Combating the culture: Teams, local sports programs work to protect young athletes from sexual assault
Editor’s note: This story is the fourth of an eight-week series focused on the issue of sexual assault in Steamboat Springs and Routt County. To view the entire series as it unfolds, visit SteamboatPilot.com/news/in-our-shoes.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Sports are supposed to build character, but in recent years, sexual abuse crimes have put that mission into question.
Investigators and journalists have uncovered criminal cases that span the world of athletics — from the Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s 52 counts of child molestation in 2011 to the Baylor University Title IX lawsuit for its mishandling of sexual assaults by football players in 2015.
Now the most highly-publicized scandal in sports has been ongoing since 2016: the indictment of USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar for possession of child pornography and 10 counts of sexual assault.
Most recently in Colorado, former FC Boulder youth soccer coach pleaded guilty to sexual exploitation of a child after the 36-year-old coach had sex with a 15-year-old in exchange for free private lessons.
Sexual assault made headlines across sports pages in both NCAA and Olympic sports for almost a decade, and incidents dating back even further have also been uncovered. And while victims are calling to put leadership under a microscope, there’s still a persistent culture in sports that seems to value winning over human well-being.
Steamboat Springs has built a reputation for producing Olympians through the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, and the local high school offers 17 different sports programs to its student athletes.
This is the place where elite athletes are born, and both the high school and SSWSC have programs in place to protect young athletes from abuse and teach them how to develop healthy relationships
Culture of power
Sexual assault is the result of a power imbalance. Prevention doesn’t come from focusing on the crime, but the systems in place that allow it to happen.
Deb Armstrong, 1984 Olympic gold medalist in Alpine skiing and former SSWSC Alpine director, serves on U.S. Ski and Snowboard task forces for education and gender topics. As a young athlete on the U.S. Ski Team, Armstrong said it was considered normal for male coaches to have sex with their female athletes on the World Cup.
“That’s not OK, but … people become numb and accept what is not OK,” Armstrong said. “We know in the workplace that that’s not OK. Sports is not making the headway and the gains that corporate America is making.”
According to Armstrong, who lives in Steamboat, the lack of female leadership in sports permeates disciplines and is part of why the issue of sexual misconduct often goes undisclosed. When she was competing, she didn’t have any female coaches on the World Cup circuit.
In 2018, Karin Harjo made headlines as one of the few female Alpine coaches on the World Cup. The International Ski Federation lists two other female coaches on their roster — Norway’s Karina Wathne and Mikaela Shiffrin’s mother and coach, Eileen Shiffrin.
There are nine women total on a staff of 49 for the 2018-19 U.S. Alpine Team, and Harjo is the only coach. Of the 12 Alpine directors in the International Ski Federation, Tatiana Lüssy, World Cup and Continental Cup assistant, is the only female.
“We need to look at equity in sport and really look at dynamics that are taking place that allow for something like Nassar to occur,” Armstrong said.
- 40 to 50% of athletes have experienced anything from mild harassment to severe abuse
- Sexual abuse in sports impacts between 2% to 8% of athletes
- 90% of child sexual abuse victims know the perpetrator
The coach-athlete relationship
One contributing factor is the nature of an athlete’s relationships with their coach. Athletes usually look up to their coaches, but that power imbalance can be easily taken advantage of if a coach chooses to do so.
“The scary part of that component is, as they build that great relationship, sometimes, that kid will do anything for them,” SSWSC Executive Director Sarah Floyd said. “They would do whatever that person told them to do, and that’s a very powerful situation. We have to make sure the people who hold that power are people of high character and are there for the right reasons.”
According to SSWSC Assistant Executive Director Jon Nolting, Floyd is the only female executive director of any club within the same tier. The effort to increase women in leadership is there, but finding coaches, let alone female coaches, can be a challenge.
But the SSWSC has two women on the forefront of its snowboarding program, including snowboard director Tori Koski and head freestyle coach Maddy Schaffrick. Alpine continues to struggle with its female leadership quota, with only four female coaches out of 18 last season.
“It’s a lot of physical work and it’s cold, and you’re on the road a lot,” Floyd said. “Women like to coach to a point, and then I think maybe they have a home or a boyfriend or a family, and it just doesn’t suit them well. So, we look for opportunities to put females in coaching positions every chance we can.”
Both Nolting and Floyd agree relationships between coaches and athletes are more closely monitored today than they have been in the past. There were aspects of the coach-athlete relationship that may have been widely accepted years ago, but no longer are considered appropriate.
“One of the aspects, especially in light of the atrocities that have come out, that our training talks about, is how a sexual predator will gain access and the trust of athletes they are working with,” Nolting said. “What’s difficult with that is those are exactly the behaviors we would say are great coaching — creating a close connection with the kid and establishing relationship with the family. But it gives the person access to the child where something can go wrong.
“There’s a fine line and clear differentiation between grooming toward a potential environment where there can be sexual exploitation versus creating a good connection with an athlete so they trust in their coaching,” Nolting explained.
Preventing a toxic culture
Both Steamboat Springs High School and the SSWSC have training and rules in place to prevent sexual abuse. Laws also exist to aid in preventing assault.
Starting with coach and athlete relationships, sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust is a felony. Under Colorado law, a position of trust is defined as any person who is a parent or acting in place of parent, like a coach or teacher.
Coaches are also mandatory reporters of abuse. Each year, they undergo training to learn to identify signs or symptoms of neglect or abuse.
“Coaches are mandated by law to report to authorities if they know of abuse,” Steamboat Springs High School athletic director Luke DeWolfe said. “Kids do confide in their coaches. Coaches are definitely around these kids more than any other adult figure and might be a real trusted figure. Our coaches deal with and hear a lot of what goes on in these kids lives, and they are prepared for whatever comes forward.”
SSWSC takes even more precautions, since coaches are often traveling abroad with their athletes. As an elite club under the umbrella of U.S. Ski and Snowboard, SSWSC utilizes training through SafeSport, a nonprofit organization born out of the 2017 Safe Sport Authorization Act. The act established the U.S. Center for SafeSport as an independent organization to investigate reports of abuse and to protect U.S. Olympic athletes.
In Our Shoes is an eight-part series about sexual assault in Steamboat Springs and Routt County published by the Steamboat Pilot every Wednesday, from June 5 to July 24.
“It’s gone from an optional tool for coaches to educate themselves to, now, really a requirement,” Nolting said. “A lot do it online, but we do it in-person in groups so we can have discussions about it and talk about real, everyday scenarios and what they face. There’s an element to protect the children, and there’s also an element to protect the coaches from false accusations.”
If a situation arises within the club, coaches and directors are required to report the abuse to SafeSport for an independent investigation rather than trying to investigate it themselves. SafeSport also holds a database of disciplinary records, which are certified searchable by anyone to find individuals with a history of sexual misconduct.
In addition, the SafeSport training helps coaches set boundaries with their athletes. For example, in a small community like Steamboat, it might not seem egregious to offer a ride home to an athlete after practice, but that puts both the coach and athlete at risk.
“That’s putting the coach at risk — they’re one on one,” Nolting said. “Something they said in that car or something they did could be misconstrued, and on the flip side, if a sexual predator were in that situation, there’s a real opportunity that’s dangerous for the athlete.”
In addition to SafeSport, the SSWSC has its own policies in place, like requiring coaches to copy parents on every text they send to athletes who are minors. And all one-on-one meetings have an open-door policy — they must be done in a public place or with a door open.
In addition, SSWSC is uniquely community-based, meaning, it doesn’t provide private coaching services to athletes. Private coaching is when a family hires a coach for its athlete to receive one-on-one coaching.
“We see private coaching in Alpine ski racing quite a bit,” Nolting said. “In Steamboat, we believe that it’s best for the kids to be in groups and have that interaction. There might be an event where one athlete qualified and just one coach, so we do run into those situations. We do address coach-to-athlete romantic relationships in our handbook. Regardless of age of consent, it’s not allowed in our club.”
Beyond the scope of coach and athlete relationships, athletes are often looked to as role models, and there’s a standard they’re expected to uphold. But sports can also foster problematic behaviors like locker room talk.
“I think that sexual assault happens throughout the nation in all different forms of different people, but it’s sensationalized through sports,” Advocates of Routt County Executive Director Lisel Petis said. “There is locker room talk that obviously is a culture with the sports world. That’s usually talk with inappropriate sexual nature and that’s degrading to other genders. We are trying to teach athletes that that is not necessary — there is no benefit to that behavior. What would be really amazing is if they are teaching other kids that’s not tolerated.”
Advocates met with every sports team at the high school this year for a 20-minute presentation that included an open discussion on fostering healthy relationships. The presentation touched on topics like consent, how to report sexual assault and bystander intervention. Advocates will start a similar program with the SSWSC and is hoping to eventually have the resources to provide the program to the sports teams at Soroco and Hayden high schools.
Consent is a key topic when it comes to high school-aged athletes. In the state of Colorado, the age of consent is 17 years old.
There’s also a close-in-age exemption, which means if a person is 15 or 16, they can have legal sexual contact with someone who is up to 10 years older. That allows a 15-year-old to have sex with a 24-year-old consensually, and it not be considered statutory rape. At age 14, a person can have consensual sex with someone less than four years older than them, which makes it legal for a high school freshman to have consensual sex with a senior.
Petis emphasizes that consent must be explicitly given in the form of a “yes,” otherwise a person can be accused of rape. There also are nonverbal cues to be aware of when engaging in sexual contact. If a person is not responding at all — going silent — they may be in their freeze response. Other topics covered in the discussion are how to tell if someone is too drunk to give consent and if it’s OK to give unwanted sexual contact as simple as a butt slap in the hallway.
Petis said that kind of behavior has to be prevented as early as preschool.
“It’s little things. As kids, you see a boy push a girl down on the playground and say, ‘He’s just doing that because he likes you.’ Didn’t we just teach that girl it’s OK to push her if he likes her?” Petis said.
But the most important topic of the discussion surrounding athletes is bystander intervention, especially when it comes to locker room talk.
“Some of the vulgar talk that happens in locker rooms by both males and females is a small percentage of people who enjoy that kind of talk,” Petis said. “The rest are participating because it’s the cool thing to do, and they don’t want to be called out.”
The best way to combat locker room talk is to speak up. Petis encourages young people not to call others out but to call them in. It doesn’t do any good to yell at others and disrupt the team dynamic. Instead, start a conversation.
A great example of this is the popular Gillette commercial that was released in January. At 1 minute, two seconds into the video, a man pulls his friend aside when he sees him catcalling a woman walking down the street.
To get to the bottom of sexual assault in sports, change has to start from the top down, and starting a conversation is just step one.
“Do you approach sexual assault from seeing the forest or looking at the individual little trees?” Armstrong said. “People tend to want to look at the individual trees. Larry Nassar was a bark beetle tree. So we think, ‘Let’s get that heavily infested bark beetle tree out of there and hope that the rest of the forest is OK.’ I say look at the forest — the forest is the general system and culture we see, and sexual assault is a tree that is a problem in that forest.”
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