From policy to practice: Seven steps towards combating abuse in sport

John Brook/Flickr

Photo: John Brook/Flickr


By Stine Alvad
Transparency and openness are key if sport wants to create an environment that is safer from various types of harassment and abuse than today, says Swedish PhD and researcher Susanne Johansson and outlines seven broad, fundamental priorities for sport to embark on.

Ideally, sport provides a healthy environment contributing to the positive development of young people. In recent years, however, reports have revealed a darker side of sport in which actions and relations risk fostering situations where abuse of power and harassment can occur. Especially young athletes who are heavily dependent on a close relationship between other athletes, coaches, and medical personnel can be particularly vulnerable to harassment of various kinds and, in worst cases, sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse in sport not only harms the lives and careers of the involved but also works contrary to the core values of sport that advocate fairness, respect, trust and equality, says Swedish PhD Susanne Johansson who has been researching the subject and recently finished a PhD on sexual relationships between athletes and their coaches.

In an article published on Swedish sports research website, she outlines seven concrete steps that sports federations can take in order to secure a safer environment. Although Johansson has done most of her research in Sweden, she is certain that these steps – with minor adaptions – will be beneficial for sports organisations internationally.

“These are broad, fundamental directions that I suggest apply to sports environments in general, and probably sports organised largely on a voluntary basis, in particular. That said, specific regards to national, regional and organisational contexts are necessary too,” Johansson says to Play the Game.

The seven steps
1. Break the silence
According to Johansson, sexual harassment and discrimination is only possible in a culture of silence. Often, the consequences of reporting sexual discrimination and harassment are believed to be so big that many cede to report or wait for many years before reporting. It takes systematic efforts in forming a collective responsibility to create a ‘culture of openness’, Johansson says.

2. Holistic perspective and inclusion
Many of the cases revealed so far concern relations between young athletes and their (male) coaches, and while this type of relation often gets the most public attention, this is far from the entire picture, Johansson argues. The actual occurrence of abuse cases covers a much broader range of actions, relations and ages and much takes place within a grey zone between consent and non-consent, which can cause experiences to not be fully understood until years after the event. According to Johansson, the entire spectra needs to be taken into consideration when sexual harassment and discriminative behaviour is addressed within the world of sports.

3. Knowledge and education
For Johansson, it is important to strengthen the bond between research, education and practice in order to prevent and/or handle cases of sexual abuse. The acquired knowledge and experience can then be turned into rules and regulations regarding sexual abuse and harassment that are clear and understandable.

4. Obvious policy
If the rules of conduct are unclear, incorrect or harassing actions could be perceived as unfathomable and unspeakable which will hinder practical efforts to combat wrong behaviour.

5. Initiate, apply and evaluate routines/actions
One way to make the regulations clear is to initiate, apply, and evaluate routines in sports organisations, Johansson says. By being clear in how routines and politics are practiced, they will ideally spread across the organisation and engage members’ sense of common responsibility. This could mean establishing and systemising  routines – and controlling that they are followed -  around education and knowledge-sharing on how to deal not only with abuse cases, but with a long line of aspects in the organisation, including contests, alcohol policies, locker-room behaviour, and how to handle whistleblowing.

6. Act if suspicious, duty to report
If rules and routines are in place, members and stakeholders will be more susceptible to report or act if they are suspicious of wrongful behaviour and live up to the duty to report.

7. Change perspective
In general, the sports organisations need to understand that abuse cases are not an individual problem affecting the few people that are involved. Rather, cases of abuse and harassment stem from a fundamental structural problem.

Fundamental change of status quo
Abuse cases happen whether they are reported or not, and we need to understand that we need to change the way we see abuse cases, Johansson writes.

“Reporting and drawing attention to this area is progress – underreporting and suppressing them is the problem,” Johansson writes in the article in

“Furthermore, initiatives to examine and evaluate sports organisations (especially externally) should be initiated and rewarded.“

When asked which of the seven steps Johansson expects the organisations to have the most difficulties in implementing, she points to ‘breaking the culture of silence’.

“Not as in bringing up the subject every once and a while, but as in fundamentally replacing the current status quo – the predominant culture of silence – into a culture of transparency and openness about these issues,” Johansson says.

“I also believe this [breaking the silence] is the most fundamental point for significant change long-term and short-term in sports and beyond.”

Recent years have seen large and controversial sexual abuse cases in sport like the Nassar-case in US Gymnastics, the series of cases that have plagued US swimming, and many others, many of which came in the aftermath or as a result from the #meetoo campaign.

But while the affected organisations have had to act and the cases have had substantial consequences, the initiatives do not necessarily reach the entire sports movement, Johansson says.

“I’m sad to say only (or at least mainly) federations that are affected directly [have had cases revealed, ed.] and thus forced to, take measures. But that’s just my experience and view of the situation,” Johansson says.

In April, the European Council launched a call for action urging the sports movement and public authorities to take determined action to prevent the sexual abuse of children.

“Child sex abuse is a most wicked crime and we must do everything we can to eradicate it in all areas of society, including in sports. ‘Start to talk’ is our call to authorities and the sports movement to give children a voice to help prevent and respond to abuse,” said Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, at the time of the campaign’s launch.


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