By Sahiba Bhatia
On January 24, 2018, the US gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison after he pleaded to seven instances of sexual assault of young gymnasts in his care. Nassar has been accused by 265 female gymnasts who said that Nassar had abused them while pretending to providing medical treatment. The Nassar case has shaken the entire sport universe not just for the vileness of Nassar’s behaviour but also because raises questions about the establishment that has been complicit in his violence. The first documented reports against him were filed in 1997 (see this timeline) and for 20 years officials in Michigan State university, USA gymnastics and elsewhere looked away. Among many heart-breaking stories is that of one gymnast who was told that at 12 she was lying about Nassar and was then forced to apologise to him.
As in many other spheres, girls in competitive sports are vulnerable to people always trusting the word of older men over them. But unlike in some other spheres, girls in sports literally have to trust the safety, development and futures of their bodies to any number of potentially unscrupulous and predatory people. Shockwaves from the Nassar case is still rocking the international sports establishment.
Last week the celebrated sports journalist Sharda Ugra wrote an essay urging Indian woman athletes to ‘call out your Nassars’. She wrote, “If this has happened in the most organised, viable and developed sporting ecosystem in the world around the abuse and exploitation of minors and young girls, we cannot imagine what happens in India.”
We spoke to Ugra, senior editor at ESPN India and ESPNcricinfo, to understand more of the fairly dire picture she paints in her essay.
What major obstacles do women athletes face in India?
Along with the ones that already exist which are related to not having enough competition, proper infrastructure or quality coaching, the other major factor for Indian girls is the very fact that they happen to be girls. Their gender builds up barriers that come up against them like pressure from the family or society who don’t want them to compete and just wish for them to settle down.
A lot of athletes come from a sports background so it’s easy for them as they have encouragement from parents. But that’s not as common as it should be. Like [star hockey player] Rani Rampal had to face a lot of opposition initially. But now the scene in her village has changed. On an average, out of 10 at least 6 to 7 will say that they had a problem trying to just pursue a sport single-mindedly as a career.
Being from a well-off family may have its perks. But obstacles arise when the girls decide to take up a sport professionally and ditch other things like studies and the burden to get married. So, no matter what class they belong to, the real dilemma begins when they want to make the sport their vocation.
How widespread is the problem of sexual misconduct in Indian sporting scene?
I think it is much more widespread than we are willing to acknowledge. If it isn’t there, I’d be very surprised. And what happened in America, which consists of such an advanced sporting culture, just confirmed my belief that this is ongoing in India as well.
Many times women don’t even know how to address an incident, which seems just a bit off to them. A coach teaching them a stroke might casually graze his hand against their leg and they, despite knowing that the move was more-than-just-innocuous, would just be confused on how to address it or whether to even complain about it. A few years ago, a study had been commissioned by the sports committee on discrimination in sports but what happened to it is unknown.
How often do women in sports in India tend to report abuse?
Like I said in my article, they tend to speak up when they are in a group or a team. Formal complaints can be lodged with a lot of collective support.
But it is very, very tough to actually make a single complaint as they fear that the pervasive victim-shaming thing will just kick in automatically. They somehow know in the back of their mind that consequences will be dished out shall be on them, rather than on the people who have committed the horrendous act. Like, MK Kaushik, the coach of the hockey team who was accused of sexual misconduct in 2010, was appointed the position of stopgap coach for the men’s team for four months in 2013. Whereas the girl, who had made the complaint, never played for India again. She was just 20.
Central people who are accused of doing wrong face minimum or no consequences. And the girls, who are usually in their early 20s, just face a grinding halt in their careers.
The sports committees consist largely of men. Why aren’t there more woman members in these?
Because it is not an environment that encourages or welcomes woman into it in any way. Despite the fact that the New Sports Bill states that the committees have to have an even spread of both genders, the inclusion of woman is still minimum. You literally have to shove the bill’s requirements down federations’ throats, telling them ‘meet this requirement!’ But it is really not being pushed through as much as it needs to be.
Without any support, the girls tend to backtrack and maintain their distance from the accused. As they are at the inaugural stage of their careers they can’t afford to invest a lot of time fighting a battle they know they’ll never win.
What authorities should victims of sexual misconduct in sports go to?
I think there shouldn’t be any authorities involved anymore. The girls must straightaway go to the cops. They should record the abuse and report it so that some heavy action can be taken. In the age of Whatsapp and social media, woman should just think like lawyers and record everything. Just bloody record everything, write it down and keep it.
Authorities, with their dismissive answers on how ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘dekh lenge’ and ‘chup rehndo’, will just sideline you by saying that you are a problem for the team. With a definite police involvement, they’ll discern the enormity of the situation and will be shaken up.
Was it particularly the Nassar case that made you write about this issue?
You always wonder in a way that you think that something will come out. And you really aren’t surprised when the news comes out. The Nassar case has brought to light that this happens in the most sustainable and evolved sports market of the world. Can you imagine then what must be happening here, where the power dynamics is five times more?
My theory is that sports officials don’t want a person to succeed beyond a point where they become a star because the moment this happens, the officials will not be given much importance.
How will the involvement of established athletes help?
They can demand redressal in a fair way through their federation and have their own code. And they need to implement this code and make it work. They need to voice with assertiveness that if a coach has done a misdeed, then they’ll not deal with him again.
They need to pressurize federations that they need to see enough punishment vetted out at speed.
You wrote that ‘we often hear of federation officials obsessed with keeping athletes in camps and staying away from personal coaches”. Is choosing a personal coach a safer option then?
It depends on the athlete’s equation with the personal coach. These days you have the choice of sacking him. But then again, it depends on how much confidence the athlete projects.
What do you think are the structural changes that need to be made?
A proper redressal mechanism. It must be the federations’ duty to give athletes who register under their wing, a list of people they can call and complain. It should list down all possible instances. What should be the procedure be when a girl wants to make an anonymous complaint. Athletes still don’t know who they should approach and therefore just end up talking about it to their friends and family.
Also, the most important implementation is that there should be more women officials. With the involvement of women, girls will feel like they are truly being understood as the officials themselves might have faced a similar ordeal in their lives.