Covid-19 and Sport: Some Positive Outcomes for Athletes and Athlete Welfare

Covid Anniversary Blog

As outdoor sports facilities open and organised sports clubs begin to welcome back members, it’s uplifting to note that there have been numerous positive developments in safeguarding children and young people in this sector recently. These include:

  • In its latest 10-year plan, Sport England, the body responsible for grassroots sport, have named safeguarding as one of their five main themes and have substantially increased investment into helping sports clubs and national federations create safer sports environments.
  • The ‘Safe to Play’ campaign, which aims to ensure young people know how to report a safeguarding concern, was successfully rolled out in tennis in England throughout last year’s lockdowns and is being expanded to other sports this year.
  • The government agreed last month (March 2021) to change the law around positions of trust to include adults in supervisory positions in sport, making it illegal for coaches and others in authority positions over athletes in sport to have sex with 16 and 17 year olds in the same way it is for teachers and pupils.

In addition, one of the most inspiring safeguarding development from the past 12 months has come from the young female gymnasts who spoke out against the toxic culture in their sport (see here). Researchers of athlete welfare like myself know how practices such as fat shaming, enforced training while injured, physical violence, and emotional abuse have become so entrenched in some sports that they often go unchallenged.

Physical and emotional abuse rarely attract as much attention or elicit the same emotion as sexual abuse, yet their consequences can be just as devastating. Working together and using the hashtag #gymnastalliance to draw attention to the impact of non-sexual abuse, which are by far the most prevalent forms of abuse in sport, these brave young women forced the sports authorities to act.

A review is now underway into abuse in the sport and British Gymnastics’ handling of complaints, and some athletes are suing the sports’ governing body for negligence and breach of duty. Such unprecedented action has sparked a global movement of athletes speaking out against the dangerous and degrading practices that have become normalised as part of many sports. Through collective action and dogged determination, these young athletes are opening up a positive conversation for long-term change. 

The restrictions placed on all our lives during the pandemic have (re)ignited people’s love of sport and physical activity and reminded us all of its importance for our mental and physical health. In particular, lockdown has encouraged teenage girls who were previously not active to do more sport and physical activity. If sport is to capitalise on this new-founded enthusiasm, it must ensure it provides everyone involved with a safe and positive environment. Thanks to the many young gymnasts who disclosed abuse over the past year, we are one step closer to ensuring this vision for sport.

Dr Mel Lang is Associate Director at the Centre for Child Protection and Safeguarding in Sport (CPSS) at Edge Hill University.

Photo by Sandro Schuh on Unsplash

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.

Image by Michal Navrat from Pixabay

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