Sports coaches and instructors exploited children’s vulnerabilities in order to groom and abuse them, research into child sexual abuse in sports has found.
The report by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse found that grooming was common by instructors in a sports setting. As well as trips away and gifts, participants in the research describe perpetrators trying to normalise certain behaviours through overly physical contact, sexualised comments or being shown pornographic material.
Some perpetrators also gave the children they abused particular privileges or rewards within the sports club, such as allowing them to play in better teams.
While there was clear exploitation and manipulation of victims and survivors by coaches and others involved in sports activities, there was little evidence of perpetrators specifically exploiting the victims and survivors’ future career prospects or sporting success as a method of grooming or coercion.
Although some participants experienced psychological and emotional abuse linked to grooming and manipulation alongside the sexual abuse, none of them described experiencing physical violence or other forms of abuse by perpetrators in sports contexts.
”Sexual abuse by those involved in sports contexts was often perpetrated during overnight stays, trips away and visiting the perpetrator’s home, sometimes, but not always, associated with the activities of the sports club or association.
Perpetrators also sometimes used sports-related rewards, such as allowing the child to play in a more senior team, as a method of grooming or coercion,” said the report.
‘Sports contexts’ in the report describes environments and situations where children and young people participate in organised sports activities, including alongside adult participants, for example in sports clubs, sports institutions or sports associations or where they participate in sporting activity in a sporting or leisure location (for example, a public swimming pool) and the perpetrator works or volunteers there (for example, a leisure centre worker or swimming pool lifeguard). The report analyses experiences of abuse across a wide range of sports such as angling, boxing, canoeing, football, gymnastics, ice skating and swimming.
The report describes the experiences of Truth Project participants sexually abused in sports contexts between the 1950s and 2010s, with the most recent cases in the sample beginning in the early 2010s. The research findings included in this report do not reflect all experiences of sexual abuse in sports contexts and are only indicative of the specific experiences of those who chose to share their experiences with the Truth Project.
For almost all participants, the sport was something they took part in as a hobby and for enjoyment, with some describing it as providing a diversion from a difficult home life. Taking part in sport was not a defining or central factor of their lives as children or the lives of their families, but rather it was part of wider activities and hobbies they enjoyed.
Physical contact was a more specific enabling factor found in participants’ accounts related to sexual abuse in sports as it is more common in sporting activities. Survivors spoke of being subjected to a wide range of sexually abusive behaviour, with some describing the abuse as being perpetrated under the guise of sporting activity, for example whilst swimming or in the foam pit in gymnastics.
The enabling factors for abuse to take place in sport were similar to those found in our other thematic reports into abuse in other contexts, and included: perpetrators actively approaching parents outside of the sports context to look after or take children out unsupervised; perpetrators arranging overnight stays with children; and a lack of supervision or oversight of adults working in sports, particularly those operating as leaders or as private coaches or instructors. The links between the families of perpetrators and victims and survivors fostered through sporting activities meant it was particularly difficult for some participants to disclose what was happening to them and some perpetrators were more easily able to abuse siblings as well.
Most participants did not actively or formally disclose their sexual abuse in sports as a child. A key theme discussed by participants was how much they wanted, or tried, to tell someone about what was happening to them but how difficult this was. Adults failed to respond appropriately to behavioural changes or other indicators of concern in children, even when these were very apparent. Participants who did manage to disclose as children were often dismissed or ignored and subject to victim-blaming responses by adults in a range of institutions.
The impacts of experiencing child sexual abuse in sports described by participants are extensive and diverse, with some participants describing the far-reaching impact of their experiences.
Dr Sophia King, Principal Researcher at the Inquiry said: “In this report, victims and survivors describe how perpetrators in sports contexts would create opportunities for abuse, which often took place under the guise of sporting activity. Participants’ accounts were examined to provide a more in-depth insight into abuse in these contexts, with many reporting that they were groomed as a way to normalise what was happening.”
“It’s clear that not having anyone to disclose to was a significant obstacle to children reporting abuse, as were feelings of shame, guilt and a fear of not being believed.”
Paul Stewart, former professional footballer for Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and England, said: “Whist the physical and sexual abuse I experienced as a child in a sports setting was horrendous, for me it was the impact it had in later life. It stripped me of everything - the ability to love and trust, and it also left me constantly thinking of a way out.”
"It's important that survivors have the opportunity to come forward if they wish to do so, and the Truth Project provides that place to share an experience, free from judgement.”
"I hope this report can help to contribute to a more open conversation about abuse in sport at all levels, and shines a light on experiences like mine. We need to ensure the words that survivors have shared with the Truth Project are learnt from, and listened to,” he concluded.
Truth Project Thematic Report Child sexual abuse in sports