OFF THE PITCH: Keeping Your Club Members Safe

This week’s goalWA.net bi-weekly “Off the Pitch” column by Ruth Nicholson examines sexual and other types of harassment and the three things that are needed to effectively uncover and address it. Ruth is the founder of GO!, a go-to expert resource for youth sports governance and operations.

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by Ruth Nicholson

We have a duty to keep the members of our sporting organizations safe from both internal and external threats. This includes players, coaches, parents, referees, and others with whom our clubs, leagues, and associations work.

How do you protect your members from harassment?

In October 2016, I was involved in a conversation with coaches from a variety of sports about how the rhetoric of the US presidential election was affecting a soccer team of 13 and 14-year-old girls. The question put to the group was how coaches were dealing with the ugly language and attitudes within the US political climate which appeared to be increasingly considered “normal.” One coach commented:

It seems to me that the athletic arena often gets set aside as having its own moral and ethics codes and boundaries. At the same time, most youth sports organizations (state associations, leagues, and clubs) lack the sophistication to have Human Resources departments, much less policies and procedures to support coaches.”

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Most of my practice is focused on supporting youth sports organizations, including youth soccer clubs. Between June and August 2016 alone, over a dozen situations were brought to me from multiple states and provinces in the US and Canada. Some of those included:

  • A female coach reported harassment from an opposing male coach in a game situation. When she reported it, the first question the president of her state association asked her about the incident was: “What were you wearing?”
  • Within weeks of becoming the new director of coaching for a club, the male director was approached by multiple player moms offering sexual liaisons in return for preferential treatment for their children.
  • A female coaching course participant offered to help a male instructor carry gear from the car to the training venue. The male instructor declined the assistance saying, “I wouldn’t want you to break a nail.”
  • A young, male referee working in one of his first games was verbally accosted by parents who disagreed with his calls in a game played by 11-year-old girls.
  • A female coach, tasked with assigning players to teams by her male director of coaching (DoC), was fired after objecting when the DoC substituted his team assignments for hers and told unhappy players and parents that the assignments were hers.
  • When a DoC asked a national sports organization about where to submit a written complaint regarding a sexual harassment allegation, the response from the national staff member was “that is a good question” because there was no process in place to address it.

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Although we may hear more about women being harassed than other kinds of harassment, it can affect any of our members in any role in our sporting organizations. Personally, I have been denied a promotion because I was female (in favor of a male with less experience), as well as lost a job when I rejected the physical advances of a senior male colleague. I know from personal and professional experience that individuals are reluctant to report harassment unless three conditions exist:

  1. A belief that the person(s) to whom you report the incident will take you seriously.
  1. A belief that the person(s) to whom you report the incident will do something about it.
  1. A belief that you will not be punished or retaliated against for filing a complaint.

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Our youth sports organizations need to have clear expectations for behavior, policies for promoting and enforcing that behavior, and a process for filing and fairly investigating complaints to protect both victims and the accused. While most of our clubs, leagues, and associations have disciplinary committees and processes for adjudicating incidents within the game on the field, too many have none for addressing allegations of harassment outside of the game or off the field.

Ask the following questions to assess how well your organization is equipped to deal with harassment:

  • Does your organization have a harassment policy, including one that covers sexual harassment?
  • Does your organization have a process for fairly investigating complaints?
  • Does your organization have the will to impose and enforce meaningful sanctions or penalties when appropriate?

goFor organizations that do not yet have an identified way to address harassment complaints, consider using your existing disciplinary process for game incidents to handle them. This offers an existing forum in which to investigate complaints and the opportunity to adapt the organization’s internal processes to address harassment issues.

Ruth Nicholson is the founder of GO!, On Demand, a 24/7 Resource and Training Library offering youth sports organizations proven leadership and administrative tools. It includes resources to improve club operations and bolster financial health, including risk management. To learn more about GO! resources, click here: GO! On Demand.

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(Photos by David Falk, goalWA.net)

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