I was just five years old when I watched the young women of the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team file stoically into a shiny arena in Barcelona. They looked brave, strong, and proud. Most of them started training when they were three or four years old, and this was about to be the culmination of more than a decade of sweat, blood, broken bones, and intense sacrifice. I knew right then and there I would do whatever it took to be just like them.
I grew up in gymnastics from the age of 4 until about 15, when a slight whoopsie of broken neck ended things for me. Don't get me wrong, it turned out I wasn't Olympics-bound or anything, but I thought I had a few more good years left until my hard work no longer made up for my lack of talent and my deep love of French fries. The gym I went to was a second home, and I still think about the lessons I learned there to this day.
Near the end of my time in the sport, I learned that two of the coaches at my gym who had worked with me—in a substitute capacity only—had been charged with child sexual abuse and possession of child pornography. The news went right over my head. I don’t know whether the teenage version of me didn’t really understand what it meant or if I just refused to believe that there could be anything nefarious happening in the sport that had become inextricably intertwined with my identity. I didn’t really think about it at all until about 15 years later when I watched a new team of more than 140 of my gymnastics heroes stoically marching together again. This time it wasn’t into a glittery arena, but into a courtroom where they would face Larry Nassar, describing in detail not only the excruciating abuse he inflicted, but also the systems and people that failed to protect them along the way. As it was in back in 1992, I wanted to be just like them again: brave, strong and proud.
I am very fortunate to have not been a victim of either of the perpetrators at my gym, but I’ve thought a lot recently about what might have kept me safe in that environment. There are only a couple of things I can point to for sure. First, I had a supportive coach who served as a guidepost for what safe interactions with adults should look like. Second, I had incredible parents who developed a relationship with the gym staff, dropped me off and picked me up from practice, and generally made their presence known. After six years of working with Children’s Advocacy Centers, I know now how lucky I am to have had these protective factors. Even with them, I still feel like a lot was left up to chance.
The battle that women like Aly Raisman and Jamie Dantzscher are fighting now is one that we can all join. They know all too well that while policies, procedures, and guidelines are critically important for protecting kids, we also must work to change the culture within youth sports organizations to make child abuse education as much of a normal part of training as chalking up for a turn on the uneven bars. Here are just a few things to keep in mind when we work with families in our communities to empower them to make an impact on how these organizations think about child abuse prevention.
- Encourage asking “how” questions. Policies like prohibiting one child/one adult contact are, of course, necessary. However, having these policies on the books is not enough. We must encourage parents to ask how they are enforced. What are specific procedures that the personnel at the gym are following to make sure a policy is followed. If they can’t come up with a good example, encourage parents to dig deeper, monitor practice themselves, or go elsewhere. We can also encourage parents to ask “how often” questions. As in, “how often are coaches background checked?” and “how often do coaches receive mandatory reporting training?” Any program worth investing in will have answers to these questions immediately.
- Encourage parents to organize. Sports tuition, gymnastics especially, is expensive. I truly never understood how my parents made it work for as long as they did. I’d feel better looking back on all of that money that didn’t lead to my Olympic dreams coming true if I knew that part of it was used to train coaches on child abuse. As CACs, we can help parents demand that their money is used to help protect their children as much as it is used to help them land a Yurchenko double full.
- Discourage “toxic politeness." CACs are essential community partners and play an important role in fostering a culture around how abuse is handled. We tell parents to ask serious questions of those who will interact with their children, but we don’t do enough to help prepare them for how those conversations might go. We must work together with families and organizations to discourage the culture of toxic politeness that prevents us from digging down to the truth. I, for one, still struggle confronting a waiter when I’ve been overcharged, and that’s a pretty low stakes situation. When it comes to preventing abuse, there’s no place for toxic politeness.
Elite gymnasts are the toughest athletes on the planet, but they also have a right to our protection. They deserve an experience in this incredible sport that doesn’t leave their safety to chance so that they can continue to inspire more awkward five-year-old kids with giant glasses and bowl haircuts like me.
Corey Brodsky is the Program Manager for Chapter Development and Partnerships with Midwest Regional CAC. Midwest Regional CAC’s mission is to improve the community response to child abuse through strategic leadership, collaboration, and capacity building. Learn more at www.mrcac.org.