Paige Southern-Reason was only seven years old when she was tied to a horizontal bar and left hanging there, despite crying for help. She faced constant pressure to perform better during training, and her coaches would frequently shout in her face in a gym full of people who watched without intervening. She was told not to let her parents know about the abuse, or she would be punished. Even as she tells her story to the media, she is afraid that speaking out will damage her future career.
Unfortunately, Paige is not the only gymnast who has faced ill treatment from her coaches. In elite gymnast training, it is often the standard protocol to stretch athletes and most coaches probably do not even consider the procedure to be abuse. Lisa Mason, a 2000 British Olympian, came forward with her story. She said that her coaches threw shoes at her and scratched her if she made mistakes. Once, she was forced to stay on the uneven bars until her hands were blistered and torn through, and then her coach pinned her hands down and poured rubbing alcohol on them. Most gymnasts are left alone with their coaches from a young age, and they are brought up to believe that the harsh abuse is necessary to make champions out of them.
Physical abuse also takes place in other sports. Mike Rice, a former coach for Rutgers basketball, had a history of throwing basketballs at his players and berating them. He was finally fired when one incident was caught on camera. Rice is not the only coach who has physically abused his players in this fashion. In many cases, the athletes choose to keep quiet because they want to continue playing the sport, need to remain on the team for their scholarship, or both.
The instigators of physical abuse are not only restricted to coaches. There have been events where players have acted violently against other players or their referees. An example is the case of Ricardo Portillo, a 46-year-old soccer referee who was punched by a 17-year-old Utah player who was unhappy with the referee’s ruling. The teenager, in the position of goalkeeper, was accused of shoving another player and given a yellow card by Portillo. When Portillo was writing his notes, the player punched him in the head, causing him to bleed from the mouth. While the injuries looked minor on the surface, Portillo later fell into a week-long coma that he never awoke from. He died a week after the incident, leaving behind three adult daughters. Although the teenager has acknowledged that he acted impulsively and caused the death of the referee, the damage cannot be undone.
After 22-year-old Korean triathlete Choi Suk-Hyeon took her own life in June 2020, an investigation was launched into the alleged abuse she suffered from her coaches. Choi was reportedly abused both physically and emotionally. She compiled audio recordings of the abuse, including one where her coach was heard saying, “You have to avoid eating for three days. You promised me you would take responsibility. Clench your teeth,” followed by a sharp slapping sound. In addition to being regularly beaten, Choi was subject to frequent verbal and psychological abuse, mostly about maintaining weight. On one occasion, a coach forced her to buy 200,000 won (US $166) worth of bread and stay up through the night eating it and vomiting, as punishment for having a Coke at lunch. She wrote in her diary that she “shed tears” every day and would “rather die” than being “beaten like a dog”. Additionally, she claimed that her complaints about the abuse had been ignored.
In Maryland, football coach DJ Durkin was being investigated following the death of 19-year-old Jordan McNair. McNair suffered heatstroke in the middle of a conditioning drill and was unable to stand on his own feet, but his coaches and athletic staff failed to recognize the severity of his condition and did not apply the appropriate cooling methods to treat heatstroke. Instead, two trainers helped McNair complete his remaining rounds of training and walked him around the field afterwards, despite him convulsing and falling unconscious. He died two weeks after being hospitalized. The investigation also uncovered a toxic training regime in the football club under coaches Rick Court and DJ Durkin. These coaches used methods of fear and intimidation, such as slapping food out of the players’ hands in front of the whole team. A player whom coaches wanted to lose weight was reportedly made to eat candy bars while watching his teammates working out. The coaches often verbally abused the players to mock their masculinity if they were unable to complete a workout or drill, including homosexual slurs. Additionally, force-feeding incidents similar to Choi Suk-Hyeon’s took place, where players were made to overeat to the point of vomiting.
Throughout sports history, many coaches have taken advantage of their young charges, many of whom were younger than 18 when the abuse happened.
One such victim is the former footballer Andy Woodward, who alleged that he suffered sexual abuse under Barry Bennell at Crewe Alexandra. Woodward was aged 11 to 15 during the period of abuse, and stated that the abuse “wrecked” his life, including leaving him with depression, suicidal thoughts and panic attacks. He suffered his first panic attack when playing for Bury in November 1999, during which he had to be substituted. Woodward said that Bennell had invited him to stay over just “three or four weeks” after he joined the team, and threatened that he would not be able to continue playing football professionally. Bennell was convicted in 1998 of 23 counts of sexual offences against six boys aged nine to 15.
Another victim is Gary Johnson, who was sexually abused by Eddie Heath while at Chelsea Football Club. Johnson claimed that he was paid £50,000 by the Premier League club to keep his allegations quiet. He was groomed from the age of 13 by Heath, who has since passed, and spent his years in “absolute turmoil”. In addition, Johnson said that he knew of other victims that had not yet come forward.
Larry Nassar of USA Gymnastics is another well-known sex offender. Currently serving a minimum of 125 years to a maximum of 275 years in prison, he was found in possession of more than 37,000 images of child pornography and a video of himself molesting girls, some as young as six. Nassar is alleged to have sexually abused hundreds of girls, some of whom likely suffer in silence, throughout his career as a medical practitioner and athletic trainer. The abuse often involved sexually penetrating his female patients using his ungloved fingers in what he told them was “treatment”. Additionally, he was slow to diagnose bone fractures and other injuries, causing the athletes to suffer from pain. Nassar will have to complete his federal sentence before serving the state sentences, making it likely that he will be at least 100 years old – assuming he is still alive – when he can be released from federal jail and sent to state prison.
In the world of sports, abuse of any form remains a serious problem, regardless of the manner in which it takes place or the people it involves. Athletes, coaches, fans and everyone present should remember that at the end of the day, sports is just a game and should not endanger anyone’s well-being.
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