athletes · martial arts

Grooming, Coaching, and Toxic Relationships: Some (Guest) Conversations

In the last few years, there have been some high profile sexual assault and abuse cases in American sports. Larry Nassar, former US Gymnastics team doctor, was convicted earlier this year of sexually abusing many girls and young women in his role as a physician for the team. The Lopez brothers, Steven and Jean, a three-time Olympic medalist and US Olympic coach, respectively, are accused of sexually abusing and assaulting several girls and young women. While the former is still under investigation, the latter has been permanently banned from Olympic activities as a result of findings by SafeSport. USA Swimming has also had several people speak out about what has been called a “culture of sexual abuse.”

Sexual abuse is obviously a feminist issue. It’s actually something I write about in my day job as a feminist philosopher. But given that philosophy is my professional training, not journalism, I’m going to leave discussion of the details of individual cases to people who report such things for a living.

Instead, I want to do something a bit different, and think about the background conditions and relationships that make abusive situations possible. To help me do that, I’m going to have several conversations with people who have had a variety of experiences with taekwondo coaching and competition. That’s not because I think it’s more important than other cases, but it’s my sport, and I feel much better positioned to talk about it. But just so you know, I’m not going to ask anyone to weigh in on particular cases, individuals or allegations. It’s just that in order to get a better understanding of the stakes and context of some of these cases, I think it’s important to understand the nature of the relationships in question.

So just keep an eye out for an occasional series with me and guest views. I’m going to talk to people about their gendered experiences in sports, as well as their views about power and mentorship, and how it works in these kinds of contexts.  A coach, after all, will get you to do a lot of things you don’t want to do. They’ll get you to push through a hard training session when you’re tired or don’t feel like working out. And over time, you’ll do a lot of things that might feel counterintuitive because you trust them to know what’s best for you – sometimes more than you trust yourself. Make that happen in the context of a sport whose traditional roots value discipline and deference to authority, and it seems as though the potential for abuse is high.

Also, I think that a lot of people who haven’t been competitive athletes can easily underestimate the power that someone highly positioned in the sport can have over you – especially when you’re still young and trying to find your place. So hopefully one thing that we’ll get out of these conversations are some useful ideas about how to understand power and relationships better, so we can work to make ourselves better and improve the situation of future generations of athletes.

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