Guest Editorials, Opinion

Men in positions of power must respect women’s boundaries

There has to come a tipping point when sports organizations — or, really, any entity in which men hold power over women — recognize the need for safeguards to protect women from abuse and exploitation. Perhaps just as important is that women’s and girls’ voices be heard when they complain, and that their allegations are thoroughly investigated instead of consistently giving the abusers the benefit of the doubt.

Former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates last Monday released the results of her independent investigation into abuses within the National Women’s Soccer League and the U.S. Soccer Federation. The findings are shocking, for sure. But they’re also frustrating for their consistency with investigations into other entities where abuses against women were allowed to go uncorrected despite persistent complaints.

The U.S. military, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and women’s gymnastics each had their own scandals exposed only when the victims finally recognized that nothing would change unless they mustered the courage to go public and speak out. And, just as occurred in soccer, the pioneers who tried to force change found themselves ignored or, worse, shunned and punished for complaining.

“Our investigation has revealed a league in which abuse and misconduct — verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct — had become systemic, spanning multiple teams, coaches, and victims,” Yates’ 319-page report says. “Abuse in the (National Women’s Soccer League) is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer, beginning in youth leagues, that normalizes verbally abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players.”

 “Players demanded accountability from a league” that didn’t respond, Yates reported.

Hasn’t America heard this before? There were the horrific stories of repeated sexual abuse by doctor Larry Nassar on young female gymnasts. Decadeslong patterns of sexual exploitation in Hollywood started to be dismantled after a few brave women finally came forward, at great personal risk, to expose producer Harvey Weinstein’s habitual abuses. More brave women in the military risked their careers to testify before Congress about abuse and exploitation by military commanders.

In nearly all these cases, the “systemic” part includes those in power repeatedly downplaying or dismissing the allegations. The net effect is to re-victimize the victims by making them feel they were wrong for speaking out and discouraging them to the point that they wound up quitting because they can’t get justice.

Yates’ recommendations, though specific to women’s soccer, are really universal: Ensure abusers aren’t allowed to bounce from employer to employer; ensure the abusers and all who protect them are held accountable; conduct rigorous investigations; establish clear rules and enforceable codes of conduct — and punish the offenders, not the victims.

These should be the minimum standards applied to any organization, enforced with rigor until those with an inclination toward abuse finally get the message.

This editorial first appeared in St. Louis Post-Dispatch last Thursday. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.