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Can a Student “Consent” to a Sexual Relationship with a Professor? (Part 1)

Posted on September 7, 2014 Written by Cynthia Lewis


Both articles were adapted from the original post to read the full post click on this link:


The crux of this question is whether one person—a student—with less power than another person—a professor—can consent to a sexual relationship. Today, many people, many of them feminists, would say, “No.” Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner, authors of the still relevant (though 30-year-old) book The Lecherous Professor, are among them. They write about “The Consenting Adult Myth”:


Few students are ever, in the strictest sense, consenting adults. A student can never be
a genuine equal of a professor insofar as his professional position gives him power over
her. Access to a student occurs not because she allows it but because the professor
ignores professional ethics and chooses to extend the student-faculty relationship.
Whether the student consents to the involvement or whether the professor ever intends to
use his power against her is not the point. The issue is that the power and the role
disparity always exist, making it virtually impossible for the student to act as freely as
she would with a male peer. (p. 74)


Dziech and Weiner conclude, “People who promote the consenting adult myth seldom mention that true consent demands full equality and full disclosure” (75).



Can a Student “Consent” to a Sexual Relationship with a Professor? (Part 3)

Posted on September 23, 2014 Written by Cynthia Lewis


David Archard’s concept of term “exploited consent” speaks to this matter. The term refers to consent predicated on the very imbalance of power between a professional and a client, patient, or student. That is, “exploited consent” is consent given by a person of lesser power or status to someone with more power or status because of that person’s greater power or status. In Archard’s words, “A pupil sleeps with her teacher or patient with her therapist because he is her teacher or therapist. She would be most unlikely to do so if he was not in this position” (qtd. in Leslie Francis, Sexual Harassment as an Ethical Issue in Academic Life, 216-17; originally published as “Exploited Consent,” Journal of Social Philosophy 25 (1994): 92-101.)


Discussing the degree to which a “client”—in this case, a student—may be harmed or exploited in a relationship characterized by asymmetrical power, Archard comments, “The literature on sexuality within the context of work and professional organizations is very thin. If, however, one takes sexual relationships within the context of professional education, what studies there have been suggest that the vast majority of students who enter into affairs with their lecturers suffer as a consequence. They do not subsequently report that they were glad to have had the experience. Quite the contrary.”


What may appear consensual at one moment may, later, reappear as the unfair advantage of one person over another.  What students often lack, as those of us who teach them understand, is perspective. The perspective of a student who worships at a professor’s altar or who just thinks that dating a professor would be cool is likely to shift radically when the professor and the amorous involvement are exposed to the harsh light of time.


Filed Under: Sexual Harassment Project


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Why Don’t Students Report Professors’ Sexual Harassment or Assault?

Posted on November 9, 2014 Written by Cynthia Lewis


Student-on-student sexual assault has been much in the news lately, and one recurring theme has been its under-reporting. Blowing the whistle on a peer is scary for a number of reasons, including the fear of having to continue seeing the abuser on campus, the threat of retribution, and the possibility that the accused won’t be found culpable, leaving the person who reported the assault swinging in the wind—embarrassed and possibly vulnerable to bullying or repeat assault.


At my home institution, Davidson College, three undergraduate women who reported being raped in the fall by acquaintances have all recently declined to submit criminal complaints. Covering the story, the Charlotte Observer cited Campus Police Chief Todd Sigler, who said that most women avoid criminal trials for two reasons: the length of time involved in getting a conviction and the fear of public exposure during court proceedings.


Take that fear, multiply by, say, twenty, and you may come close to a student’s fear of exposing a sexual entanglement with a professor. What’s more, the fear of exposure isn’t limited to what the student may be revealing about herself; it may well derive far more from sullying a professor’s reputation, a daunting prospect in an environment where faculty reign supreme. If the faculty member is married or in a domestic partnership, the stakes climb higher. If the professor has children, how much more reluctant is a student to register a complaint?


The tradition of professorial privilege in and of itself discourages a student from reporting an incident, lest the teacher be believed purely because of her position, and the student, in a less powerful role, be thought untruthful. Maybe the student hasn’t gotten the grade he wanted; maybe he’s retaliating against a professor who claims the student is obsessed with her and doesn’t reciprocate his attentions. In Shakespeare’s thorny play Measure for Measure, a young, naïve novice nun is shocked when a governor offers to spare her imprisoned brother’s life if she sleeps with him. When she threatens to expose him, he responds, “Who will believe thee?” After all, he’s the ruler with the sterling reputation; any one accusing him of sexual misconduct will automatically be thought mad.


Here is one of several places where the question of why students are reluctant to report abuse intersects with the issue of consent. By definition, a student has less authority—and therefore less power—than a professor. That power differential skews not just personal relationships—making consent difficult, if not impossible, for a student to grant—but also the system through which the maligned should be able to receive justice. A less powerful person’s version of events is less likely to be believed than the more powerful person’s. And the more powerful person is also likely to be backed up by an exponentially more powerful institution.



Why Don’t Students Report Professors’ Sexual Harassment or Assault? (Part 3)

Posted on November 26, 2014 Written by Cynthia Lewis


The most obvious answer to this question would be that the student has been actively intimidated by the faculty member, most probably with the threat of receiving a low grade or evaluation. This sort of scenario does occur: either sleep with me or fail the class. If the student is already worried about the difficulty of the class and her performance in it, this incentive could be strong.


But a far more prevalent situation dissuading a student from reporting assault or harassment is likely: the student feels she owes so much to the professor for teaching her, opening doors for her, and supporting her that, if and when she’s taken advantage of, she feels torn between gratitude to the professor and pain over having been betrayed. She may think to herself that she can move past this incident and avoid confronting the difficulty it presents. After all, she may reason, she’s about to graduate and won’t be around for long; in a matter of months, she’ll forget about it completely. He hasn’t ever made her feel beholden to him for offering his help in behalf of her academic career, so she can’t accuse him of being merely self-interested. Besides, she may need a recommendation from this person in the future; better not complicate the relationship and jeopardize her chances of acceptance to a program based on a missing or bad reference letter.


In such a scenario, the professor very likely understands that the student feels obligated to him and is exploiting her feelings of indebtedness, loyalty, and thankfulness. It’s part and parcel of his modus operandi. In many cases, moreover, the professor may well have been grooming the student unawares. Each and every one of those seemingly discrete, individual acts of kindness and support have contributed to pursuing a larger plan, the fulfillment of which constitutes a waiting game. It’s the equivalent of a hunt, and that makes the professor a predator.


What’s the goal? First and foremost, power, domination. This person’s urge to control may be enhanced by feelings of inadequacy in his private life or his job. Academe is intensely competitive, and the professoriate is riddled with subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) stabs and jabs among colleagues jockeying for what power they can grasp in an environment that offers little. Perhaps, in fact, the general lack of distinction a professor senses about himself motivates him—the teacher who, to an undergraduate, enjoys such stature may, to the same teacher’s colleagues, seem unimportant, a nobody. Another variation on the power-hungry abuser is the narcissistic professor who lacks neither confidence, admiration, nor accomplishment, but who simply can’t get enough of being worshipped and of sensing his influence over someone weaker. His impressive credentials, he believes, entitle him.


As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog (“Sexual Harassment: a Spectrum”), the professor who lies in waiting to make the kill, all along conveying concern for the student’s well-being, is the most reprehensible of all: male or female, that professor uses the unsuspecting student’s trust against the student. That’s inhumane and contrary to the ideals of the academy.


Filed Under: Sexual Harassment Project


Why Don’t Students Report Professors’ Sexual Harassment of Assault? (Part 4)

Posted on December 7, 2014 Written by Cynthia Lewis


Here is a spine-chilling statistic, lately published in an op-ed piece for the New York Times by Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld: “only 5 percent or less” of college women who have been sexually assaulted report the incident to police.  That’s in contrast to the approximately 35 per cent of sexual assaults and rapes reported to the police nationwide, a statistic that’s nevertheless disturbingly low. Rubenfeld, who has come under attack for his analysis of “consent” and of the role alcohol plays in sexual assaults on campus, cites “low arrest and conviction rates, lack of confidentiality, and fear they won’t be believed” as the main reasons women choose not to pursue criminal charges. These deterrents to reporting recall Davidson College Police Chief Todd Sigler’s analysis, cited in the first of the four posts on this blog about this question (9 Nov. 2014). Very probably, instances in which students have been harassed or assaulted by professors and college staff are even less frequently reported. Another reason for such low reporting and complaint rates is campus culture, both student culture and faculty culture.


As to the former, peer pressure is powerful. The whistle-blower runs the risk of being ostracized as a snitch and a wimp. Students are likely to think of sexual assault as something that happens every day, something in the natural course of events at college—unpleasant, but unavoidable. The sooner a student sets it aside, she may reason, the likelier she will remain integrated in the social scene. Pressing criminal charges can make the victim appear vindictive and petty, hung up on rules and full of herself. No matter that none of those fears are true; they have the force of truth because they appear true. In the case of lodging a complaint against a professor, the student must take on not just the social establishment, but, in effect, the entire, monolithic academy. In reality, how many students have the heart and stomach for that prospect?


As to faculty culture, at least two obstacles apply. One is the closing of ranks around a fellow professor whose claim to academic freedom may be perceived as threatened. How dare a mere undergraduate or graduate student question the behavior of a faculty member? What does a student really know or understand about how a distinguished member of the academy does or should operate? The other obstacle is reluctance to turn on a colleague. I’m aware at my own institution of faculty who are bothered by the behavior of some of their co-workers, but who hesitate to say anything; even after they’ve broached the subject with a representative in the personnel department, they may back off. Like students, they don’t want to be the ones to get their peers in trouble, and they don’t want to be revealed as ratting someone out.


Emphasis on bystander intervention has recently been held up as an effective means of curbing student-on-student assault. Faculty have a similar opportunity and obligation to intervene on behalf of a student whom they know to be abused.


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Definitions: Distinguishing Sexual Abuse from Sexual Harassment

Accordingly, it is helpful from the outset to understand the distinction between sexual harassment and sexual abuse. Sexual harassment is a legal concept with its origins in federal sex discrimination law.  In 1980, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) produced a set of guidelines for defining and enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the primary federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace.  (In1984, Title VII was expanded to expressly include educational institutions).  In these guidelines, the EEOC defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when: Submission to such conduct was made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment; Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual was used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.” The EEOC definition of sexual harassment has largely been adopted and applied to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded educational institutions, and also encompasses sexual harassment.  Sexual harassment can be summarized as unwanted, severe, or pervasive sexual advances that create a hostile or abusive educational or employment environment. 


By contrast, in the context of college athletics, the definition of sexual abuse does not depend on any showing that a sexual relationship was unwelcome; it may include, but is not limited to, conduct that is sexual harassment (as where the athlete did not welcome a sexual relationship with the coach).  Sexual abuse includes amorous or sexual relationships between a coach or other supervisory staff and student-athletes, even when these relationships are perceived by both parties to be consensual.  Amorous or sexual relationships can be defined as any relationship that includes sexual touching, talking, or flirting; engaging in any form of sex; or otherwise developing a private, personal relationship that goes beyond the context of a staff and student professional relationship.


Unlike sexual harassment, which is demonstrably unwelcome, sexual abuse often involves a slow seduction (or “grooming”) whereby one person gradually prepares another to accept “special” attention, and then proceeds with sexual activity.  The term sexual abuse is often used in reference to sexual activity between an adult and a minor, but adults can also sexually abuse other adults in contexts where one adult holds power over another.


When sexual abuse involves minors, the public generally deems this heinous behavior because the perpetrator has used his or her position of trust (usually he or she is an acquaintance or family member) to take advantage of, and sexually violate, an innocent child.  The public understands that children can be manipulated into “agreeing” to behaviors that are inappropriate and even criminal because they are, relative to adults, powerless. In the context of sports programs within institutions of higher learning, sexual abuse can occur regardless of the minor/adult status of the student-athlete, and regardless of the age difference between the perpetrator and victims.  Whether the student-athlete is 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, or older, she or he is significantly less powerful than a head coach, assistant coach, athletics trainer, sport psychologist, athletics director, or other athletics department staff with supervisory control or authority over student-athletes. 


It is this power differential that makes such relationships inherently unequal, and when relationships are unequal, the concept of “mutual consent” becomes problematic. Because of this power differential, any amorous or sexual relationship between coaches and student-athletes constitutes sexual abuse.  In other words, the dynamics of the coach-athlete relationship in intercollegiate sport make any sexual contact between a coach and an athlete abusive, regardless of whether it was wanted by the athlete and regardless of whether the athlete is over the age of consent.2


This is a violation of professional boundaries, and a violation of trust. Historically, most universities have not definitively prohibited such behavior. That lack of institutional boundary setting has allowed coaches with bad boundaries to continue taking advantage of young, vulnerable student athletes. We use the phrase “coaches with bad boundaries” deliberately. 


Coaches and other supervisory athletics department personnel who engage in romantic and sexual relationships with student-athletes are not necessarily pedophiles.  They are not necessarily attracted to children, or incorrigible, or uncontrollably driven to have sex with inappropriate partners.  Often they are married men who are flattered by the admiration of young women—and make irresponsible decisions about how to handle the strong feelings that can naturally develop among any people who work closely together. When a powerful coach, athletics director, or trainer pays special attention to them, student-athletes may develop a “crush” on that authority figure, and may eventually crave or even solicit the exact behavior that this policy prohibits.  Coaches on the receiving end of such crushes and vulnerable themselves to flattery and sexual desire can, if they’re not careful, allow mutual admiration or their own loneliness or insecurity to give way to flirtation, seduction, and sex, which can and often does have a devastating effect on student-athletes and their teammates. In other words, coaches are human beings who make mistakes.


These mistakes rise to the level of sexual abuse, but these people are not engaging in criminal assault.  They do not intend to inflict harm.  They are selfish, probably, and insensitive about the consequences of their actions, but they do not think of themselves as sexual abusers.  Still, sexual abuse is the appropriate term for this behavior. In the sporting context, sexual abuse takes the form of a complicated dynamic between two adults, more subtle and problematic than the simple “unwelcome sexual attention” of sexual harassment and less obviously wrong than sexual abuse of children.  The parties involved often feel, along with titillation and infatuation, a significant amount of guilt, shame, confusion, and fear of exposure. Regardless of the strength of the affectionate bond or sexual attraction, coaches should not have romantic or sexual relationships with student-athletes.  The role of this model policy is to educate everyone involved (or, preferably, not involved) in such relationships and to establish institutional boundaries that will facilitate better personal and professional boundary-setting on the part of coaches and other athletics department personnel.


Why Sexual Abuse Injures Student-Athletes and Teams


A few examples of collegiate coach-athlete abuse from newspaper accounts and personal interviews demonstrate what form these relationships take, and begin to indicate how damaging they can become: A track coach spent the night with an athlete in an abandoned house he owned, then, when confronted, justified this as “an all-night counseling session.” A basketball coach demanded sexual favors in exchange for playing time. A baseball coach jumped off a bridge and drowned after being served with five felony warrants stemming from a sexual relationship with a male student. A coach seduced an athlete from another college team at a hotel during a road trip. A male coach tried to seduce lesbian players to “straighten them out.” A molested swimmer committed suicide. A volleyball player, sexually abused by her high school coach, moved away to college, only to have the high school coach join her college volleyball staff as a volunteer assistant and eventually a paid staff member.  The relationship continued until the young woman’s teammates confronted the coach with evidence of love letters between the two of them, and the coach finally resigned “for personal reasons.”  Like many coaches in this sort of situation, he was promptly hired by another university. A runner, sexually abused by her track coach in high school, moved away from home to college, only to have him pursue her and try to continue the relationship.  When she refused, he beat and raped her.  She reported him to her parents and the high school, but not to the police—because a college roommate had been raped earlier that year, and the runner had had to testify, and she saw what a grueling, invasive ordeal a rape trial is. At one major university, a swimming coach married a player, divorced her, and then resigned.  He was replaced by a coach who was also asked to resign after having an affair with a swimmer.


What happens when a coach and student-athlete “get involved,” “begin dating,” or “have an affair”? There are three main consequences: The student-athlete gets distracted.  Her focus shifts from herself, her goals, her team, and her education to her relationship with her coach.  When will they manage another secret liaison?  Do any teammates suspect?  Is he having other affairs too?  Will he leave his wife, if he has one?  Will they get married some day?  Rather than concentrate on her own athletics and academic progress, she concentrates on her attractiveness to the coach.  Rather than concentrate on upcoming competitions, she wonders what the hotel sleeping arrangements will be.  When listening to his advice, she gets distracted by the color of his eyes.  When criticized, she wonders if he will withdraw his “love.”  Ordered to protect his secret, she becomes alienated from her teammates and parents. The team gets suspicious.  Teammates often intuit that something is going on.  They notice the slight shift in the tone of voice when the student-athlete talks about the coach; they observe the meaningful looks between the two of them; they see or hear about suspicious behavior: long “backrubs” or “conversations” in the coach’s hotel room with the door shut; the coach and athlete riding alone together in a car; or other behavior that seems just odd enough to unsettle the teammates, and hence the team.  


Suspecting or discovering a coach-athlete romantic relationship, teammates experience a range of emotions from envy to anger to betrayal.  “It’s almost a death knell for the team,” says pioneering sports psychologist psychologist Bruce Ogilvie.3 The student-athlete gets hurt.  Psychiatrist Peter Rutter writes in Sex in the Forbidden Zone, “A man in [a] position of trust and authority becomes unavoidably a parent figure and is charged with the ethical responsibilities of the parenting role. Violations of these boundaries are, psychologically speaking, not only rapes but also acts of incest.”   Once victimized, the young woman “is likely to adapt to the victim role,” writes Rutter, “repeating it in other relationships, each time losing more of her self-respect and enthusiasm for life.”4 


Too afraid of the authority figures to become angry, she instead suffers from depression, fear, anxiety, shame, and overwhelming guilt. Ogilvie, who has been called the father of sport psychology, likens the coach to “a substitute father” who has “no right to intrude on young women his own unfulfilled sexual fantasies.  The athlete wants a parent, but gets a lover. It’s terribly confusing.”  According to Ogilvie, it’s the coach’s responsibility to “help the girl grow and make her own decisions.  He must not allow sexual feelings to be expressed.” What if the man and young woman both insist that it’s true love?  If a student-athlete “falls in love with” a coach, and the coach similarly has strong feelings for a student-athlete, why shouldn’t they act on those feelings?  “I hate to be a judgmental old bastard but I hold that relationship as suspect as hell,” said Ogilvie.


A member of the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics points out an additional problem with such relationships: “When a coach enters into a sexual relationship with a player he/she is essentially abdicating his/ her role as an educator. A romantic/sexual relationships renders the coach unable to deliver effective educational messages, challenge the student-athlete in an educational manner, and simply be able to act as an educator — a role that is particularly intrinsic in a college coach or administrator’s job. For instance, how could you expect a coach who is romantically involved with a player to give the student-athlete appropriate guidance about issues such as academic integrity, roommate conflicts, misconduct, or other situations that demand the guidance of an impartial educator? The coach is employed by an institution of higher learning and consequently is expected (maybe both explicitly and implicitly) to be an educator first and foremost. Participating in a relationship with a student-athlete denies that opportunity for both (and perhaps even all members of the team or other student-athletes).” Institutions of higher learning cannot prevent people from falling in love.  They cannot prevent people from feeling sexually attracted to other people.  But coach-athlete sexual or amorous relationships constitute abusive and unethical behavior, and are harmful to the individual and the team.  Institutions of higher learning must commit themselves to preventing it.




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How Sexual Abuse Happens and How It Harms


Any analysis of sexual abuse should begin with this observation: Human desires for affection, love, power, and sex are natural—and strong.  A brief glance at literature, film, and political scandals offers ample evidence that these potent human desires often override rational thought and even common sense.  Like other human beings, athletics department staff and the student-athletes they serve are human beings first, with all the frailties that accompany the human condition. Staff and student-athletes also inhabit a culture and certain conditions that are conducive to sexual abuse. 


So how do romantic and sexual relationships between staff and students develop?  Intense Time Together Student-athletes spend a huge amount of time –sometimes as much as thirty hours per week—in the gym, in the pool, in the weight room, on the field, or on the track. That is more time than a student will likely spend with any professor or friend. During this time, the coach scrutinizes the student-athlete’s body: the shape of it, the speed of it, the skill of it.  If, as a swimmer, she wears a new suit, he notices its cut, calculating its drag in the water.  If, as a gymnast, she starts to fall, he catches her.  If, as a runner, she develops a cramp, he may massage her foot, calf, or thigh.  If her weight goes from 123 to 126, he will notice, and may ask her to lose three pounds. When she makes a mistake he might scream at her: “What in the world were you thinking?”  When she succeeds, he might offer praise.  Or he might withhold praise.  Before a competition he might say, “You can do it.”  Or he might say (inappropriately), “Do it for me.” Traveling to away games, coaches and student-athletes spend many nights in hotels and find themselves eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner with their athletes rather than with peers. 


Often coaches have little time for peer relationships, meeting many of their social needs through their student-athletes. As student-athletes train, succeed, and fail, coaches are right there by their side, sharing their passion and pain, drama and dreams.  “That’s almost the definition of falling in love,” said one swimming association executive in an interview.  “Any coach who tells you he hasn’t fallen in love with an athlete, or had an athlete fall in love with him, is lying.”  The nature of competitive sport provides many opportunities for escalating intimacy between a coach and an athlete.  Coaching may properly involve hands-on touching.  For the student-athlete who is accustomed to some physical contact with a coach, it can be difficult to discern when physical contact moves from proper sport related touching and into a sexual realm—and even more difficult to say no.  Sport provides ample opportunities for time with the coach in isolation from a student-athlete’s social support network, enabling the coach to intensify the relationship. 


Research has identified a number of locations with a high risk of sexual advances by a coach, where coaches take advantage of the athlete’s isolation from others, including: at away-games; while giving a massage; while an athlete is alone in a car with the coach; and while an athletes, especially at elite levels of sport, creates opportunities for escalating intimacy.  The introduction of sexuality into the relationship is typically gradual, making it less likely to trigger resistance or even be noticed as a progression.2


The Crush

What is a coach-athlete seduction like from a young woman’s perspective?  Consider this: Powerful men make a big impression on young women. When the athlete is a young woman and the coach is an older and more accomplished man; when she has physical goals that extend beyond beauty and toward strength; when she is more fascinated by her own bulging muscles than by those of her male peers; when she loves sports and her own athleticism with a passion she can barely contain, an older man’s approval means everything.  It confirms her rejection of traditional feminine passivity, and what author Naomi Wolf called the beauty myth.  It confirms her sexual attractiveness.  It confirms her desire for power, and her right to it. The young woman’s gratitude for the man’s attention and encouragement is often conceptualized in the only paradigm the culture has given her:


A Huge Crush

She adores this man: her coach, teacher, and mentor.  She admires his every move.  She endeavors to please him, for pleasing him, she hopes, will lead to success in her chosen field of dreams.  To please him is to acquire assurance that her strong body and strong ambitions really are okay.  She yearns to bring him close to her.  The closer she can bring him, the more powerful and privileged she will feel. If the coach has read and signed a policy prohibiting coach-athlete sexual or romantic relationships, and if he has received training on setting appropriate boundaries in coach-athlete relationships, he will not act to exploit the young woman’s crush.  He will continue to nurture her physical, social, and emotional development.  His admiration of her youth and beauty will remain private, irrelevant to the task of coaching.  Her crush will subside, and she will develop an enduring appreciation and respect for her mentor. If, on the other hand, he has not encountered any training or any institutional barriers, he may interpret the fondness and excitement between them as irresistible sexual attraction or romantic love.  He may rationalize that she is a consenting adult, or at least mature for her age. He may even find support for this view from his peers, some of whom have also seduced young athletes or even married them.  He may find a willingness among his peers to look the other way.



Which Athletes are Particularly Vulnerable?

Vigilant athletics administrators and student-athletes will want to pay particular attention to ensure that those coaches who are most likely to abuse athletes are unable to do so, and that those athletes who are the most vulnerable to sexual abuse are protected.  For instance, athletes whose self-esteem is intertwined with their athletics identity are especially vulnerable.  So are those who crave older-male approval or attention.  Fear of losing a “father figure” can make athletes slow to recognize when boundaries have been crossed, and resistant to seeing the coach as acting inappropriately.6 


Which other athletes are most vulnerable to sexual abuse? Those who... Like the coach Feel attracted to the coach Seek validation from the coach Have low self-esteem Have been sexually abused in the past Feel insecure about their position on the team Crave approval from men or authority figures Unfortunately, many if not all young women qualify as vulnerable according to some or all of these measures. In other words, without institutional safeguards, anyone can be vulnerable.



Coaching Control, Styles, and Expectations

 At the elite level of intercollegiate athletics, coaches have power over student-athletes’ lives far exceeding the mechanics of practicing and competing in a sport.  A coach’s power over athletes can extend to virtually all aspects of the student-athlete’s life, in such ways that clear boundaries are hard to delineate.  This near total control is rarely questioned.9  It is especially emblematic of coach-athlete relationships in sport cultures that place a premium on winning over other values, such that the team culture encourages sacrificing the liberty and autonomy of the individual for the good of the team (with “good” defined as winning).10  In such a relationship, the student-athlete may not readily perceive when appropriate boundaries have been crossed, much less have the fortitude to protest a coach’s overreaching.11 In the most tangible terms, the student-athlete depends on the coach for: a place on the roster; playing time; training and skills-building opportunities; visibility and references that can lead to professional opportunities; and, in Division I and II programs, scholarships that can mean the difference between being able to afford a college education or not.12  In exercising this power, the coach commonly exerts broad control over a student athlete’s life, including in such areas as physical fitness, diet, weight, sleep patterns, academic habits, and social life.13 


For intercollegiate athletes, the magnitude of the coach’s control will likely exceed that of any other single individual at that student-athlete’s institution.  For many, it will exceed the extent of control any individual has ever had over them at any point in their lives, with the exception of their parents. Canadian sociologist Helen Lenskyj has noted that many young athletes have less experience with romantic relationships than peers of their age because sport has been so central to their lives.14  Lacking experience to give them perspective and understanding, and with weak social networks outside sport, these athletes are ill prepared to negotiate romantic overtures from their coach. For all these reasons, the coach’s status and power loom large in the student-athlete’s life.  So much so that, as Celia Brackenridge explains, “to the young athlete, the coach is a kind of god and that godlike status can easily spill over into abusive relationships.”15  Even without intimidation or coercion, the coach is well positioned to take advantage of the student-athlete’s vulnerability in developing a sexual relationship.16  The student-athlete’s dependence on the coach makes it enormously difficult for the athlete to control the boundaries of the relationship or speak up to a coach who oversteps.17 The extent of control exerted by coaches over athletes in elite levels of sports is likely the reason why the risk of sexual abuse in sport has been found to increase as the level of athletics competition advances.  It is the higher levels of sport where the coach exerts the most control over widest areas of the athlete’s life. 


A similar phenomenon has been found in the workplace.  The risk of sexual harassment at work increases in workplaces where the distinction is blurred between the private and public lives of employees. Because most coaches are men, men set the norms for coaching behavior in sports.  Male coaches have a presumptive authority and legitimacy that contributes to the power imbalance in the coach-athlete relationship, laying the ground rules for allegiance to whatever the coach demands.18  A coach who requires unquestioning submission to his authority, and who exercises near total control over athletes’ lives, has (deliberately or inadvertently) laid the groundwork for sexual abuse.19 


According to Brackenridge, having a male coach with an authoritarian coaching style is a risk factor for coach-athlete sexual abuse.20  The very language of sport reflects a dependent relationship.  Student-athletes will say they run or swim or play basketball “for Coach Jones.”  That is, not for themselves, but for the coach.  In the habit of submitting to numerous daily demands, the athlete who is asked for sex—even if she does not feel infatuated or interested—may feel unable to say no to her all-powerful coach.  She might even come to believe that if the coach says it’s okay, it must be okay. The distinctive features of the coach-athlete relationship should call into question whether it is possible for an athlete to freely consent to a sexual relationship with the coach.  The potential for either the appearance or reality of a quid pro quo relationship in which some aspect of the athlete’s athletics opportunity depends on her intimate relationship with the coach is virtually unavoidable.21  What if she were to say no?  How would the coach react?  Could she keep playing for that person?  If not, would she have to quit the sport?  Would her scholarship transfer elsewhere?  Is she willing to risk leaving her friends and teammates at her current institution?  An athlete would probably review some of these considerations before responding to a coach’s advances.  At the extreme, “rejection of their coach’s sexual overtures could well mean the end of a young woman’s athletics career,” notes Lenskyj.22 In an educational setting, the primary concern should always be for the well-being of the student-athlete. Coach-athlete intimate relationships jeopardize athlete well-being.23  They also interfere with the sport experiences of the student-athlete’s teammates.  Surveys of student-athletes find high percentages who say that sexual advances by a coach would interfere with their own ability and with the ability of their teammates to compete successfully in their sport.24  Student-athletes who become involved in sexual relationships with a coach are often unable to get out of the relationship when they want to, and face a choice between continuing an unwanted relationship and jeopardizing their opportunities in sport.25



A Question of Ethics: Analogizing to Ethical Codes of Conduct in Other Professions

A coach—or other athletics department staff member with supervisory or significant control over the athlete—who enters into a sexual relationship with a student-athlete engages in a breach of trust that exploits the student-athlete’s vulnerability in the relationship.  Because of the inherent asymmetry of power in the coach-athlete relationship, commentators who study the ethics of coaching have long argued for an ethics based approach, one that avoids the dangers of “dual relationships” in which the coach, in addition to serving in a professional role, also tries to be a friend or paramour to the athlete. 1  


In thinking about the proper contours of this relationship, it is helpful to consider how other professions have grappled with issues of power and dependency in relationships of trust. In many professional settings involving asymmetrical relationships, sexual relationships are forbidden as a matter of the ethics of the professional and the wellbeing of people in their care.  Such prohibitions apply regardless of consent, in recognition of the inherently problematic nature of consent in such relationships.  Examples abound.  Lawyers are forbidden from entering into sexual relationships with clients.2  Doctors and therapists are forbidden from having sex with their patients.3   Judges are forbidden from entering into any kind of relationship with a party or lawyer appearing before them that would create an actual or perceived conflict of interest, including any kind of sexual relationship with such person.4  While clergy are not governed by any one uniform code of ethics, it is widely understood that it is unethical for a clergy member to use his or her position in the church to enter into a sexual relationship with a parishioner.5 All of these examples involve relationships that are too fraught with power imbalances for consent to be meaningfully and reliably given.  While being a coach is, in many respects, different from other professions, it shares the defining features that make consent to enter into a sexual relationship inherently problematic.6 


At the core of the coach-athlete relationship is a duty of care and an imbalance of power.  In many respects, the relationship of dependence is even more acute here than it is in these other settings due to the breadth of control that the coach has over the life and education of the student-athlete.  Like other professional settings marked by an imbalance in power and expertise, coupled with great vulnerability and dependence, the ethical standards governing coaches should be designed to safeguard the well-being of persons in their care.  This is particularly true for athletics programs in the university context, where the athletes are also students under the care of an institution of higher learning.  In light of the impossibility of meaningful consent to sex within the coach-athlete relationship, it should be recognized as an ethical imperative that coaches should not become sexually or romantically involved with a student-athlete. Even beyond the issue of consent, “dual relationships” are inherently problematic.  It’s unrealistic to ask a college student to give her full attention and respect to a coach who may, that morning, have left his towel on her bathroom floor.  It is distracting for a college student when the man she loves—and who claims to love her—also has intense, meaningful relationships with her eleven teammates.  It’s confusing for a college student to be in an intimate relationship with someone who has the authority to insist that she keep doing wind sprints, or who denies her the opportunity to play in a game when she desperately want to.  It is hard enough to be coached.  We must not expect college students to complicate that relationship with the vagaries of intimacy and sex




To Report or Not Report


Sexual assaults are rarely reported. In fact, sexual assault remains the most drastically underreported crime in the U.S.  In college, fewer than 5% of completed or attempted rapes are reported to the police. Reporting rates are low for a variety of reasons. A survivor may be uncertain whether what happened was actually sexual assault. Sexual assaults that are committed by acquaintances are often trivialized as “not so bad” because it does not fit the common social understanding of sexual assault. Survivors may think they won’t be believed or may even be blamed by police, courts, and friends. Many victims/survivors find an immediate coping strategy in indulging in the denial that the assault ever occurred in the first place. Without the acknowledgement of the sexual assault, they find temporary relief from their experiences. However, this relief will not last, and will most likely affect their healing in the future. Also, if the assailant was an intimate partner or close friend, victims/survivors may feel torn between their personal violation from the experience and their love for the assailant. They do not want to get their loved one in trouble. Especially in these cases, victims/survivors may feel that they are to blame for the assault, and therefore do not feel validated or entitled to making a report.


Decide if you want to make a police report. If there is even a chance that you might want to report, preserve all evidence. Do not shower, urinate, change clothes (including undergarments), brush teeth, bathe, douche, or straighten up the area until the medical and legal evidence has been collected. If you choose to change clothes, place the clothes you were wearing in a paper bag (to preserve evidence) and bring it with you to the nearest hospital or law enforcement agency. If you chose to urinate, do so into a clean glass jar, and bring it with you to the hospital or law enforcement agency.   If you do choose to report, call 911 and go to the hospital to have medical evidence




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