Sport and child abuse, what every parent needs to know

by | Child Abuse

When swimming joined waterpolo, gymnastics, tennis, hockey, netball, football, karate, rugby and many others on a long list of sports racked by allegations of child sexual abuse, it prompted two important questions: Why is the abuse of children rife in sport and what, if anything, can be done to keep our children safe?

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In November, news broke about allegations of sexual abuse being levelled against three South African swimming coaches, adding swimming to a long (and infamous) list of sports linked to the sexual abuse of children. From tennis, and specifically player-turned-coach turned child rapist Bob Hewitt, to waterpolo which was rocked by sexual abuse scandals from two coaches, Collan Rex at Parktown Boys High School and Fiona Viotti at Bishops Diocesan College. Then to hockey, where a club knowingly employed a convicted paedophile and football where, in 2018, 29 boys between the ages of 9 and 18 were repeatedly raped and beaten while participating in a soccer academy, to others too numerous to name individually.  

So, why are sport and abuse so closely aligned?  While stories often contrast, there are some key common factors across most cases involving sport and abuse.  The most critical are: special access and the ability to blur boundaries, vested interests, lack of regulation and as a result lack of vetting procedures and policies in place to safeguard children, disbelief on the part of authorities, and in many cases other parents (and/or a willingness to turn a blind eye to protect an institution). Furthermore, there is victim shaming, and the decision by sports clubs, federations and schools to conduct internal investigations rather than complying with Section 54 of the Sexual Offences Act which requires authorities to report any allegations of sexual abuse of a minor to the police immediately.  

Another huge factor is the nature of the system.  Both patriarchal and perpetrator-centred rather than victim-centric, it routinely closes ranks around “the secret”, and disincentivises children from reporting abuse.  

According to Luke Lamprecht, Advocacy Manager for Women and Men Against Child Abuse (WMACA) “there is the ability to blur boundaries within sport that happens nowhere else.” This is both because of the physical proximity that sport brings, and coaches’ unfettered access to children, a key factor in abuse. It is easy to justify a team talk in a locker room while children are changing, a lingering hand on a child’s bottom to show body position in gymnastics, a misdirected touch when teaching boys how to bind in a rugby scrum or a coach standing too close while helping a pupil to master a forehand in tennis.  And it should be no surprise that abuse takes place in water sports like swimming and waterpolo where inappropriate activity can be concealed under water.  

Nor does abuse always have to be “hidden in plain sight”.  Private coaching and sports tours provide even more opportunities for inappropriate activity.  

Iris*, whose interview in the Sunday Times reads like an archetypal case study of abuse, and who has tried in vain for the last ten years to get criminal charges pressed against her former swimming coach and alleged abuser, Mr Z, claimed to have been sexually molested by him over twenty times between the ages of 5 and 12.  This occurred in Mr Z’s car when going to galas, at a hostel in Sasolburg where she was competing at a national winter competition and even while overnighting in the chairman’s house when the coach was “looking after” her and another swimmer. And during Bob Hewitt’s trial in 2015, one of his victims described how Hewitt used a tennis training event at Sun City while she was away from her parents to rape her for the first time.  

Tours also provide opportunity for the slow and careful grooming and gaslighting necessary to get behind children’s defences.

Lamprecht says that, “grooming occurs when the offender overcomes the child’s resistance by making the child their “favourite”, giving them special treatment, isolating one or a small group, and gradually using boundary and taboo violations to blur a normal caring relationship into one that meets the offender’s sexual needs.” Grooming is often easier in sport because boundaries are already blurred, and many abusers couple grooming with gaslighting,which Lamprecht defines as “manipulation of someone by psychological means into doubting their own sanity”.

Iris described Mr Z’s process of using gaslighting to groom her in painful detail: “He would berate me, shout at me and embarrass me in front of the whole squad and really just victimise and bully me, and tell me I was a useless swimmer, I was never going to amount to anything … And then when he had me by himself, he would build me up and tell me how fantastic I was and then the second I was back in the pool he would break me down again.”

Abusers also groom children’s parents as a door to more free access to children. Coaches will often tell parents how talented their children are and single them out for special favour.  For example, “I really believe in your child’s ability. All he needs is a bit of one on one coaching with me and he could be a provincial sportsman.” This strategy is painfully obvious in the soccer academy case where boys were promised an opportunity to play for the best soccer clubs in South Africa after attending the academy. For many of the boys involved, this was not only an opportunity of a lifetime, but also represented an exit point to poverty for their families. 

In an article in The Star in May 2018, a 17-year-old aspiring player explained how he was raped by the coach after he was promised a place in the Kaizer Chiefs team. “I came to the academy at the beginning of the year under the notion that I would play for Kaizer Chiefs.”  The boy added that he did what he was told by the coach because he loved playing soccer. The mother of another 17-year-old spoke about how her son had been recruited by the coach to play for a “major soccer team”. She ended up inadvertently paying thousands of rand to her son’s abuser in the belief that he was advancing his football career.

It is this vested interest that makes grooming and abuse particularly easy in sport.  Lamprecht confirms that many families have made enormous sacrifices for their children to pursue playing a sport. These sacrifices are often financial, but also include time spent at practices, events and tournaments, and in some cases even moving cities so their child can be closer to the right coach or club.  

It’s conceivable that children whose parents have invested a lot in their sport find it harder to walk away from potential abuse.  Moreover, the parents themselves are sometimes blinded to their child’s abuse because they have too much to lose. This is particularly true of parents whose identities and ambitions are integrally linked to their child’s sporting ability.

And it isn’t just the parents of children who suffer abuse that have too much vested interest, parents of other children in the team do too. Not only does this lead to adults closing ranks around the perpetrators, but for many victims, the abuse is exacerbated because of the anger directed at them for “outing” a coach and potentially threatening the club. Iris described how after trying to get her coach investigated and leaving the club, she was accosted at a supermarket by the mother of a fellow swimmer, who screamed, “how dare you accuse the coach of abuse just because your swimming career has gone down the drain”.

This form of victim shaming is not uncommon.  It was epitomised in the Collan Rex case where the victims “were mocked by teachers and the boys for telling their stories and for their ‘perceived weakness’. The boys were infantilised for expressing their pain and labelled as ‘cry babies’, and victims were humiliated, insulted and warned that ‘snitches get stitches and fall into ditches’”.  

In Bob Hewitt’s trial, the parents of one of the victims testified against their daughter after admitting that when she told them about Hewitt’s abuse, her mom called her a liar and her dad told her to “get over it”. Equally infamously, Hewitt’s wife, Delaille who kept notes during his trial, was publicly challenged for referring to another victim as a dyke. And, the former chairperson of Iris’ club labelled her allegations a figment of her imagination. “It was just a little girl getting carried away looking for attention … some little girl’s fantasy.” 

Even when victims are believed, they are often accused of seducing the adult involved.

Lamprecht refers to the extreme disincentivisation for victims to speak out about abuse. Not only are abusers often decision makers who can determine or negatively influence a child’s future in a sport, but the system also pronounces the accused “innocent until proven guilty”.  Although this provides crucial protection for those accused of a crime, for victims it means that they are “assumed to be lying” until the abuse can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Lamprecht bemoans how victim unfriending the system is and how few victims want to enter a system that is accused-centered.

Given sports coaches’ special access to children and the imbalance of power in the system between coaches and children, it would follow that sports regulators would put stringent criteria in place to vet and approve them. But Lamprecht says the inadequate vetting procedures by the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC), whose mandate includes competitive sports at school level, are largely to blame for the prevalence of sexual abuse cases being reported in various school sporting codes: “there are no vetting procedures and insufficient policies in place that aim to guarantee the safeguarding of children.”

Bewilderingly, despite people who work with vulnerable children needing both a police clearance (which includes convictions, sentences, penalties, and pending charges nationwide as well as all findings of guilt, good behaviour bonds, community-based orders, and suspended sentences) and a form 30 to establish if the individual is listed in Part B of the Child Protection Register, coaches require neither.  

And while all officials, administrators, coaches and team managers who travel with Team South Africa to any games, especially with athletes who are under 18 years of age, are required by SASCOC to sign a form in terms of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 32 of 2007, which confirms that they have not been involved or charged or implicated in any inappropriate behaviour with regard to minors, registration with SASCOC as a coach is not mandatory.  

Further, although SASCOC adopted a safeguarding policy at its general assembly in November 2019, to date, only a small number of sports have acceded to the policy.  Rugby and gymnastics are the only confirmed federations to have adopted it. Information about other federations was not available at the time of publishing.  Moreover, while the policy has finally been made public, the supporting safeguarding procedure is still being developed.

This lack of regulation was painfully evident when Collan Rex was hired for another coaching job while out on bail, even though the headmaster at the school had been informed that he was awaiting trial.  Equally shocking was the case of the convicted paedophile hockey coach. He remains on a register for offenders in the United Kingdom until 2022 and yet, he continues to ignore the sanctions and work with children, coaching in Europe and locally here in South Africa.  The chairman of the club where he was employed knew his history, but felt no need to disclose it to parents until they asked.  Had it been mandatory to obtain a police clearance for all coaches, which parents could access, the club would (one hopes) have thought twice about employing him.   

Clubs also seem reluctant to follow the requirements of legislation and report alleged abuse to the authorities to investigate.  Instead, they prefer to conduct internal investigations.  This approach is at the heart of legal action being taken against Swimming South Africa (SSA) compelling them to hand over an independent investigator’s report to state authorities into allegations of historic sexual abuse involving minors.  This report was presented to the president of SSA earlier this year, but to date, no feedback has been provided to any of the women who allege abuse. 

And it isn’t only at federation level that sports bodies opt for internal investigations rather than criminal proceedings.  Incredibly when Iris claimed abuse by her coach, the club’s investigation included other parents, children and witnesses, but Iris herself was not questioned further.  The club management then voted, and according to the former chairman of the club, “there was a unanimous no-confidence vote in the allegations”.  At no point were expert police investigators or forensic social workers included in the process.  But even if they had been, clubs are still guilty of ignoring Section 54 of the Sexual Offences Act which requires authorities to report any allegations of sexual abuse of a minor to the police immediately.

So what would make a club or federation disregard the law?  Lamprecht believes that there’s no basis for arguing that sports bodies don’t know who to report a crime to, or how.  The answer may instead lie in the belief that the collective well-being and the reputation of the sport trumps individual needs, and the “old boy’s club” and patriarchal culture still prevalent across sporting institutions.  

The former chairperson of the club where Iris was allegedly molested (the same chairperson who dismissed her claims as a child’s fantasy despite one of the incidents having apparently taken place under his roof), explained that he had known Mr Z personally for 30 years and had every confidence in him. “I’ve never seen him being unnecessarily familiar with any girl. My [youngest] daughter currently trains with [him]” he said, and “[He] has stayed in our house [when] my wife and I went overseas … being a caregiver to my [kids].”  The implication is that his judgement of character surpasses any accusations of abuse, and that he is so confident in his conviction that despite being aware of Iris’ allegations, he would bet his own children’s well-being on that judgement.  

It’s a statement almost identical to that of Mark, a caller to the Eusebius McKaiser show in April 2019 defending his friend, a convicted paedophile and practicing hockey coach. Mark’s call is an inadvertent yet perfect summary of why child abuse so often goes unpunished.  He began by trivialising the crime for which his friend was convicted and blaming the victim (he was young, his hormones were rampant, it was the 70s, there were extenuating circumstances and, you know how young women are!). He went on to emphasise how sorry the coach was (in his opinion why the court-imposed sanctions on him coaching children should no longer apply, and why he seemingly failed to find another career despite his apparent repentance).  He then sealed the justification by describing how this coach had lived in his house and coached his children and grandchildren, again prioritising his own ability to judge character over the experience of others (and in this case, over the ruling of a court of law), and putting his own family at risk.

It’s a bleak picture, and many parents’ reaction to the threat is to withdraw their children from team sports.  However, that presupposes that nothing can be done to stop children from being abused. While macro level changes are essential to decouple sport and abuse long term, and while children’s welfare cannot be guaranteed, there are things that parents can do today to manage their safety.

First and most important, parents need to establish open lines of communication. Experts advise them to talk to their children, about everything, and to teach their children about inappropriate touches and what to do when someone makes them feel uncomfortable.  Parents are further counselled not to trivialise their children’s concerns about boundary-blurring activities that are in themselves victimisation, but could also be a gateway to other forms of abuse.  

Lamprecht emphasises that voyeurism (loitering around the change rooms while children change), exhibitionism (adults changing or showering with children), frotteurism (rubbing, especially of one’s genitals, against another non-consensual person, typically in a public place) and toucherism (touching or fondling without rubbing) are all sexual disorders that have been commonly identified in sports-related abuse.  If a child feels uneasy about the way they are being watched or “handled”, parents should intervene. 

Parents should also choose to believe their child, no matter what the cost, and to be their child’s safe place if someone does behave unacceptably.  

Fundamentally, this amounts to prioritising children’s emotional and physical wellbeing over their achievements, and giving them permission to walk away from threatening situations.  This may be hard for invested parents, but sport is bigger than any individual club or coach, and in keeping them safe, parents are also preserving their love for their sport.  Many abuse victims come to associate the sport with the abuse and begin to hate it.  

In the event of an abuse incident at a club or with a coach, parents and athletes can make use of the Sports Voice website to relate the abuse.  Sports Voice is an initiative co-founded by former double Olympic swimming champion Penny Heyns, to allow victims across all sporting codes to report abuse either anonymously or including their name. Parents or athletes can also report the abuse they have suffered on the Athletes against Abuse Facebook page.  

Crucially, parents need to ensure that the abuse is reported to the police rather than investigated internally within a club or federation. If the abuse is historical and an investigation has taken place, parents and victims should insist that findings are made public while still laying criminal charges. Moreover, parents should support children who come forwards with abuse allegations, even if it is not their child, and it affects their own child’s sports career.

To facilitate long term change, parents can motivate to ensure that their club requires a mandatory police clearance as a standard part of their vetting process for coaches.  These aren’t infallible (not all abusers have been charged for their crimes) but may be a first level deterrent for abusers. These should be available for parents to see. Further, if parents are concerned about children travelling with a coach, they can request that sports tours are chaperoned by an impartial observer (not another member of the club) from an anti-abuse organisation like Mothers Against Abuse (MAA) or WMACA.

Parents can also lobby for their sport to sign SASCOC’s safeguarding policy, for SASCOC to expedite the completion of the safeguarding procedures, and to be more proactive about exposing abuse in the sports under its ambit.  Likewise, parents can challenge attempts by authorities to prioritise the reputation of their sport over the well-being of their sportsmen and women.

Ultimately, to quote Lamprecht, the power of abuse is in the secret, so the goal should be to do everything possible to make abuse harder to hide.  Children need to be empowered, parents equipped, and sports federations and clubs transformed.  It’s the only hope for cleaning up sport and ridding it of its ugly and pervasive reputation as a haven for child abusers to hide. DM

*not her real name

First published in the Daily Maverick: 10.12.2020

To cite please use the author’s name, the year of publication, the title of the article, name of publication, date of publication.

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