Australian sport is heading towards a showdown.
Whatever it has been, it has been a shocking week in which allegations of historic abuse in swimming were revealed by ABC, and in women’s football revealed by News Corp.
But consider what else has happened this year:
It was the report that prompted three former gymnasts to set up their own non-profit association, Athlete Rights Australia, as revealed by ABC Sport earlier this week.
The group will act as an advocate for those who have complaints about sports organizations and will keep an eye on the sports and public organizations that investigate these complaints.
The former gymnasts, Sophie Vivian, Alison Quigley and Min Combers, say they have all had their own experiences of trauma through abuse in sport and have faced the dilemma of how to complain about this abuse and find some form of justice .
The key issue is one that Madeline Groves highlighted this week in an Instagram post in response to allegations of historic sexual abuse in swimming.
How can one trust a sports organization to investigate a complaint when it was the institution that was responsible for hiring the people who committed the alleged abuse?
It took Lisa de Vanna 20 years to come up with a claim that she was assaulted in her time in the young Matildas.
Skeptics often question such time frames.
How common has the refrain been: “They never came to us with their complaint” in the world of sports in recent years.
But experts in the field will tell you that, on average, it can take around 20 years for women and 25 years for men to report sexual abuse.
Even when it’s not a case of sexual abuse, it must definitely take a big leap in faith to complain to an organization you no longer trust.
Trust is the key issue
As Alison Quigley said, “If you’re dealing with an agency that was originally involved in suppressing your voice, and these are the people you want to go to for help, then you’re running into trouble.”
There are other deterrents to coming forward: the massive balance of power for any person taking on a law-abiding sports organization is one.
And other inherent dangers like victim guilt that inevitably come to all who are prepared to stick their necks out.
It is no coincidence that athletes are increasingly going to the media or taking legal action against sports organizations rather than relying on some form of self-regulation.
But change is underway.
Sport Integrity Australia is responsible for overseeing a new complaint handling process for sports organizations in this country.
Football Australia announced this week that they chose it so that athletes in the top A leagues and national teams can make any complaints about “alleged abuse, harassment or bullying”.
Complaints will be dealt with by Sport Integrity Australia and if it decides that there should be a hearing – for conciliation, settlement or arbitration – that will be conducted by the National Sports Tribunal.
What needs to be seen is whether these organizations really work for the welfare of the individual or the sport.
That cynicism comes from experience. Some of Australia’s leading gymnasts, after all, claim to have been abused for decades by government institutions such as the Australian Institute of Sport and the Western Australian Institute of Sport – all paid for with taxpayers’ money.
Nevertheless, state institutions deserve the benefit of the doubt when they lie in a new system.
And sports deserve the benefit of the doubt as they seek to atone for the mistakes of the past.
But both government institutions and sports organizations can be sure that they will be closely monitored.
Yet it is only part of the story.
Although professional athletes will have the opportunity to have their complaints heard, there is still the issue of protecting children in non-elite sports — for this is where the majority of the complaints come from.
We are aware of the complaints that were published this week and this year.
ABC Sport is aware that other cases are currently in the hands of lawyers.
Australian sport is going through an intense period of self-awareness that has long gone.
It’s not a small thing – millions of Australian children play sports for all the right reasons, and it is the responsibility of everyone involved to keep their relationships safe.
If they have reason to complain about bullying, harassment or worse, these victims deserve to be heard with compassion and without being afraid to stand up.
And sports organizations deserve to be judged without fear or favor.