How can we understand and address harmful behaviour in sport?
Children can gain many important benefits from playing a sport. However, researchers have also found many of these benefits can only be gained if children have positive experiences. Unfortunately, right now, many young people are experiencing abuse, discrimination, and harassment in sport settings.
Dr Erik Denison recently completed his PhD with BehaviourWorks, in the Faculty of Arts, and the Faculty of Education. Hi research examined harmful behaviours in children’s sport and was funded by the Australian Government and the sport industry.
In his PhD he found that dozens of studies and government inquiries have found behaviours such as bullying, verbal abuse, as well as sexist, homophobic, and racist language to be common in youth sport settings.
One reason why people struggle to accept that harmful beliefs and behaviours are common in sport is because it conflicts with their beliefs that sport is inherently good. We also know that the identities of athletes and sport fans can be interwoven with the sports they love. The denial often takes the form of people suggesting these are rare or historic problems. We wish that were true.
A study of more than 800 Australian participants in sport, found that 66% had experienced physical violence in youth sport, and 38% had experienced sexual violence. Research released last year, which examined data from over 10,000 sport participants in the UK, Germany, and other European countries, found very similar results. The problem is further illustrated by a study we published recently, which found 60% of teenage male rugby union players had recently (i.e. in the last two weeks) used harmful homophobic slurs such as “fag” towards a teammate.
Experiencing these types of negative behaviours can eliminate the benefits that children gain from playing sports, and cause long-term harm. Dr Denison found this is particularly true for marginalised youth, such as LGBTQ+ children, because homophobic language increases their already high-risk of suicide.
In Australia, Canada, the UK, and other western countries there are no government agencies regularly monitoring community sports clubs to ensure children are safe. This is very different to how child care centres and schools are monitored and regulated closely. Sport is allowed to regulate itself. This bizarre double-standard continues despite repeated failures by sports organisations to protect children from physical, sexual, and psychological abuse.
Stories of these failures seem to be ever-present in global news headlines. In the USA, Olympian Simone Biles gave “harrowing” evidence of sexual abuse in gymnastics, in the UK, senior leadership of Welsh Rugby recently resigned following allegations of systemic racism, sexism, and homophobia, and in Canada, the entire leadership of hockey resigned, the country’s national sport, following multiple allegations of young hockey players engaging in sexual violence, racism, sexism, and homophobia.
The seemingly endless stories of abuse in sport have caught the attention of senior government officials. For example, Australia’s Sports Minister, Anika Wells, wrote a recent commentary in which she accepted the problems in sport are “systemic” and “grotesque” and the stories she was hearing of harm to children are “appalling, shocking, damning (and) frequent.”
Remarkably, Australia’s Sports Minister admitted that “I am yet to find anyone who can assure me our sporting institutions are safe.” Wells has announced the creation of a federal “Safety in Sport” division. The problem? This division will have no legislative power to regulate local sports. Why? The delivery of sport and child safety are the responsibilities of state and local governments.
The situation is similar in Canada, where abuse scandals have emerged in multiple sports. The Minister of Sport, Pascale St-Onge, said hundreds of athletes have shared “horrible” stories with her in recent months of abuse and maltreatment at all levels by peers, coaches, and teachers. She continued “we tell children to play sports and do physical activity—you’re going to build your skills—and then we hear these stories about how it destroyed some people’s lives instead of making it better.”
Like her counterpart in Australia, she has pledged to bolster a national body to investigate complaints, but admitted, it will have no legislative authority to fix the problem in children’s sport settings. Like Australia, sport delivery and child protection are provincial and local responsibilities.
St-Onge, said all she can do is ask provincial leaders “what their progress is, where they’re going, what their timeline is?” and tell them that change “needs to happen as quickly as possible … We’re hearing these stories of abuse and maltreatment at all levels. It shouldn’t be a jurisdictional issue.”
Despite the limited powers of national Sport Ministers to drive change, they continue to be the focus of lobbying by athletes, the public, and the media. This needs to change. It is important to also demand action and accountability from politicians who can drive change to the harmful behaviours which are endemic in sport. An Australian Royal Commission identified local mayors and councillors as the politicians who can drive the most change.
Local councils often own or control the facilities where sport is played by children and they are a major funder of local sport. They can use conditions on facility access and funding as regulatory levers to drive meaningful change. In addition, local councils have extensive experience in day-to-day regulation and enforcement (e.g., parking, events, building construction).
The Royal Commission has recommended that local councils be given additional funding to hire ‘safe sport officers’ using a model similar to Canada. These officers could initially focus on supporting and educating the volunteers who run sports clubs to help them comply with child safety laws. However, longer-term, their role could shift to a more compliance-focus (e.g., audits, fines, restrictions).
There is now extensive evidence that children are being harmed by discrimination, harassment, and abusive behaviours in sport. It is clearly unacceptable that we continue to allow sport to regulate itself, which would mean these behaviours will continue. Local governments must urgently start taking responsibility for regulation and should be held accountable for failing to ensure children are safe to play sports in their facilities.
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