Should Men Be Allowed To Coach Teenage Girls In Sport?   By Cheryl Roberts

12 May

A recent conviction of a 75 year old South African male tennis coach rapist should have sent more than shivers through people’s minds, especially parents with tweens and teenage girls in sport. It should also raise the sensitive but necessary questions around coaching and training in sport. Should men be allowed to coach teenage girls in sport?

A one time tennis grand slam doubles champion and tennis champion was brought before court for trial in a case involving rape and assault of girls playing tennis. The tennis coach is South African Bob Hewitt, now aged 75 years old. Although the rape and assaults occurred decades ago, when the tennis players were minors and teenagers, Hewitt was found guilty in 2015.

Just because the tennis coach Bob Hewitt has now been convicted, this doesn’t mean that rape and assault of girls and women has ended. There exists every chance that, just as Hewitt was being announced as a rapist in a court of law, sexual assault and harassment of girls in sport was occurring somewhere in a school, community, town, rural or urban area in South Africa.

Sexual abuse and assault occurs within sports in South Africa and the world over. Most sexual abuse is covered up by sports officials and surprisingly, by the parents of the sports girl; that’s when the sports girl has the courage to inform her parent’s about what happened.

Controlled mainly by men who are not known to be fierce and vocal about anti-sexual harassment of women and girls (by not being fierce and vocal, I’m not saying they support abuse and attacks against girls and women) South African sport’s officialdom doesn’t spotlight anti-sexual campaign as often as it should be done and in ongoing programmes. Releasing a media statement intermittently, here and there is how SA sport responds to abuse and sexual assault in society.

Girls are involved in sport at community, club and school level. Because of the low numbers of women coaches in the sports network, it’s the men coaches who get to coach the teenage girls. Most coaches are dedicated, passionate and encouraging. But amongst them are the negatives like the sexual abusers who prey on the sports girls and attack their young bodies.

South African sport does not engage in conscious programmes aimed at eradicating sexual abuse by male coaches. The men coaches are trusted by parents, school governing bodies, sports federations to assist the teenage and pre-teen girls to develop in sport.

Although it seems as if the coach is coaching from the line, giving instructions, sports also involves close contact. Those of us on the sports field or sports halls often see the male coach having to assist the sports girl when she is injured, being spoken to, or needs consultation and encouragement.

Most parents have never considered sexual abuse of their daughter in sport. ‘The coach is so nice. He does so much for my daughter. It just can’t happen that he will sexually assault her’, are the thoughts of most parents; those that actually think that sexual abuse can occur or doesn’t happen.

Because more convictions haven’t been done, and more male coaches haven’t been found guilty of sexual abuse, it doesn’t mean that tennis coach Bob Hewitt is the only sexual abuser and rapist and is a rare case or that sexual abuse doesn’t really happen. Sexual abuse and rape of sports girls by men coaches does occur in sport.

I’m asking and raising these questions because sexual abuse is frowned upon in sport as something ‘not spoken about, not touched upon’. But it has happened and continues to be done. Victims of sexual abuse in sport, for reasons and choices best known to them, don’t make it public. People may ask how I’m so aware of sexual abuse and where are the facts and statistics. I can say that we are very much aware of sexual abuse. Victims confide in others, people get told about the abuse but are asked to ‘keep it confident’ because the victim isn’t ready to go public. I personally know of a woman still suffering trauma because she was raped by her karate coach. I so want this karate coach to be charged but the woman say she’s ‘not ready to expose him’.

For a start, I’m calling on sports leaders to be bold and decisive. Acknowledge that sexual abuse, sexual harassment and assault do occur in sport; that this abuse and assault can’t be locked away as if it doesn’t happen. Positive responses can and should be initiated. Coaches are to be conscious of what is sexual abuse, must know the boundary line when coaching. Girls in sport are to be informed and conscientised about their bodies in relation to the coach. Additionally, sports girls must be encouraged to be able to know when they are being sexually abused in sport, and to whom they can talk about this.

Parents and guardians must not be afraid to talk about the potential of sexual abuse in sport. Allowing your daughter to go off with the male coach to a sports event may look all innocent, just as leaving your daughter at training with the male coaches may seem okay. But parents must not be naïve to think their daughter/coach relationship is all about sport and nothing else.

I’m sure when the day arrives, when victims can keep it in no longer, victims of sexual abuse in sport over the decades, will find they can no face the trauma alone and will reveal their sexual abuse in sport, when all they wanted was to play sport.

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