Child athletes lose big on lagging rights in sport

Last month, American gymnast and Olympic champion Simone Biles won the 2019 Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year award at age 21. She posted a video on Twitter to accept the honour virtually from Houston, where she hosted an invitational to “inspire the next generation of athletes”. We also know from Biles’ Twitter feed—in her January 2018 #MeToo post—that she is a survivor of the systematic sexual abuse and violence by convicted serial child molester and USA Gymnastics and University of Michigan doctor Larry Nassar. Biles and hundreds of other gymnasts endured years of sexual exploitation that robbed them of their childhood and personal wellbeing. Worse, they were abandoned by the sport bodies that were entrusted with their safety.

The story of the 368 gymnasts in the US who allege some form of sexual abuse at the hands of Nassar as well as coaches, gym owners and other adults working in gymnastics over a 20-year period, is one of many cited in the new United Nations report on Protecting children from sale and sexual exploitation in the context of sports. This week, the independent expert who authored the report, Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, will present her findings and recommendations to states, and host a panel discussion at the Palais des Nations in Geneva with sport bodies and athlete representatives.

Every sport that is committed to making sport safe for children should be in the room and take in how sport organisations can defend kids with the same fervour as they have historically defended the reputations of their governing bodies, coaches, and personnel.

The harms suffered by child athletes are compounded by the risks they face both as children and as athletes, which makes them doubly vulnerable to victimisation. And the more gifted and elite the athlete, the more at stake, the more open to exploitation. The main takeaway for policymakers and advocates should be that sport must commit both to international standards of child protection and to respecting the internationally-recognised rights of all athletes in order to ensure adequate safeguarding of children in sport. This requires a significant institutional and cultural shift in sport, as fundamental as the recognition of the very identity of the child athlete, who should be seen as a child first, and athlete second. Yet, too often the former is sacrificed to the latter.

Children are not commodities

Despite its capacity to promote education, health, development and peace, especially for children, sport too often ignores the best interests of the child, one of the four core principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)— the most widely ratified human rights treaty, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. These systemic failures have intensified at the same time that sport has commodified athletes. Sport must be sent a clear message that commodification is not in the best interest of the child. As the UN independent expert wrote in her report, “Children should never be considered as commodities that can provide a source of profit,” and “any investment in the development of children should be…driven by the best interest of the child.”

As the USA Gymnastics tragedy shows, the institutional culture of placing profits and medals above people is what enables sexual predators to thrive in the silence and shadows of sport’s resistance to institutional accountability. This is not solely a problem in the United States, but a global one that has rocked the world of sport most recently in South Korea, as well as the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Canada and more—and these are just the ones we know about. What is clear everywhere, from the grassroots to the very top, is that the power imbalance in sport—immense for all athletes and compounded for those who are children—creates prime conditions for child sexual abuse, exploitation and harassment.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the civil rights lawyer who has served as a legal advocate for the American gymnast survivors, points out: “Not every coach is a paedophile, but every paedophile wants to be a coach.”

The day after Simone Biles accepted her Laureus award, USA Gymnastics appointed its fourth CEO in less than two years. Regrettably, once again the organisation failed to consult with the courageous gymnasts who have not only come forward to stop a serial abuser from harming more children and adults, but have also used their platform to leave their sport truly better for the next generation. Such unilateral action is what created this mess, and it is not capable of solving it. Based on international standards of child protection, sport must include participation of children as rights-holders at the institutional level of the sport organisation. However, this is another area where child athletes face a double bind. In sport, both children and athletes in general are denied adequate involvement in the decisions that affect them, as evidenced by the American gymnasts who are above the age of 18, but still sidelined in key decisions where they have pushed for an equal say.

International standards

It’s time for a new paradigm of rights-respecting sport, similar to the movement towards rights-respecting schools. Sport organisations like the Commonwealth Games Federation and the International Netball Federation, and soon FIFA will as well, have guidelines for safeguarding children in sport that make specific reference to the CRC as the international standard for child protection. Other applicable standards already exist—the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (which includes the CRC), the International Safeguards for Children in Sport, and the World Players Declaration on Safeguarding the Rights of Child Athletes. Early efforts to implement these standards in various countries and sporting traditions have been most successful when relevant parties—including sport bodies, governmental actors, NGOs and athlete representatives—work together. More is of course needed to understand the prevalence of harms against children in sport, to write or update laws and regulations that protect them, to guarantee sport bodies have effective policies and programs to make sport safe for children, and to ensure athlete representatives are independent and have the ability to represent children. Still, the way forward for sport ministries and governing bodies starts with basic steps:

1. Commit to child protection and respecting the human rights of everyone who is touched by sport, particularly athletes.
2. Ensure children are able to access quality education. For child athletes, especially at the elite levels, this is often the first sacrifice and later their greatest regret and risk factor for further harms.
3. Enforce mandatory reporting to law enforcement of suspected sexual abuse.
4. Prohibit dating among coaches and the athletes they oversee regardless of age or consent—just like teachers cannot date their students or managers cannot date the employees they supervise.
5. Ensure that mechanisms to report abuse and the grievance procedures offered are child friendly.

All of sport should be as concerned with the next generation of athletes as Simone Biles, not only that they reach their sporting potential, but also their full human potential. Sports governing bodies are entrusted with the bodies, careers, and wellbeing of child athletes from community gyms, fields, and courts all the way to the bright lights, cameras, and podiums of mega-sporting events. These sports bodies must be as brave as the athlete bodies that are now standing up to them in the court of public opinion to ensure that their sporting careers follow their dreams rather than end in nightmares. Be as brave as they are and stand up for them.