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Hannah Braun — November 22, 2021

Protection Over Performance: Prioritizing the Sexual Safety of Student-Athletes

Hannah Braun

When you’re an athlete, you are expected to put everything into your sport. Coaches evoke a deep sense of loyalty in the athletes they mentor, and the expectation to perform can be all-consuming. There is an inconceivable amount of pressure to win: for yourself, for your fans, for your team, for your coach. But what happens when the performance of an athlete is valued above all else? Athletes shine in the spotlight, but too often they suffer in secret.

According to a survey by Lauren’s Kids, more than 1 out of 4 college athletes experience sexual harassment or assault by an authority figure. This makes college athletes 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual violence than the general population, the study reports (USA). Part of the reason sexual abuse is so prevalent in athletics is due to coaches taking advantage of their power and authority. Analyses of sexual abuse in sports found that over 98% of cases were perpetrated by coaches, instructors, or teachers (Brackenridge). These statistics display a worrying reality; athletes, especially youth and college-aged athletes, are at a disproportionate risk to experience sexual violence. 

There are a plethora of stigmas and barriers that may deter an athlete from speaking up about their sexual assault or abuse. Only 1 in 4 survivors will report the crime, and over 40% of survivors express fear of losing their sports scholarship due to reporting (USA). Coach-athlete relationships can be weaponized by perpetrators, especially if the coach has a positive reputation or public image. Survivors often fear that seeking help would jeopardize their own success, as well as the success of their team. This combination of uneven power dynamics, the threat of letting down a team, and the fear of sacrificing one’s own future in the sport all act as barriers to seeking help after an athlete has been abused or assaulted.

If you have experienced sexual abuse or violence in athletics, here are some tips that can help you find justice or healing: 

  1. If you feel able, report it: For immediate help, contact the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-4673). 
  2. Contact an advocacy organization: Organizations like College Athlete Advocacy Initiative fight for college athletes’ rights through legal support and advocacy campaigns. Even if you do not want to report what happened to you, finding a community that supports you can help your process of healing. 
  3. Talk to someone: Therapy is a great way to process your experiences safely, all while learning skills to cope and heal. Most universities have counseling centers where you can get affordable and confidential therapy. 
  4. Share your story: Our Wave provides a safe space for survivors to anonymously express their feelings and stories. Join our community here: https://stories.ourwave.org/share

Your safety is worth more than any title. Your protection is worth more than any performance. There are countless organizations and people that are on your team, and we are all rooting for your success and healing.

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