Resilience Reflection #20: The darker side of sports

In this week’s issue of  Resilience Reflections ,  Marleen Haandriksman Nicolette Schipper-van Veldhoven demonstrate how the perceived power of the sports industry leaves athletes open to exploitation and abusive behaviour. They make a case for collective action to counter this and ultimately the empowerment of athletes. 

In this regular series by the  Resilience@UT  and  4TU Resilience  programmes, UT researchers share their personal reflections on current events and trends that impact our daily lives, exploring their implications for resilience. The series is just one of many UT initiatives responding to the urgent need to respond to rapid societal and environmental change. As an academic institution, we have a role to play in strengthening the resilience of the social, technological and environmental systems that support us. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.

The darker side of sports: creating resilience through athlete empowerment

Sports have long been viewed through rose-coloured glasses as an activity that positively influences people’s physical, mental and social health. However, the darker sides of sports have been widely ignored. In the last decade, reports have surfaced highlighting the seriousness of unwanted and in many cases abusive behaviour, also known as transgressive behaviour, in sports, and the urgent need for action. While the sports community has started to acknowledge the necessity of change, little progress has been made.

In today’s sports world, a disturbing trend of accepting and tolerating transgressive behaviour by, for example, athletes, coaches, and sports federations is widespread around the world. This behaviour is often seen as necessary to achieve performance goals. For example, forcing an athlete to perform extremely intense workouts until exhaustion, continuing training while injured or promoting (extreme) weight-controlling behaviours. You can probably imagine that these behaviours can have negative effects on an athlete’s physical, mental and social health.

Within sports, a culture has been created in which perceived power is considered a part of a person’s identity and then misuse this power (e.g., a coach’s dominance over an athlete’s submission). These perceived relationships of power, though not reflecting the true situation, are seen and accepted as the truth and those involved are acting according to this perception. As a result, the widespread acceptance of the misuse of power in sports promotes transgressive behaviours and this is in our view erodes the societal value of sports.

Misuse of perceived power

Have you heard about the case of Rubiales, the president of Spain’s national women’s football team? In October, he publicly kissed one of the female players on the mouth after the team won the World Championships. This act was heavily criticised as being inappropriate and unsafe for the athlete. However, Rubiales saw this public condemnation as a witch hunt and downplayed his behaviour, even stating that he felt like a victim in the situation. Despite protests for his resignation, Rubiales refused to step down from his position. This event highlights the issue of perceived power in sports and how it can be abused. Rubiales used his position of power, in the eyes of the world, to silence the athlete and prevent her from speaking about the incident. As a result of his actions, Rubiales eventually resigned and was suspended for three years.

Misusing power occurs in manners. During the Euro 2021 tournament of Norwegian beach handball, the women’s team received a fine of ¤1500 for wearing "improper clothing", as stated by the European Handball Association’s Disciplinary Commission. The reason for this fine was that the women refused to play in bikini bottoms and instead wore tight shorts that fully covered their buttocks. Moreover, the regulations require that men wear shorts that are no more than four inches above the knee, while women are not permitted to wear shorts in favour of bikini bottoms according to the International Handball Federation’s rules. This raises the question of why such a difference exists, and whether it indirectly contributes to the objectification of female athletes, putting them at increased risk of transgressive behaviours while participating in their sport. In this situation, the sports federations imposed their perceived power on the beach handball players by punishing them for not acting according to the federations’ ’made-up truths’ on how to behave in beach handball.

Taking collective action

The current culture in sports is putting the resilience of athletes at risk. Studies have brought to light the prevalence of transgressive behaviours towards athletes and increased the awareness of current power dynamics. We, as a society, must intervene to change this behaviour. People involved in sports need to realise that this kind of behaviour is not normal or acceptable. Unfortunately, it often takes major incidents - such as the many horrible cases of sexual abuse that came to light in recent times (e.g., USA Gymnastics) - to make people take notice. As a collective, athletes need to start speaking out more about their experiences of transgressive behaviour to break the pattern of acceptance by those in positions of (top-down) power. Collective action by the sports community will help to strengthen the resilience of athletes and create safe sports for them.

About the authors

Marleen Haandriksman is a lecturer and researcher in the Psychology of Conflict, Risk and Safety group of the Faculty of BMS. Her research focuses on safeguarding athletes at all levels of the sports community.  Nicolette   Schipper-van Veldhoven is Professor of Sports Risks & Safety within the EEMCS Faculty. Her research centres on the creation of a safe sports climate within (organised) sports, especially for children. 

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