Some Thoughts on Sexual Misconduct in Sports

This is a women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) blog, but there’s a recent story from figure skating that I felt was too important not to comment on. There are lessons from this story that apply everywhere both inside and outside of sports.

To recap: A French pairs figure skater by the name of Morgan Cipres is accused of sending graphic pictures of himself to a 13 year old girl. The incident happened at a time when Cipres was on the verge of appearing at the 2018 Olympics. Cipres won a medal at the 2018 World Championships so he is of high stature within the skating community.

Cipres represents France but trains in Florida. He is coached by a husband and wife duo who are former Olympians. John Zimmerman a 2002 Olympian for the United States and Silvia Fontana a 2002 and 2006 Olympian for Italy. Per an article from USA Today, they are alleged to have:

“tried to keep the family from reporting the alleged incident to authorities by shaming and threatening the girl as Cipres, who then was 26, prepared for the 2018 Winter Olympics.”

There is yet another coach by the name of Vinny Dispenza that is accused of being involved in this incident as well as a second girl involved in this story who USA Today could not reach for comment. There are four things about this story that I would like to address.

High profile scandals have not caused those in a position of power to change their behavior.

One of the more notable aspects of the Larry Nassar scandal was that it happened not long after the Jerry Sandusky (Penn State) scandal. In the aftermath of what was then the most unprecedented and widely covered sexual abuse scandals in American sports history, USA Gymnastics appeared to learn nothing from it. USA Gymnastics had a recent example of how a coverup would only lead to even more damage to both themselves and to the survivors. And yet they engaged in a coverup anyway.

If USA Gymnastics learned nothing from a massive sports scandal, this small collection of figure skating coaches appeared to learn nothing from USA Gymnastics and the Larry Nassar scandal. No matter how close it hits to home, no matter how comparable it is to their situation, officials en masse are not making the connection. Names like Nassar and Sandusky should scare any organization into doing the right thing when they come across an abuse allegation.

And yet we keep seeing cases where people instead try even harder to not get caught. It baffles me how Steve Penny could think a coverup was a good idea and not see the immediate connection to the Sandusky scandal. It baffles me again how these skating coaches could not see the immediate connection to the Nassar scandal and what they were doing. If the Nassar scandal can’t get the other Olympic sports to get serious about sexual abuse, what will?

The power of the #MeToo movement.

The person who reported this case specifically cited Ashley Wagner as inspiration. Wagner was an Olympic medalists who came out as a survivor of sexual assault earlier in the year. She specifically cited the success of other survivors as the reason she came forward. In the end, this current case getting exposed was the byproduct of a long lineage of a survivor inspiring another survivor to come forward.

It’s important to highlight this point as a person coming forward is not just helping to reveal the circumstances of their case, but is inspiring others to come forward and reveal completely unrelated cases as well. Those who come forward should be commended not just for their bravery, but for being inspirations to others.

But it is also how these survivors are received by us, the public that is important. The next person debating whether he or she will come forward is watching how the current survivor is being treated. If that survivor is enduring a cruel public reaction, it will discourage the next survivor from coming forward. If the reaction from the public is positive and supporting, the next survivor will be even more encouraged to come forward.

The power of taking action.

But what strikes me the most about this case is that it was effectively dead in its tracks. From USA Today:

“The girl and her parents allege Zimmerman and Fontana intimidated the girl for several weeks, telling her that she was at fault for receiving the pictures because she was a “pretty girl and men have their needs,” that no one would believe her and that she would be shamed on social media, particularly in France, where Cipres is popular.”

Dispenza also allegedly issued a threat. “If I said something, he said I would never skate again,” the girl said.

The police investigated the case but took no action after the girl declined to be interviewed. Instead it was a “friend of the family” who reported the case to SafeSport and that’s what caused it to get traction. In a case where so many people were looking the other way, it took one person willing to do the right thing that made all the difference.

This is the other important takeaway from this story. It needs to be reinforced that if you find yourself in a situation where you become aware of an allegation and are questioning if it has been properly handled, you should report it. With many of these cases when those who should be reporting it aren’t doing their duty, you are the best chance of stopping that predator from abusing again. This case is a classic example of someone disregarding the mentality of “I don’t want to get involved” or “it’s not my business” to great benefit.

In the end a potential predator will be stopped from hurting even more girls. Some high profile names have been linked to this case and watching them suffer the ramifications hopefully will discourage other well established individuals in the Olympic sports from engaging in coverup behavior.

This case is heartbreaking.

The child is in therapy and has clearly been deeply hurt by both the abuse and the coverup. Children in the Olympic sports programs idolize the Olympic-caliber athletes. They see them as heroes. Survivors often deal with stress and additional trauma as they worry about suffering consequences if they report their perpetrator.

To have a girl hurt by someone she likely idolized. To see her not only have to endure the trauma of what comes afterwards, but have people allegedly tell her that all her fears will come true is heartbreaking. They did this to a child. The calming reassurance of an adult figure has a massive impact on the mental progression of someone at that age. Imagine the impact to a child when an adult does the exact opposite of that?

All in the name of not ruining the Olympic trajectory of an athlete. At no point did anyone think that sexual misconduct involving a 13 year old should automatically disqualify an athlete from being allowed to attend the Olympics. Even if that athlete had the talent of Michael Phelps there is no place for someone with credible allegations of sexual misconduct being allowed participation.

It was upsetting reading this case, but I’m glad the circumstances of the case have been brought to light. It is only when these stories are brought to light that the problem gets exposed and we can take action to prevent it from happening to others.

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