Child advocates are sending a loud and clear message ahead of the Olympics: Every child has the right to be safe from sexual abuse while playing the sport they love. The Child Athlete Bill of Rights, an advocacy campaign introduced Friday, hopes to ensure that every minor playing a sport can do so safely.
The campaign calls on sports organizations, local gyms, clubs, training facilities, camps and more to commit to preventing child sexual abuse by adopting the set of principles included in the Child Athlete Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights has four guiding principles: Children have the right to say no at any time; children have the right to disclose to an adult when they feel uncomfortable; children need to have the space and support to express their feelings; and children and their caregivers need to be educated about what abuse is and how they can report it.
“We do a very poor job in this country of teaching children what is a good touch, what is a bad touch, how to say no, how to say something doesn’t feel right. I hope that this helps to teach kids that they do have the right to do that and to feel safe,” Jillian Ruck, executive director of Child USA, a nonprofit think tank working to end child abuse in the U.S., told HuffPost.
Child USA, along with The Army of Survivors, an organization advocating for and supporting child athlete survivors of sexual violence, created the Child Athlete Bill of Rights.
“A lot of times we send our kids to sports and youth organizations and we just assume that they’re in good hands and that kids are being given these rights,” Ruck said. “But there are no policies that are standardized that do provide kids these rights. It’s time for us to have more oversight in sports to protect our children.”
Sex abuse in sports plagues all levels of competition, including the Olympic Games and college, amateur and recreational athletics. There are at least 5.9 million survivors of sexual abuse in organized sports in the U.S., according to recent studies. At least 13% of student athletes experience sexual assault through their sport, and roughly 1 in 12 elite athletes were sexually assaulted by a sports official or peer athlete.
“It’s fascinating what we expect from our athletes but how little we’re willing to do to ensure their protection.”
Often because of a lack of oversight, Olympic and amateur sports create spaces where sexual predators can flourish. And there have been way too many examples to count. Former USA Gymnastics team physician Larry Nassar allegedly abused more than 500 child athletes under the guise of medical treatment and is serving life in prison on child sex abuse charges. Former Ohio State University athletic trainer Dr. Richard Strauss committed nearly 1,500 sexual assaults on student-patients over two decades, many of whom were athletes. Former USA Swimming coach Andy King sexually abused up to a dozen minors over the course of three decades and is now serving 40 years in prison. The list goes on and on.
Athletes, especially child athletes, need to know they can speak up, Danielle Moore, board secretary of The Army of Survivors, who is also a survivor of Nassar’s abuse, told HuffPost.
“Most people from a young age are taught that they have to listen to adults. Especially when a young person is part of a team, it’s the coach’s word 100%,” she said. “This campaign gives them that power to actually speak up. It normalizes the fact that they can use their voice.”
Implementing policies to better protect children feels like something everyone can get on board with. But Ruck and Moore expect some pushback from club gyms and other facilities around the country, especially in gymnastics, where the sport as a whole is still reeling from the Nassar scandal.
“If this issue is brought up within a club, there’s that perception of people thinking that something has already happened versus trying to prevent it from happening,” Moore said.
Ruck and others at Child USA are already working to incentivize organizations to implement the Child Athlete Bill of Rights by tying it to insurance. If a gym or club can get a discount on insurance by adopting these policies, or even requiring a facility to implement these policies in order to receive insurance, that would go a long way, Ruck said.
Both organizations tied the rollout of the Bill of Rights to the start of the Olympics because “the tone is set at the top,” Ruck said. If organizations like the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee adopted these measures, that culture of awareness and transparency would trickle down to even the smallest gyms around the country.
“It’s important to remember that those athletes on TV have had to sacrifice their mental health and their youth to get to where they are,” Moore said. “They shouldn’t have to endure sexual abuse in order to get to where they want to be.”
Ruck pointed to arguably the most famous athlete in recent history, Olympian Simone Biles, who has been outspoken about the abuse she endured by Nassar and how little USA Gymnastics and USOPC have done to hold his enablers accountable.
“It’s like we want Simone Biles to do all of these things, but we’re not willing to protect her or the next Simone Biles,” Ruck said. “It’s fascinating what we expect from our athletes but how little we’re willing to do to ensure their protection.”
Scroll below to read the Child Athlete Bill of Rights.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.