When parents put their child in a sport, they put their full trust in the coaches, trainers, physical therapists, administrators and older athletes to support their child. Just like school teachers, they’re expected not only to teach those children and improve their athletic skill, but also to foster an environment in which the children feel safe and comfortable. This environment should be a place where kids grow both physically and mentally, learn, develop new skills and make friends. The adults of the sport are meant to be role models, leaders and figures of support — not someone athletes should fear.
When I was 7 years old, I started doing rhythmic gymnastics. Although this sport certainly wasn’t my forte and none of the skills it required came naturally, I fell in love with it and continued training for the next nine years. When my career as an athlete came to an end, I began coaching and have been doing so for the past three years.
When the IndyStar first released its investigations of the USA Gymnastics sexual assault scandals, I was shocked to hear the organization I had grown to trust had allowed something like this to occur. Not only had many gymnastics coaches been accused of sexually abusing underage girls, but the USA Gymnastics administration never reported the misconduct to authorities. About a month later, the IndyStar released another article detailing allegations against Larry Nassar, former USA Gymnastics team physician and former doctor at Michigan State University (MSU). Since then, more than 250 victims and counting have come forward saying they were also victims of Nassar’s abuse. As of Feb. 6, Nassar has been sentenced to at least 100 years in prison for those crimes. Seeing this scandal grow and unfold has made me question the organization I had been part of for more than half of my life.
But this isn’t just an issue within USA Gymnastics or MSU. Sexual abuse, unfortunately, occurs among both female and male athletes in other sports, too. In 2012, Jerry Sandusky, former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach, was convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse, according to the PennLive. Sandusky was accused of abusing 10 boys over 15 years whom he had come in contact with through his charity, the Second Mile, a group foster home established to help troubled boys. About a year ago, reports of sexual abuse were brought forth involving many United Kingdom soccer clubs, totaling more than 500 victims. This scandal began to rise when Andy Woodward, a former lower league player, broke his silence and told The Guardian about being abused as a child by his soccer coach. Many other players followed him, sharing their own stories.
While these examples may seem distant, sexual abuse both in our country and abroad arises out of the same culture and can happen anywhere, at any time and when we least expect it. This is a fact I faced for the first time two years ago.
The club I coach at occasionally brought in different dance instructors as supplemental trainers to improve gymnasts’ choreography. For many years, even while I was still training, Ariel Cisneros, a ballet teacher and former dancer at the Joffrey Ballet, came as one of those instructors to work on our ballet technique. To me, he seemed to be a kind and helpful instructor whenever he came to work with us. Two summers ago, after noticing he hadn’t been hired to teach at the summer training camp like he usually did, I found out Cisneros pleaded guilty to repeated sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl — one of the dancers at a ballet school in Wisconsin where he taught— and was sentenced on those charges in the Walworth County court.
I began to think of all the girls from our club that Cisneros had worked with in the past — my friends, my current students, even me. He was trusted by the coaches in our gym and the gymnasts that he worked with. I never would have thought I would be reading these articles about someone I knew and once trusted.
Parents put their children into sports thinking it will be a safe place where they can grow up. Unfortunately, that often isn’t the case.
At first, I thought something was wrong about the culture within USA Gymnastics, then of sports as a whole. What allows for so much wrongdoing to slip through the cracks in any kind of sport? Is it the hierarchy that exists between coaches and athletes that is to blame? Truth is, there likely isn’t just one cause to place the blame on, but discovering that an organization I had trusted or a person I once knew had been a part of this horrible, widespread misconduct serves as a reminder that these causes must be found and ceased.
We must remember this is a very real and immediate danger that could be a lot closer than we think. Sexual assault and abuse has recently been a widespread discussion in media and online, but we must realize that this is not a distant issue that we can ignore by separating ourselves from it.