The recent, highly publicized cases of maltreatment of athletes have garnered critical attention by the public at large and stakeholders in sport, alike. For many, these cases threaten popular views that sport contributes in important ways to positive youth development. The growing evidence showing that maltreatment occurs to youth sport participants highlights the need for safe, harm-free sport environments as a fundamental prerequisite for positive developments to be reaped. By unpacking the case study of USA Gymnastics and Dr. Larry Nassar’s abuses in this paper, the authors show that for athlete maltreatment to occur and be sustained across so many victims and so many years, more than a perpetrator is needed. The nature of the environment, from the interpersonal level to organizational policies and societal influences, contributes to the occurrence and perpetuation of athlete maltreatment. Using Bronfenbrenner’s ecological-systems model, the authors argue for a systemic approach to preventing and addressing athlete maltreatment. Recommendations are posed for safeguarding youth athletes and fostering the sporting conditions in which positive youth development can occur.
The authors are with the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada.