There’s No End In Sight For Sexual Abuse In Sports

It seems like unsafe working environments are intrinsic to the way sports have been organized in this country.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

CW: This piece contains discussion of sexual harassment and assault.

This is a column about structural issues in sports. We return to many of the same themes over and over again, sometimes to a degree that I worry is redundant. American sports — so, American capitalism — are built around the primacy of profit. They are not designed, no matter what they might insist, to make people’s lives better. Athletes may reap personal rewards from playing and fans may get a lot out of watching, but that’s not why sports are played and presented the way they are. They are made to bolster wealthy organizations and individuals, and the only way you can become a wealthy organization or individual is by not caring at all about who you harm and exploit. 

I write about this basically weekly, but over the past few days it seems as though there are an overwhelming number of examples about how unsafe working environments are intrinsic to the way sports have been organized in this country. They are not an unfortunate aberration to be rooted out. No, they are going to be a part of the sports world, and our world, until we completely reframe the way we organize recreational competition. People will keep getting hurt. 

More than 2,100 reports of alleged sexual abuse have been filed concerning late Michigan doctor Robert Anderson, who is accused of using exams to sexually abuse athletes and other students for almost four decades while employed by the university. It is profoundly disturbing how precisely these allegations mirror Larry Nassar’s serial sexual assaults while employed as a sports doctor by Michigan State University — and just like in Nassar’s case, university authorities were made aware of the allegations for years and chose to ignore them.

Survivors of Anderson’s abuse have been camping outside of University of Michigan president Mark Schlissel’s house for nearly three weeks, fighting for acknowledgement. Paul Schmidt, the current head athletic trainer at the University of Michigan, has been named as a university employee who ignored reports about Anderson’s abuse. An anonymous former Michigan football player explained in his lawsuit against the school that when he told Schmidt that Anderson had groped him during a routine exam, “(Schmidt) laughed and told [the football player], ‘Get used to that’ — which [he] understood as referring to Dr. Anderson’s putative medical treatment.” Again, this is a current University of Michigan Athletics employee.

Meanwhile, in professional sports, the NHL’s Blackhawks (who might also consider changing their name and logo) are facing a few long overdue consequences after two players were sexually assaulted by coach Brad Aldrich in 2010 and seemingly the entire front office conspired to cover it up in the wake of the team’s Stanley Cup win that same year. The team was fined $2 million by the NHL for mishandling the allegations, and general manager Stan Bowman resigned — but it’s still far too little, far too late. Aldrich went on to assault a high school hockey player in 2013, who he was coaching based on a reference from the Blackhawks.

One of the Blackhawks players, Kyle Beach, spoke publicly about his alleged sexual assault for the first time this week. “It made me feel like I didn’t exist. It made me feel like, that I wasn’t important and … it made me feel like he was in the right and I was wrong,” Beach told ESPN. “And that’s also what [Blackhawks mental skills coach Jim] Doc Gary told me, that it was my fault because I put myself in that situation.

In the NFL, the Washington Football Team and the league are being compelled by the U.S. House of Representatives to share the report that led to a $10 million fine for the organization earlier this year. All we really know about the fine so far is what the Washington Post reported on systemic sexual harassment within the organization, how some leaked racist, sexist and homophobic emails that were part of the investigation led to Jon Gruden resigning as head coach of the Raiders and that the NFL spokespeople say “culture at the club was very toxic and it fell far short of the NFL’s values.” The vagueness, as well as the fact that for some reason there is no written evidence of the investigation in spite of the fact that the investigators spent a year looking into the team and interviewed 150 people, has gotten the feds’ attention. The gruesome details seem imminent. 

As the team tried to quiet talk of the investigation and the fine, they took belated steps that have the appearance of progress. They changed their racist name. Owner Dan Snyder’s wife Tanya is now the co-CEO and handling day-to-day operations — she’s a woman so it must be better, right? Never mind that she’s a billionaire too. Ron Rivera (by most accounts, a decent guy) was hired as head coach, making the team one of five in the league with a non-white man coach. The front office now includes Jason Wright, the league’s first Black team president, and Martin Mayhew, one of very few Black general Managers. According to Sports Illustrated, New Hires Make Washington NFL’s Most Progressive Team.

It’s good that more diverse candidates are getting opportunities, and potentially great for the organization if they’re good at their jobs. But the rot goes so much deeper, if the league’s eagerness to deflect from this investigation is any indication. There’s no question that all of these moves are a business decision for Snyder, who has spent years sabotaging his own investment and finally needs to course correct. The changes we need to keep people from getting hurt are so much bigger than who’s hired and fired, or even who’s doing the hiring and firing.

None of this will stop until the leagues that seem too big to fail, do.