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Coming Forward: How We're Failing Athletes that Report Abuse Allegations

Adison Minor wasn’t used to spending time on the bench. A star player at her high school, she had been a fierce leader and consistent contributor for the majority of athletic career. So when she committed to play volleyball for Eastern Tennessee State University (ETSU), an NCAA Division 1 school, she quickly moved from making all the plays to cheering on the plays of her teammates from the sidelines. 

For someone like Minor, a season without playing time would typically be considered a bad season. But this was her best season yet, and it was all thanks to her head coach.

“I committed to ETSU for the coach. She was very straightforward and to the point, but also made sure that you understood everything along the way. She never gave you false hope, she was very just blunt about where you were as a player and what your role was going to be,” she recalls. “That was the happiest I was playing college volleyball, and I didn’t even get playing time.” 

That season, the ETSU team received their first at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Minor was hopeful for the future; although she wasn’t starting yet, she was working hard, and her coach was confident that her time as a leader on the team would come. Then, her coach received and accepted an offer to coach at another Division 1 school. 

“The only reason I stayed near my hometown was to play for her, so I was like, ‘Okay, well, maybe I’ll go somewhere else and experience something outside of my hometown.’” 

Minor ended up entering the transfer portal, playing at two more schools. However, she felt that the coaching she experienced after leaving ETSU was far less favorable than that of her first institution, eventually becoming unethical. When coming forward about it, Minor faced extreme backlash, and her experience ultimately led her to step away from volleyball altogether.

Stories like Minor’s aren’t uncommon, and they beg an important question for athletic culture: how can we better support athletes coming forward about abuse?

Abusive coaching is a term thrown around often, but lacks a distinct, clear, and widely agreed upon definition. However, many agree that abuse is a spectrum. For abuse to be present, it doesn’t have to be experienced by every athlete on a team, and it doesn’t always look the same. As summarized in a 2022 study on abuse in sport, past research has indicated that psychological abuse is most frequently reported by athletes, with 38–72% of athletes reporting at least one experience, followed by sexual abuse (9–30% of athletes) and physical abuse (11–21% of athletes). Emotional or psychological abuse is also widely underreported, even though it is the most common. 

Another common factor of abuse: regardless of the level, type, or severity, speaking up about it is incredibly difficult. Athletes face a hostile sports culture that frequently jumps to deny allegations before assessing the situation. Morgan Gill, a former gymnast, received backlash after she and several of her teammates alleged abuse at the hands of a former coach on social media. While Morgan believed that the response to her allegations was mostly supportive, the negative comments were particularly memorable. “There were little comments, like “Well, the girls who are coming out against [the coach] are just the ones who are upset that they couldn't make a lineup and they simply just weren't good enough.” 

On a collegiate level, athletes also face a system that is wholly ineffective for treating the problem, as the NCAA has historically failed to enforce its (already sparse) legislation requiring athletic environments to be conducted in a manner that supports athlete wellbeing. There remains no third-party oversight over abuse in college athletics, which causes problems when universities are essentially asked to enforce sanctions upon themselves and their staff. 

Chloe Stevens experienced this issue firsthand. After allegedly having issues with her coach, she wrote a letter to her Athletic Director (AD) and University President. “I think the AD got back to me and said ‘Thank you, we’ll look into this’ and the president said [the same], but that was the last I heard of it. Nothing really ever came of it, which was annoying because they made it seem like it was going to get taken seriously.” 

Athletes experiencing abuse are already coming out of difficult situations. Coming forward about these allegations presents further challenges, which discourages future athletes from reporting their own concerns. Allegations should be met with healthy scrutiny, but the mere possibility of a coach’s innocence doesn’t excuse aggressive responses to the athletes coming forward, nor the establishment of a system that consistently sweeps problems under the rug. 

Chloe recently finished her senior season at a new school, but she still thinks about how things can be better for future athletes. “I really do think it has to come from the leadership, if not the coaches. For instance, when I sent that letter, I think it should have been taken more seriously. [If the coach doesn’t change], it has to come from above.” 

To be a coach means that you are placed in a position of power over the thing that means the most to an athlete: their sport. Coaches, we cannot expect perfection from you, but we do ask you to understand this: your action or inaction towards an athlete will inevitably impact their wellbeing. Athletes are taught to respond to your feedback and take your opinion to heart. Whether intentional or not, certain behavior can cause problems. 

But as much as coach behavior is important for athletes to have healthy sport experiences, there has to be systemic oversight for abuse at a high school and collegiate level. We cannot guarantee athlete well-being without accountability for those that are charged with promoting it. In the midst of a student-athlete mental health crisis, it’s time for administrations to deliver. 

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