Keith Strudler: The Dynamics Of Sporting Power And Abuse
For those who hoped the case of Larry Nassar and sexual abuse of athletes at Michigan State was an isolated case, the past week was not reassuring. That’s because of the report of two alleged cases of abuse that reinforce the narrative that these crimes are both widespread and go largely unreported. And while these two cases may be somewhat different, they share the dynamics of power, shame, and a sporting culture that lends itself to this base form of cruelty.
The first of these cases came at Ohio State, where a former faculty member and student physician allegedly sexually assaulted upwards of 200 male student athletes over literally decades. The accused, Richard Strauss, was relieved of his medical duties in the late 1990’s, but was still allowed to retire as emeritus faculty in 1998. And even more disturbing, it seems a whole lot of people knew about the abuse while Strauss was there, yet nothing seemed to escalate past the department level.
The second case came from a former partner of elite figure skater John Caughlin, who finished as high as fourth in the US Pairs Championships in the 2000’s. Bridget Namiotka, who skated with Caughlin for several years, said he sexually assaulted her and several other skaters throughout his career. Not coincidentally, Caughlin was suspended from working in skating earlier this year because of similar allegations. But for the lion’s share of Cauglin’s time in the sport, these allegations went largely unreported.
Now, to make this all more complicated, both in seeking answers and justice, is that both Robert Strauss and John Caughlin committed suicide – Strauss in 2005, and Caughlin earlier this year. Which means neither will stand trial nor face their accusers, as Larry Nassar recently did in an excruciating public trial. At the very least, the sheer number of victims will now tell the stories that unfortunately remained unspoken until now.
There are lots of reasons why so many remained silent for so long. Particularly in the case of David Strauss and Ohio State, the stigma of sexual assault of male athletes – particularly by a male doctor – likely kept a whole lot of athletes from speaking out. And it’s become abundantly clear that universities were not historically prepared to handle cases like this, where a handful of righteous voices got lost in a cacophony of suppression – both institutional and individual. Where words like brand and reputation get in the way of justice and morality. And, to be fair, where whistle blowers often become martyrs instead of heroes. For Caughlin, it’s impossible to overestimate the weight and pressure of elite athletic competition, particularly for young athletes who’ve been trained to persevere in the face of daunting stress. For their entire lives, young, aspiring athletes have been told to overcome and conform. That overwhelming pressure for success creates a tinderbox from which abuse like this can fester.
Obviously, there will be considerable reckoning on both of these fronts – and remember, Michigan State recently came to a $500 million settlement with Nassar’s victims. And I imagine there will also be considerable reputational damage to both Ohio State and US Figure Skating, although cynically speaking, I also imagine Ohio State’s football stadium will be sold out all year as long as they keep on winning. But these reactive punishments aren’t really the issue, at least for the vast majority not personally impacted by these crimes.
The question is, for both sporting institutions and people like me who have kids that love playing sports, is how do we keep this from happening again – and I’m hopefully but worried we’ve only come to the tip of the iceberg. As a parent, I always tell my kids to listen to their coaches, even if they don’t agree. It’s something of athletic creed, and honestly, something I hoped might serve as a lesson in life. But perhaps the sporting ethic shouldn’t be such dogma. Perhaps while authority may be inherent in athletic success, it shouldn’t come at the cost of human dignity. Perhaps the question of sexual assault in sport isn’t simply about transparency, and reporting, and doing the right thing – even when it’s hard. Perhaps it’s also about the nature of competitive sport itself, where org charts, power, and organizational mission are more valued than individual rights and protections. And while that’s hard to legislate, it’s probably something we should all consider when you see a high school coach that’s going to far, or a youth swim coach that’s over the top. In the end, unquestioned authority is no better in sport than in government.
For now, I’m hopeful these two awful cases will help the next from happening. This past week, at least, was anything but reassuring.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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