A New Paradigm for Consent in Sports

If someone knowingly and willingly chooses to have sex with someone, the sex is consensual. But that doesn’t mean all sexual acts between those two people will forevermore be consensual. It doesn’t mean each partner can stop asking for consent. It doesn’t mean that the use of force is henceforth okay. It doesn’t mean either person can intimidate the other into doing things with their body that are uncomfortable for them. This should be obvious.

Cartoon by Lo Wall

If I’m a participant in a psychology experiment, the principles of informed consent mandate that I have the right and ability to stop participating at any time. Threatening me with accusation, taunting me, or yelling at me should I choose to stop participating would be unethical under the APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct.

In each of these scenarios, a person enters into an agreement that involves their body. In each, we institutionally require the understanding that the agreement is not binding—that we can stop at any time, that each of us has the freedom to respect the truth of how our bodies feel in any given moment, that pressuring another into endangering their body is unacceptable.

The guidelines of consent govern most aspects of our day-to-day lives, even if they are far too often breached. But in sports, it seems, we’ve decided that consent is a one-time parameter; by pursuing a sport at a competitive level, you relinquish some degree of ownership over your body.

How is it, in 2018, perfectly acceptable for coaches to pressure young athletes into risking their physical well-being? I’m not talking about the coach who actually made you run one day at practice. I’m talking about coaches who tell you to “listen to your body” and then routinely ignore athletes with serious injuries, who will challenge your sense of self-worth in front of teammates and role models. I’m talking about being told to “suck it up and keep playing” and then finding out you have a concussion. I’m talking about the NFL covering up years of brain trauma research from profressional and amateur players alike.

I was a competitive gymnast until high school, and I quit when I realized I was no longer comfortable with what I was being asked to do with my body. I can remember images running through my mind of the exact injuries I could sustain if I did something just a little bit wrong. Miss a hand in a handspring series, and I’d land on my head on a wooden beam four feet above the ground. Open up too early from a double back dismount, and I could be paralyzed.

Athletes are often described as “fearless,” but of course I was terrified; I was 11 or 12 and regularly making decisions that involved not life-or-death consequences, but something not far from it. Rather than coming to a conclusion based on my own physical ability, I’d throw skills because I was afraid of my coach’s reaction if I didn’t. I’d be sworn at, told I wasn’t trying hard enough, in front of people who I looked up to. I’d be told to work through pain and then be yelled at if I got an injury. In the years I did gymnastics, I knew seven girls who fractured their backs. 

Here I want to be perfectly clear: this lack of consent is not the same as sexual assault, and I do not mean to equate the two. A young football player who feels pressured, even threatened, to continue playing after a hit to the head is not the same as a child assaulted for years by University of Pensylvania coach Jerry Sandusky; for a young gymnast like myself to feel pressured to perform a dangerous skill is in no way comparable to the experience of U.S. women’s national gymnastics team  being sexually abused by team doctor Larry Nassar. But viewing the two as totally separate obscures the fact that sexual assault is enabled when the laws of consent break down.

Are coaches who don’t listen to injured players responsible for Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar? Absolutely not, but the fact that we consider players’ bodies almost property of their coaches might help explain why the incidents went unreported for so long. While the issue of consent in sports falls less along gendered lines than does sexual harassment, consider a male athlete risking injury because he doesn’t want to be known as weak; there is a fine line between courage and fear, and in sports I think we tend to confuse the latter for the former.

I’m sure a lot of people would tell me that pain is the point of it all, that the beauty of sports is to push yourself beyond your limits. I agree—there’s nothing more empowering than stretching your own abilities, nothing that feels as good as getting stronger. But too often, you’re not pushing yourself. Instead, someone else is pushing you, and you’re going along with it not because you value the end result but for fear of doing otherwise. That’s not consent.

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