Note: The image above does not imply the gymnast featured was a victim of abuse.
The recent New York Times feature piece dedicated to gymnastics coach Maggie Haney—who was suspended for eight years on charges of “severe aggressive behavior” toward her athletes last February—has drawn a lot of criticism from the gymnastics community. Fans were appalled that the Times granted Haney such an important public platform from which to speak out.
I share their criticism.
It seems unfathomable that a convicted abuser should be given the opportunity to share “her side” of the story, as if her version were as valid as the victims’. In cases like this, should there not be one unilateral story? The victims’? The truth?
That an emotional abuser is invited to speak out and share her version of events despite a court ruling against her is revealing of our society’s attitudes towards mental health and toxic sports cultures.
It underscores the extent to which abuse in sport is normalized.
And it is a ringing bell for those of us committed to the improvement of the culture of gymnastics. The existence of the article makes it clear that Haney’s suspension is a good start to change the mentality of the sport but that we still have a long way to go.
The Times piece, I believe, is revealing of four issues that we should continue to reiterate.
First, mental health is as serious as physical health.
The most damaging aspect of the Times piece to me is the underlying assumption that the veracity of allegations of mental abuse can be easily challenged. That emotional abuse victims can be doubted. Imagine the Times granting a convicted sexual abuser, a domestic abuser or a physically violent coach the casual privilege of sharing their side of their story. It would cause an uproar.
That there is not the same outrage when the abuse is emotional demonstrates that mental abuse is still not taken as seriously as physical abuse. It is a damaging issue that goes beyond sports and that undermines all the efforts made to raise awareness about mental health.
Second, abuse is not a matter of opinion.
It is striking the extent to which the people interviewed in the piece—Haney herself, as well as loyal parents and gymnasts—treat abuse as a matter of opinion. The underlying claim is that gymnasts allege abuse because they do not have a hard enough skin.
It is not a question of perspective, though. And it is offensive to say so.
Tough coaching and abuse are not the same thing. The line, unlike what Haney suggests, is not difficult to see. Coaches can and should be demanding without causing long-term physical and mental damage to their athletes. They are the adults. They need to know where to stop. They need to put their athletes’ wellbeing before their own ambitions and gymnasts’ athletic success.
And yes, you can be abusive, as you can be racist, homophobic or sexist, even though you do not mean to. Shrugging off your guilt on the account that “you were not aware” that you were being abusive or that “you cared too much,” whatever that means, is not an excuse.
Third, past abuse does not make present abuse OK.
One of Haney’s main arguments is that what we now call abuse is in fact simply a cultural change. Let us be clear. History may not teach us much about the present or the future, but it certainly reveals one thing: The fact that certain crimes were not regarded as so in the past does not make them acceptable today. Does it even need to be said?
Additionally, in the context of gymnastics, coaches’ belittlement and mistreatment of their gymnasts was never OK. It was abuse, even though it was the norm. And it was abuse, even though coaches were never condemned for it. That coaches are now held accountable for abusive behaviors is not a mere cultural change. We are not talking about changing clothing or hair styles. It is a matter of justice.
Fourth, respect builds champions, too.
My final point concerns the claim, expressed convolutedly in the article, that by treating athletes with respect, coaches will stop building champions. This is simply ridiculous. It is a toxic idea that contributes to the notion that only abusive coaching makes Olympic champions. If a coach is demanding yet respectful of their gymnasts, there is no reason why their athletes should not be successful.
And who is a champion, anyway? I should conclude by reiterating a quite obvious point. Success does not equal winning medals. Of course athletes are competitive and wish to win. But at what cost? Is it more important to win medals than to win in life? Just something to think about.
Article by Talitha Ilacqua
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