Sports Transgressions

The angry athlete

Silent No More—Sexual Abuse in Sports

Penn State scandal may prevent future victims.

There are times when the most horrible of behavior, engaged in by the most immoral people becomes irony. Irony in that the exposure of the truths that the victims suffer pulls back the curtain of deception, lies, and façade that leaves victims confused if not silent for much of their lives. When historians have controversially observed that Hitler's Third Reich was a direct precursor to the formation of the State of Israel, many people were outraged...as if to say Hitler's existence was actually a good thing, a necessary evil, in order for the Jewish people to have a land they could call home. As difficult as this may be to swallow, there is a parallel here—the exposure of Jerry Sandusky's sexual abuse of boys under the auspices of Penn State's Athletic Department brings to light the fact that abuse happens in many places, there are some who believe they are above the law, and that we all have a collective responsibility to protect people from abuse.

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The damage that is done when one's physical boundaries are violated sexually is monumental. For children, it is common for the victim to wonder what they did to contribute to the behavior or they may feel guilty for enjoying the attention that they received while being groomed by a predator. And once they start to recognize the wrongness of what is going on, the threats and manipulation only intensifies. Yes, the abuser is well versed in mind control. Isolate the victim. Make them feel like you are doing them a favor. No one else understands you or gives you what you need...but I make you feel special; I take care of you. And if they start to stray, make them feel so guilty that they run back for support. It is absolutely horrible. Many victims will feel alone, like their soul was ripped from them. Angry, but not sure why. Guilty, ashamed, but cannot tell anyone.

Abusers are thieves. They steal the innocence of their victims. Sex is the vehicle. The crime is ultimately about power. No matter what happens, the best therapists in the world don't have time machines and cannot un-do what is perpetrated against the children. There is treatment, but the question is whether or not they can move from the position of victim to one of survivor. Are their wounds scabs that continue to bleed with little provocation or are they scars; reminders of the hurts of the past, but increasingly irrelevant over time. The best we can hope for is to ultimately make the abusers powerless over their victims. For kids, they need adults to help them do this.

There is no denying the impact can be devastating. And to make matters worse, for male victims (as the perpetrators are most often men), they get an added burden. Often, the question of their sexuality becomes confusing beyond belief. For female victims, as atrocious as it is, they are usually playing the role of the female when they are sexually abused. For male victims, they are either taking the role of the female or a homosexual male. So, on top of the damage that is done, male victims can, at times, have it even worse as they are left wondering whether they are male or not. Male survivors of sexual abuse, in my experience, are even less likely to come forward and tell their stories, and correspondingly, less likely to get the therapy they need.

In the sports world, there have been people writing about sexual abuse amongst athletes for years (Brackenridge and Kirby have been prominent) but it was a deep, dark secret that few spoke about. USA Swimming was sued after Chris Wheat, a former swim coach, was sentenced to ten years for sexually abusing swimmers. Former NHL player, Mike Danton's erratic behavior and hiring of a hitman were believed to be related to the sexual abuse he incurred at the hands of his former coach Graham James. The same Graham James who former NHL star Theo Fleury and Sheldon Kennedy reported sexually abused them as teens in Canada. So, it does happen...but if you were going to list the coaches under which you couldn't imagine this taking place, perhaps only the immortal John Wooden would have been in front of Joe Paterno.

Paterno, who many have said is an even better man, better human being, than coach (which would be hard to achieve for the winningest NCAA Division I football coach ever), would not turn a blind eye to such horrors. Right now...and all of the facts will become public in the coming weeks and months...it looks like a lot of people knew what Sandusky was doing with those boys under the guise of charitable activities. And now, it looks like Joe Pa will be added to the list of Sandusky's victims. By enabling him to continue, not investigating and turning the allegations over to the legal authorities, despite his athletic successes, the Paterno legacy will be forever tarnished by what took place "on his watch".

What has been more shocking has been the lack of anger. Prayers are offered for the victims and their families. Let's be quiet and supportive. One person has stood out so far as the loud voice of reason, voice of outrage: ESPN sports analyst and former Washington Redskin Mark May. May challenged why the 28 year old graduate assistant (and more recently assistant Penn State Coach) would be satisfied with just telling Joe Paterno about what he saw. How a man can stumble upon another man sodomizing a boy in the shower and not intervene to stop it is abominable. But, inside the sports world, there is a real fear of protecting the image of the organization. There has long been secrecy. A belief that the "coach'll fix it". That bad behavior will somehow be exonerated. I have said for a while that those days are dying in a litigious society while universities have deep pockets. But, now it appears that the lid is off the barrel. If this can happen at Penn State, it can happen anywhere.

We, in the sports world and out, need to understand that there are people out there who commit horrible crimes. Being a parent is a terribly vulnerable feeling, because we cannot protect our children all of the time from everything. But, collectively, if we ever turn the blind eye and allow a child to be hurt or violated, then we are enabling the abusers to continue. I hope that the realization of the horrors that were perpetrated is enough to make us more aware; make us more available to recognize the victims, help the victims. Let them feel safe to come forward...and not have to be silent anymore.

Mitch Abrams, Psy.D. is a clinical sport psychologist specializing in anger management, sexual assault prevention and the treatment of trauma.

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