Reflecting on sport culture in a world post-Nassar

Melissa D. McCradden argues the sports world could learn a thing or two from bioethics.

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I have been in competitive sports since I could walk – first gymnastics, then diving. I have coached, too. My students ranged from as young as 5 years of age to older adults. But my sport world is in turmoil following the revelations surrounding Larry Nassar, the Olympic team physician who sexually abused hundreds of young female athletes. As a result, a lot of what we thought we ought to value in sport is looking pretty problematic – obedience, suppressing emotions, tolerating pain. I have heard countless coaches lament the good ol’ days when athletes just “did what they were told.” They complain, “now we can’t get them to jump off a 3m diving board!” Athletes protest, they argue, and coaches don’t know how to respond.

But maybe turmoil is a good thing. After listening to the words of the survivors during Nassar’s sentencing hearing, it became clearer than ever that those good ol’ days should remain in the past. Countless gymnasts were told that they needed to listen to everyone other than themselves when their instincts were screaming at them that something was very, very wrong. But why would they listen? Every day in sport when the coach tells you do something, you do it. It doesn’t matter if you’re scared, you just do it.

Why do we think that coaches shouldn’t be questioned? Why do we think that they should not have to explain themselves? Why do we value unquestioning loyalty in an athlete?

Image description: Woman (Melissa D. McCradden) is diving. Her arms and legs are straight, pointing upwards, and her body is bent at the waist.
Photo Credit: Sue Cieslik, Etobicoke Olympics, June 2011.

This obedience model has led to success because it is the only one we’ve had for so long. Someone has to win, and so the winning is believed to be a result of the process. That process, thus far, has been that the coach is the boss and you do what the boss says. And it is hard to part with that kind of power.

To move forward we need to abandon this old model of coaching and athletic development. We need to rid ourselves of the idea that athletes should be “obedient.” The onus should be on coaches to be transparent in why they’re asking for particular skills, practices, and exercises and make sure these requests are consistent with what the athlete wants for their career. Yes, I’m including children here – the medical world has long recognized that capacity does not start at 18 years of age, and child athletes may be more mature than most. They have to balance school, sport, and life in a way that many adults will never know. Yet in sport, we rob them of decision making opportunities that impacts their lives. We tell them to “do what they’re told.”

Why should a coach not have to defend their practices? Sport training has a substantial impact on an athlete’s body, similar to medical treatment. In medical treatments, we ensure that we have attained the threshold for informed consent. We should use a similar model for sport, where the athlete is actively involved in making decisions regarding their training. I’m not saying that every time I tell an athlete to do a particular dive, I make them sign a consent form. But I do think that involving them in defining the goals of the practice session, telling them what dives I want them to do and how they will help them reach their goals, and actively listen if they have objections is a reasonable standard that we can all accommodate.

The entire coaching profession needs to reconsider how they think of coaching – athletes are not forms that are acted upon by the coach. They are not agentless beings incapable of excellence without the coach yelling commands. Athletes and coaches are sharing in athletic practice, and each needs the other to succeed. Coaches are largely kind, caring, and benevolent people trying to bring out the best in their athletes. However, the same is said of doctors – and these qualities have been used to justify paternalism.

While this proposal may not seem particularly consequential, think again about the analogy of healthcare: as a patient, when your doctor prescribes a treatment that impacts your health, do you want to be involved in the decision-making process? Or do you want your doctor to tell you what to do without listening to what you think? There was a time when doctors, similar to coaches, thought that patient non-adherence was such a problem that they ought to avoid disclosing information and simply tell patients what to do. We don’t accept that now, so we shouldn’t accept it in sport.

Aly Raisman demanded that “if we are to believe in change we must first understand the problem and everything that contributed to it.” The culture of sport is a problem – and we should change it.

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Melissa D. McCradden is a postdoctoral fellow at St. Michael’s Hospital and a Bioethics trainee at the University of Toronto. She also serves on the Canadian Delegation of Safeguarding in Sport as the Athlete Representative.