Protecting Children in the Sports Environment: Keynote at ISPCAN 2020 Qatar

Centre for Sport and Human Rights

Ladies and Gentlemen, being here places me in unfamiliar territory. I am not a therapist, social worker, paediatrician, nurse, researcher, lawyer or a psychologist.  Rather I come to you from the world of sport, a world that has been my home since I was 12 years of age and played just about every sport I had access to ….. before settling on the sport I love most of all - football. 

This morning I seek to bring to your attention a situation that mandates strong collaboration between the world of sport and the impressive work of you, the professionals associated with ISPCAN’s mission to prevent and treat child abuse, neglect, and exploitation. 

The situation I speak of is sport, and our collective duty to ensure that it fulfils its promise to contribute positively to the development of children.

Sport is good for children 
•    It can play an important role in their physical development, development of balance and physical literacy.
•    It builds character, a sense of self yet also a sense of how you fit in with others around you. And how to work with others towards a shared goal. 
•    It provides opportunities to learn first-hand values of fair play, integrity, teamwork, respect, and tolerance.
•    It teaches children that it okay to lose at times and how to cope with loss.
•    It increases the likelihood of children staying active, sleeping better and being mentally sharp 
•    It improves coordination 

Indeed for the vast majority of the hundreds of millions of children worldwide engaged in sport……sport is good for them. 

However, for some children, sport can also expose them to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, undue stress, as well as trafficking, child labour, harassment, body image issues, hazing, doping, bullying and other forms of violence. 

This is the dark, and in most cases hidden, side of children and sport. 

Victims range from 

•    children playing on a village or community sport teams 
•    to children involved in sports in their schools
•    to children competing at national and regional sport events ….
•    all the way to elite child athletes competing in the Olympics or in academies for elite professional clubs.

Children who are victims, whose rights have been violated in the sport environment, are the concern of the Centre for Sport and Human Rights. As was mentioned when I was introduced, I lead the Centre for Sport and Human Rights.  The Centre was launched in 2018 and is based in Geneva.   

Who are we?  We are a Centre for Human Rights - for the world of sport.  Said another way, we bring the world of human rights – together with the world of sport – and we do so in order to ensure that sport not only protects human rights, but also enables it to leave a lasting human legacy through its activities. 

How do we bring human rights to the world of sport?
Simply put, we convene the actors from the world of sport together, with the shared goal of ensuring that human rights are protected in sport.  Who are the actors in the world of sport?  Simply put – they are the actors who make up the ecosystem for sport.  They are sports governing bodies, such as FIFA, UEFA, Local Organizing Committees, such as the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy of the FIFA World Cup 2022 here in Qatar, the International Paralympic Committee and so on.  They are governments, who are key to enabling mega sporting events to take place in countries and cities. They are sponsors of mega-sporting events, and businesses who play a key role in the delivery of sporting events. And they are broadcasters, who bring these events into homes around the world. 

So what do we do at the Centre?  We bring together all these groups – from the world of human rights and the world of sport – to work together in collective action – to tackle tough problems, and ensure human rights are protected in sport.  We do this in 3 ways:  Our activities are focused on sharing knowledge of best practice to prevent human rights harms, build capacity through tools and guides we’ve developed to enable those in sport do this work, and through this, we increase accountability for upholding human rights in the world of sport.  Some examples of our work include supporting sports governing bodies to develop their own human rights policies, helping event organisers embed protections for human rights into their operations, and engaging governments when their involvement in their duty to Protect.   as Pillar I of the UNGPs – is needed.

But now let’s talk about our work with children.  Children are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable groups we seek to protect, and one of the key goals of the Centre is preventing violations of the rights of children in sport and ensuring access to effective remedy those harmed. This concern extends to ALL children who have been harmed or at risk of being harmed in sport. We know that to achieve impact at global level, multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder actions are required and to that end, the Centre mobilises all actors in sport in collective action. 


In recent years, high profile cases have raised alarm about the flimsy protection of children in sport. Headlines from these terrible incidents include: 
•    350+ girls sexually abused by the sports physician of US gymnastics, 
•    177 boys abused by Ohio State sports doctor, 
•    a UK soccer coach charge with ‘industrial- scale child molestation’

•    22,000 families evicted from their homes in Rio de Janeiro to accommodate the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics.

These cases, and many others that found their way to the media, have raised awareness and ignited a global conversation. And because of this, awareness of the need to protect children in sport is growing, and some action is being taken.  Examples include: 
•    Establishment of the US Center for Safe Sport in the United States, in the wake of widespread abuse of children at US Gymnastics, USA Swimming and other sport bodies;
•    Since their introduction five years ago, the International Safeguards for Children in Sport have been endorsed by 125 organisations who reach over 35 million children. 
•    In 2017 the International Olympic Committee added human rights protections into the contracts of cities hosting Mega Sports Events starting with the 2024 Summer Olympics, including provisions to protect children.  
•    Last year, FIFA launched its Guardians project, a major initiative to help its 211 national member associations and confederations worldwide to introduce stronger child safeguarding measures in football. 

All of these initiatives are laudable. However they are still embryonic.  We have a far way to go – in fact a very far way to go - before reaching the finish line. 

Putting an end to child abuse and exploitation in sport – making sport safe for all children - is a formidable goal. Attempts to score this goal face a multitude of challenges.  This morning I would like to focus on two of these challenges: first, breaking the silence and second, developing the evidence base. 


As you are well aware, most child abuse takes place within the child’s circle of trust… is perpetrated by those who hold trust and authority in a child’s life: ….parents, relative, teachers, religious leaders, care givers.   

Within the world of sport, this circle of trust includes coaches, trainers, sports physicians, contractors, volunteers and teammates. 
The vast majority are good, decent, caring and dedicated people.  Unfortunately some are well intentioned but very ill informed;  they may inflict physical or emotional abuse on a child with the mistaken belief that what they are doing is ‘good’ for the child, will toughen her up, and will make her a better athlete.  Notwithstanding their good intentions the abuse that they inflict on the child can cause damages of mind, spirit and body that may last a lifetime.  

Others however act without any good intentions, they are simply predators. As was illustrated in the cases I mentioned earlier, these predators abuse their positions of trust, and bring grave harm to children.  Usually when we think of such predators, sexual abuse immediately come to mind which is frequently accompanied by psychological abuse. Indeed this is often the case, but predators may also commit acts of physical abuse and bullying. Others may prey on children for reasons of economic gain. For example, those who engage in the trafficking and sale of child athletes of the Global South. For predators, the sport environment provides a continual supply of children upon which to prey. They act with impunity ….often protected by the silence of bystanders and the silence of bystanders. 

We already know that children are reluctant – in fact, unlikely -  to report the abuse that is inflicted upon them by someone within their circle of trust.  We are all familiar with the litany of barriers that keep children from disclosure:  stigma, guilt, shame, embarrassment, fear of consequences, a belief that what happened to them was not wrong, or in the case of boys, the concern that disclosure will bring questions about their sexuality. 

In sports, children confront the same barriers, plus additional ones that further increase the likelihood of non-disclosure.  This is, we believe, due to three main reasons:  

(1) power differentials within sport, particularly between coaches and athletes, (2) the culture of the sport environment itself, and finally (3) the protectionism of sport organisations.

1.    Power differentials within the sports environment can be intimidating for children.  Adults – coaches, physicians, and others – hold positions of high esteem and unquestionable authority.  The have significant power and influence over the child athletes, especially for children approaching, or in, the elite level. These power dynamics inhibits children from reporting.

2.    The culture in sport environment may also impede reporting.  Teamwork and team loyalty are valued. Children may be socialized to believe that what happens within their team, stays in their team ….what happens in the locker room or while traveling for a sports event is not to be shared outside of the team …..not even with parents. Reporting abuse can be viewed as letting your team down….hence silence is preferred. 
Within some sports, physical contact such as pushing, shoving, tackling are part of the game…. Physical punishment for failure is often tolerated (such as running laps around a track or doing push ups) ….. hands on instruction from your trainer or coach could be needed; being touched by your sport doctor may be necessary.  Sport coaching may also involve touching athletes in the course of teaching a particular skill. What is acceptable and unacceptable - may not be well understood and can be very confusing for a child. They may be unsure of boundaries, of what is appropriate and what is not; of when lines are crossed and when what is acceptable turns into abuse.  Such uncertainty also hinders reporting. 

3.    And finally, sports establishments themselves may deter disclosure.  This could be due to the absence of a reporting mechanism within their organisations….or there may be such a mechanism, but it is not child friendly.  
Worse still, we sadly have examples where sport organisations protected offenders or failed to act once an offense was exposed, opting to try to resolve it internally and spare themselves scrutiny. Those who have a responsibility to report may look the other way.  Or instead of reporting the abuse to police or child welfare authorities, they may only share the information within their sporting organization. And those who deliberately evade their legal and moral  obligations to report abuse to official authorities are at times themselves protected by their sports colleagues.   
All of these factors – power differentials, the culture of sport, and the actions of sport organisations create a culture of silence. They help us to understand how a gymnastics physician could sexually abuse almost 400 girls before the silence surrounding his crimes was finally broken.  
Thus we need to break the silence about child rights violations within sport….the silence that protects offenders and gives them a sense of impunity. To do this, we need to ensure: (1) that children have the support, mechanisms and protective environment they require to report; and (2) that sport organisations act in the best interests of children rather than protect themselves and ‘their own’ 

Only once we have reporting and the silence is broken, do children then have access to remedy to the rehabilitation, re-integration and compensation they need.

So what can you do?  You can do many things: 

•    Earlier I mentioned the International Safeguards for Children that has been endorsed by 125 organisations that reach about 35 million children. We need to get these numbers up to many more organisations reaching hundreds of millions of children.  

•    Demand that sport organisations have safeguarding policies and procedures in place and ones that include a safe, child-friendly and responsive reporting mechanism. 

•    Support independent report systems, like child helplines

•    Inform colleagues in your respective professions – pediatricians, social workers, therapists, educators, and others of this issue and encourage their actions  

•    Promote education and developing open communication on child abuse issues among all stakeholders, including coaches, trainers, health professionals, volunteers, participants and their parents, and of course children themselves. In the words of the Council of Europe’s impressive  child protection in sport campaign ‘START TO TALK’


o    As mentioned earlier, we fear that the abuse we know about – is the tip of the iceberg.  To fully understand how to prevent and address abuse, exploitation and other forms of violence children experience in sport, we need a strong evidence base.  This is indispensable for raising awareness and driving advocacy, but also critically to inform policies, programmes and legislation needed to adequately protect children. In addition, without good data we cannot monitor the progress we are making. 
Although there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence about child rights violations in sport, strong qualitative and quantitative research on the topic is relatively scant, particularly in regard to the situation in the Global South ….. home to the majority of the world’s children and children involved in sport. 

Incidence and prevalence data at global and national levels are unknown, nor has it been conclusively estimated.  The data that we do have comes largely from North America, Europe, New Zealand and Australia. And this data paints a very grim and disturbing picture.  For example:   

•    A 2015 study from the United Kingdom reported that 75% of young athletes in organized sports experienced psychological/emotional abuse 
•    Another Study in the UK found incidence of hazing ranges from 5%-17% among middle school athletes and 17%-48% in high school, but this may reflect an under-reporting bias 
•    A large-scale retrospective study with over 6,000 undergraduate students aged 18–22 years, revealed that 29% of the respondents experienced sexual abuse when they were child athletes (Alexander et al., 2011).

Poor record keeping, the culture of silence and lack of awareness of the issue make attempts to come up with an accurate global prevalence figures almost impossible to arrive at. For example, 
In its consensus statement, the IOC reported prevalence rates of sexual harassment of between 19% to 92%, while between 2% to 49% of athletes were victims of sexual abuse.  Those are enormous ranges.

Obviously, there is a big difference between a prevalence as low as 19% and as high as 93%. 

Clearly more research and better data collection on the current situation is needed.  In addition, there is a need to systematically evaluate and share learnings on the effectiveness of interventions that are promoted or have been taken.

We at the Centre can’t do the research ourselves, thus we encourage others to do so. In particular, as I alluded to earlier, there is a need for research and data collection in the global south. Thus here is what I now ask of you. 

•    For you who are a researcher, and I know many of you are, I urge you to consider turning an eye to the situation of children in sport. 
•    For you who are academics, encourage your students to take an interest in this topic.
•    For you who are practioners, be on the lookout, document cases, share lessons learned and encourage the evaluation of interventions. 
•    For those of you who are from governments, arrange for the collection of data relate to children in sport in your country and the disaggregation of those child protection cases that are related to sport. 

I also have a special request of you, Ministers of Sport have adopted what is known as the Kazan Action Plan which measures the impact of sports on achieving the SDGs. Recently sport indicators have been developed for a key SDG targets.  This includes SDG target 16.2 which as we all know aims for an end to violence against children. The indicators governments are called upon to collect are: 
•    % of national sport bodies that have adopted formal policies to protect children, youth and other vulnerable groups
•    % of national sport bodies with a 1) nominated child protection officer and 2) nominated sport integrity officer
•    Number of athletes, coaches and officials trained (per year) on protecting children, youth and other vulnerable groups 
Please contact your respective Ministries of Sport and ask them to collect this data.  It has the potential of making a positive difference for the children of your countries. 

The Centre is currently exploring the possibility of a process, tentatively labelled a ‘Global Study’, that would bring together a wide range of partners, including yourselves, to gather and analyse the research and data already existing on child protection in sport,  as well stimulating new research and data collection.  If you are interested in participating, please visit the Centre’s website and send a message to our information account. 

In closing, esteemed participants, as Howard Taylor mentioned in his keynote, we need to find solutions that can be implemented at scale.  For me and the Centre, safe sports for children  ‘at scale’  is the goal. At scale  means that every child is safe and protected, in whatever sport they choose to play, and at whatever level they are at …..from the child kicking the ball in the make-shift playing field in her village to the elite child athlete swimming to Olympic gold. 

Take a few moments in coming days to think about the hundreds of millions of children involved in sport and how you, your fellow professionals, and your respective organisations  can contribute towards scoring this goal for children. 

Thank you.

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