Nancy Hogshead-Makar: #MeToo shows need for tighter rules in club and Olympic sports

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

McKayla Maroney joined the #MeToo movement last week by saying she was the victim of abuse while training to become an Olympic gymnast.

Last week, McKayla Maroney tweeted a message with the hashtag #MeToo, alleging she was sexually abused by former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. With her disclosure, she not only identified herself as one of the more than 140 women who have said they've been abused by Nassar, who has plead guilty to child pornography charges, but she also re-emphasized that the ubiquitous nature of abuse reaches even the highest levels.

Numerous athletes from all types of sports and women working in athletics have joined the #MeToo movement, including another Olympic gold medalist, gymnast Tatiana Gutsu.

Sexual harassment and abuse in sports aren't novel or surprising to most of us inside athletics. But the #MeToo movement, reignited after accusations of sexual harassment against longtime Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, has once again brought to light the constant objectification of women in sports.

Coaches and reporters tweeted about being groped or flashed, and athletes tweeted repeatedly about the entitlement of their male peer athletes and, in particular, about powerful, sexually demanding coaches. These coaches wield Weinstein-level power over athletes with playing time, scholarships, skill coaching or even a berth on an Olympic team. They can make or break an athlete's career. As Maroney wrote, "I had a dream to go to the Olympics, and the things that I had to endure to get there were unnecessary and disgusting."

#MeToo.

I am a rape survivor. And in my professional work as an attorney, I have been involved in trying to address sexual abuse in club and Olympic sports for seven years.

As a lawyer representing victims of campus sexual violence, I became familiar with the legal protections under Title IX that schools owe to their students. Regardless of whether there is a criminal investigation, a school must take prompt and effective steps to end the sexual violence, prevent its recurrence and address its effects. Frequently, my job is to make sure violence didn't interfere with a student's academic trajectory, that the student could stay in school and graduate without his or her GPA taking a hit. I try to ensure the availability of the types of accommodations Duke University made for me after I was raped in 1981.

But when one of the 8 million club or Olympic athletes would call me (these are athletes not competing for a school) with an almost identical report of sexual abuse, I discovered that there was little I could do to help the victim. Few legal protections applied to the U.S. Olympic Committee and its National Governing Bodies (NGBs). Because athletes in club or Olympic sports aren't competing for a school, Title IX's student protections aren't available; athletes are also not employees, meaning Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, doesn't apply either.

What about tort law and negligence principles? The USOC adopted strategies that made it difficult to hold it or an NGB accountable in civil court. According to the Indianapolis Star, which last year unveiled widespread alleged abuse within USA Gymnastics, the legal defense for USAG historically has been to deny legal responsibility for actions of coaches at member gyms, which the NGB says are independent businesses.This means that even if the NGB knew about coaches who were molesting girls, they maintain that they aren't legally required to do anything to prevent it.

Worse, athletes' complaints that the USOC or NGB violated the statute that governs the Olympic movement, commonly referred to as "The Sports Act," were required to be resolved in arbitration. Arbitration may be appropriate for disputes involving which athletes make a national team or whether an athlete violated curfew -- but not to hold an NGB accountable for sexual abuse. 

I slowly realized that the USOC and NGBs had insulated themselves from legal consequences for ignoring abuse. Given the power dynamics and the proximity between athlete and coach, some abuse is inevitable. Yet without legal consequences for those who either violate athletes or who know about that type of behavior and allow it to happen, laudable educational programs are less effective.

But thanks to persistent advocacy by many, the tide is shifting. The U.S. Center for SafeSport, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing abuse in sports, which, under the USOC's authority, has jurisdiction over the NGBs as it relates to sexual misconduct and abuse, was established in March. U.S. Senators John Thune of South Dakota and Dianne Feinstein of California have introduced separate pieces of bipartisan legislation that they are reconciling. Together, they would provide federal funds for SafeSport, mandate easy reporting and require the Olympic governing bodies to educate their members about the signs and risks of sexual abuse, among other protection. The legislation and SafeSport are two new and significant steps to protect athletes and hold stakeholders accountable.

As these new protections are being crystalized, the details are important, and Champion Women, the organization I run that advocates for girls and women in sports, has been backing rules that specifically protect athletes. We believe the rules in the SafeSport handbook should be simple, with one standing rule highlighted before all the others:

"Coaches shall not have romantic or sexual relationships with the athletes they coach, regardless of age or consent."

Champion Women and Child USA have been critical of SafeSport's approach to policy-drafting. SafeSport's current policies prohibit intimate relationships when there is a "power imbalance," which SafeSport says exists throughout a coach-athlete relationship. While we agree that a power imbalance may not exist when the parties were already engaged in a relationship before the coaching relationship existed, or when a recreational senior hires a coach to teach them how to play tennis, as examples, the drafting does not leave the reader with a clear "thou shalt not" prohibition on sexual contact between athletes and coaches. The NCAA tackled this issue by writing and distributing these bright-line policies back in 2012, and their athletes are typically older than club and Olympic athletes.

This rule needs to become a cultural norm in sports, as accepted as similar prohibitions on doctors, lawyers, counselors, religious leaders, teachers, prison guards and even family members. It needs to be as clear to the small child as it is to the veteran athlete, the coach, the administrator and the club owner. I want my kids' earliest coaches to instill boundaries -- that any good, ethical coach will never try to be alone with them, will never text them privately and won't give them presents.

Here are the differences between the protections a school provides versus a club. Schools have assets, a general counsel position, significant insurance and legal liability for sexual harassment committed against students under Title IX. While it rarely feels fast enough, schools tend to respond to allegations of sexual harassment and abuse much more quickly than the Olympic governing bodies or clubs. For example, when Champion Women distributed materials regarding a sexually abusive coach to schools and clubs throughout the country, schools were quick to distance themselves from him, and thanked us for our efforts. Many club owners, on the other hand, were much less receptive; some were even combative.

In my own #MeToo moment, my 1984 Olympic coach Mitch Ivey was finally banned for life by USA Swimming in 2013 after an investigation into improper sexual relationships with his athletes. While he did not attempt to sexually abuse me, he did sexually harass me. In front of my male teammates, he made comments like, "I want to be your bicycle seat." They laughed, and there was nothing I could do. It took us 30 years to get him banned.

Even when an athlete isn't the coach's target, sexual harassment can derail the team dynamic with favoritism. Athletes -- like speedskater Eva Rodansky, who chronicled her experience in the book Winter of Discontent -- have been kept off Olympic teams when a rival was sleeping with the national team coach, the decider for an Olympic berth.

Even for individual athletes, relationships such as these are an abuse of power and are inherently wrong. That's why these bright-line rules flatly prohibiting these romantic and sexual relationships are so important, as are clear enforcement mechanisms, so that sport can undergo the type of cultural change that is necessary to protect athletes.

Many athletes, like me, are drawn to sports and to the Olympic movement by the ideals they represent: excellence, integrity and courage. But the pursuit shouldn't require that athletes give up the Olympic ideals when too many coaches do not and too many others in the Olympic movement look the other way. For all the #WomenInSport who used #MeToo, you're making sport safer for all athletes. Thank you.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist swimmer, is the chief executive officer of Champion Women, an organization that advocates for girls and women in sports. She is a civil rights attorney who has successfully represented athletes in precedent-setting legislation and is one of the nation's foremost experts on gender equity in sports.

Related Content