At the Heart of Gold: Rethinking Athlete Welfare

According to experts at a recent public event supported by the Institute for Social Responsibility (ISR), sports organisations need to rethink how they approach athlete welfare, to ensure they are meeting their legal and moral obligations, and to provide a healthy and safe environment.

Abuse and maltreatment in sport have featured heavily in national and international headlines in recent years. Against this backdrop, Dr Melanie Lang, assistant director of The Centre for Child Protection and Safeguarding in Sport (CPSS), hosted a successful public event on understanding and developing athlete welfare on 9th November 2020. The event was timed to celebrate Dr Lang’s latest book, The Routledge Handbook of Athlete Welfare.

The free online event was attended by athletes, academics, and safeguarding and welfare in sport policymakers and professionals from organisations including national governing bodies of sport, the Ann Craft Trust, and the International Centre for Ethics in Sport in Belgium. Delegates were drawn from the UK, Belgium, Cyprus, Sweden, and Spain.

The event featured presentations from four speakers and was opened by Professor Jo Crotty, Director of the ISR. In the first presentation, Dr Lang called for more resources to be directed towards non-sexual forms of abuse in sport. Highlighting research indicating that emotional abuse is the most prevalent form of abuse in sport, yet the least likely to be reported, Dr Lang argued that sports organisations must do more to raise awareness of and act on this form of abuse. Dr Lang provided examples of how athletes can be empowered to speak out about abuse and what sports organisations can do to better respond to under-recognised forms of abuse.

In the second presentation, Dr Geoff Kohe from the University of Kent and CPSS member, and Edge Hill University senior lecturer Dr Laura Purdy discussed care ethics in sport. They highlighted how a particular narrow conceptualisation of care has become normalised in sport, arguing this restricts understandings of welfare. Drs Kohe and Purdy advocated for a broader understanding of athlete welfare and more nuanced conceptualisations of care that are more responsive to athlete needs.

Finally, Professor Hayley Fitzgerald of Leeds Beckett University and the University of Worcester discussed the welfare of disabled people in sport. Professor Fitzgerald noted that research focusing on safeguarding in sport in relation to disability is rare, and that what little is known has tended to come from studies that investigated welfare issues in the general sport population rather than specifically exploring the experiences of disabled participants. Professor Fitzgerald argued that an embedded approach is needed whereby issues of disability are infused within generic safeguarding approaches rather than disabled athletes being treated as a separate category of concern.

The event concluded with a lively discussion between delegates and panellists on a range of welfare issues affecting athletes and other sport stakeholders.

To learn more about the Centre for Child Protection and Safeguarding in Sport, its members and their work in safeguarding and welfare in sport, please visit the CPSS website.

Dr Melanie Lang is Assistant Director for the Centre for Child Protection and Safeguarding in Sport (CPSS), and Senior Lecturer Child Protection in Sport at Edge Hill University.

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COVID-19 and Child Abuse in Institutions

The implications of measures taken to reduce the impact the lockdown for children (and adults) who reside with violent, abusive or exploitative partners and family members have been widely highlighted. For those in such circumstances, ‘keeping the NHS safe’ and ‘saving lives by staying at home’ comes at a very high price.

It is well recognised that the majority of child abuse occurs in the home. However, government inquiries into child abuse within institutional settings have been ongoing since the early 1990s. The current national inquiry (see IICSA) into sexual abuse within institutions in England and Wales has been running since 2014.

At the Centre for Child Protection and Safeguarding in Sport, our research focuses on abuse and maltreatment in sport contexts. In my research with ‘survivors’ of child sexual abuse in sport, I hear repeatedly how they felt trapped within the relationship and unable to tell anyone about the abuse they were experiencing. For some, home was a sanctuary that offered some temporary respite.

So, for at least some children and young people experiencing abuse, home isolation and ‘social distancing’ may feel like a dream come true rather than their worst nightmare.

For any type of abuse, including that perpetrated online, opportunity is fundamental. Often (but not always) the opportunity to be physically close to a child, in an isolated space, is a key facilitating factor. Thus whilst close proximity with those outside the home is currently restricted, there may be a small window of opportunity to break the connection between some children and their abusers, permanently.  

Families are crucial to this. But – if you are a parent/guardian of a child who is being sexually abused or exploited, it is highly likely that your child will have made the decision to conceal what is happening to them. An abused child’s life becomes a near permanent exercise in deception. They quickly learn to employ all their creative resources to prevent those closest to them from discovering their secret. Of course, this does not mean they aren’t desperately searching for a way to escape the abuse.

Enforced social distancing may have presented some children with an alternative version of their reality. A glimpse of something different, better. Undoubtedly their abuser(s) will be working hard to maintain their hold, to keep the child trapped within their version of reality. Children who find themselves in a sexually or physically abusive relationship outside the home are hopefully experiencing some relief. But as they observe our determined national efforts to ‘return to normal’, they also sense this will be short-lived.

So, for some children, the current crisis does present an opportunity, but it is one that adults – within and beyond the family – must take advantage of.

Specialist organisations provide useful support on talking to children and young people and identifying signs of sexual abuse and exploitation. Further safeguarding advice, information and resources relating to COVID-19 are also available from the GOV.UK website. If you’re worried that a child or young person is at risk or is being abused contact the children’s social care team at their local council.

Dr Mike Hartill is Director of the Centre for Child Protection and Safeguarding in Sport (CPSS) at Edge Hill University.


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