Councils, medical coverage, social security, insurance for work accidents, the possibility of union organization, and a long list of etceteras. However, they are putting their body in the hands of a coach, a medical body (in the best of cases), sports organizations (clubs, federations and others), almost to the point of losing it as property. Your body, your raw material, is the property of the sports institution. Now then, “leaving everything” then is not a euphemism, it is not a metaphor, it is literal. Professional athletes give their bodies to the sports system: decisions about training loads, periodization, nutrition, medicalization, leisure and rest times, competition dates, among many other decisions, are made by interdisciplinary teams –again, in the best of cases–, when not by the coach in charge.

“It is almost obvious to say that we need a deep reflection on the ways in which we relate to each other in sport; however, at times, the obvious is blocked by costumbrismo”.

The problem does not lie in high dedication, or in a person deciding to dedicate his life to sport (professionally) and then having to make a lot of sacrifices (as could happen with any other economic-labour activity). The problem is the absence of compensation, the problem is working without obtaining the minimum benefits and security in return: does the cost of dedicating oneself to sports have no other reward than medals, social recognition or pride in representing our country in international competitions? How do athletes live in Uruguay? How do they support your training, treatments, equipment, or your cost of living? What are the projections of an athlete after his career? What guarantees do we give to those who decide to dedicate themselves to sport? What containment spaces do we offer them?

The excesses of sport

The dispossession of the body sometimes ends up being total, to the point that pain and suffering in the body are commonplace. This is accentuated because the relationship between coaches and athletes is very close. Something that in most sports is common, and even, I would say, necessary. The bond between an athlete and his/her coach is complex: it is a coexistence of many hours and requires extraordinary levels of trust. Sportsmen and women’s careers usually begin at an early age, in some sports around five or six years old, in others at ten or 11, but never much later than that. Training times are long: sessions of three or four hours, generally every day of the week. Depending on the sport, it can be more hours (in several sessions a day). In many cases, they are young people who migrate from the interior to the capital of the country (or from a town to the capital of the department) and move away from their families to live in pensions or sports complexes. Therefore, their coaches become reference adults in their lives.

“When abuses go beyond what is strictly sporting, they can go unnoticed for years. Because, in a cluster of abuses and excesses, sexual, physical or emotional abuse appears as one more example of the unequal relationship.

So, an athlete is educated, raised in a sports system in which their main references are their coaches, in whom they trust their body, their talent, their career, their training. And that’s where the risks begin. Not because we should assume that an athlete-coach relationship is always violent or abusive, but because if it is, there are no other spaces of contention and reference in which an athlete can take refuge; loneliness is the biggest risk. Also because the relationship is one of trust and dependence, then the athletes tend to accept as part of the commitment assumed in the sports contract (sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit) all the sacrifices and pain that training brings. A series of abuses and excesses on the body: training with injuries, training even if you feel pain, little sleep, overloading the body even if you are tired, few hours of leisure, sometimes moving away from studies or family, consuming substances that improve the performance sports (psychopharmaceuticals, amino acids, vitamins, synthetic hormones, food supplements). When abuses go beyond what is strictly sporting, they can go unnoticed for years. Because, in a cluster of abuses and excesses, sexual, physical or emotional abuse appears as one more example of the unequal relationship.

But if we are outraged by abuses in educational, family, political and often among friends, in festive spaces, how is it that we never mistrust sport? Athletes, women, minors, are the majority of people who experience and/or report physical or sexual abuse in their sports careers; while their abusers are usually coaches, men, of legal age. This is nothing more than the old familiar patriarchy operating in one of its cruelest and sexist forms: the abuse of power, privileged status, experience and age difference. That patriarchy that condemns women for being “provocative”, “for enjoying free sexuality”, “for showing off their bodies”, but which has a hard time condemning a man who exercises sexual violence on a woman, who maintains relationships sex with her without her full consent. And in the sports world it finds the perfect recipe, because the bodies are already in a position of subordination, because the relationships are based on trust (and confidence), because the ties are close and involve 100% the body of the athletes, well, let’s remember , is the raw material of work.

The institutional absence

Those who are dedicated to the accompaniment, care and advice of victims of sexual violence have taught us that we must take great care in the ways in which the abuse is reported, because the main thing is to care for the person who does it, following a procedure that must ensure the anonymity of the people involved and that their stories are not exposed, giving guarantees to the entire process. But also, building spaces of emotional and psychological containment for the complainant.

Reporting a situation of sexual abuse or violence through the networks or other public means ends up being more of an escrache to the abuser than a formal complaint. It completely exposes whoever denounces, who is left in a situation of vulnerability before the person denounced, in addition to compromising his story in the face of prejudice, comments and even insults. So why do reports in sports keep coming in this format? Social media posts or signed letters, publicly broadcast. I believe that if a woman reaches the point of using these ways, it is because she has not found better ones, others that protect her and assure her that what she is saying is going to be in a safe environment and will produce the effects that it has to produce: for example, a criminal complaint that ends in a restraining order, dismissal or serving a sentence. And it is that the Uruguayan sports system does not have any mechanism for receiving and monitoring complaints. There is no institutional space where an athlete can go in case of having lived an experience of violence or abuse within the framework of sports training or competitions. There is no interdisciplinary team that can both provide legal advice and psychologically support those who decide to file a complaint.

This is a policy that should already be implemented. Only wills are needed, and a general understanding that sport, like any other social field, is a space where situations of abuse and violence can be generated, and that, therefore, it is essential to have care and support strategies for and the athletes.

The question then is: who should be in charge of creating a space of this type? Who is responsible for the safety and well-being of athletes? In the Uruguayan sports system there are some key institutions in sports management. In the case of public entities, there is the National Sports Secretariat, the sports secretariats of the departmental governments (which are often the ones that hire the coaches in charge of schools that work in municipal establishments), the Ministry of Education and Culture (which regulates clubs and federations), the Ministry of National Defense (which grants scholarships to athletes); There is even a sports law that does not include the possibility of thinking of spaces for attention and advice to athletes. But sport, especially high performance, is developed mainly in the orbit of federations, private clubs, the Uruguayan Olympic Committee, foundations and civil societies. Perhaps we should seek the answer in each of the institutions. What is clear is that in the government and management of sport there is still no clear policy that thinks about the prevention of abuse and harassment in sport, as well as the care and advice to those who suffer from it.

Martina Pastorino is a research professor at the Department of Physical Education and Sports (ISEF-Udelar).

We would like to thank the author of this article for this outstanding web content

Also in sport, sexual abuse and harassment are a social urgency