Thursday, May 6, 2021

Ugly truths

Exposure of the cases of sexual abuses and harassment by the senior officials of the Sports Authority of India (SAI) of young athletes is just tip of the ice-berg of this nuisance in the country. In fact, reports of such cases of sexual harassment are ignored or not even reported by the survivors for various reasons including those which can impact their career in sports activities. The SAI and other sports organizations under the control of the central and states governments have long been denying the facts that there have been cases of sexual abuse and harassment by their officers of the young athletes. Most of the cases in the past have been swept under the carpet by the senior officials and the sports authorities. In one cases, a pay reduction of Rs 910 per month was the penalty a SAI coach paid after being found guilty of sexual harassment, according to an RTI response sought by a national newspaper. Denying increments for a year was as harsh as it got for a few other offenders, who sexually abused young athletes left in their care and guardianship at residential sports camps that churn out athletes, many of whom go on to represent India. The report in a newspaper about 45 complaints of sexual harassment, most of them against coaches by minor girls, has exposed a disconcerting truth. Sports is not, as it is generally believed to be, just a celebration of exemplary resilience, strong self-belief and feel-good sports stories. It has an ugly side, too. And this is not a case of a few bad apples, but a systemic failure in protecting the country’s hand-picked sporting stars when they were most vulnerable, away from home, dealing with the complications of a transitional age. It is also unfortunate that the sports ministry, under which the SAI functions, cannot escape the blame. It has been found to be too lenient on those who have inflicted life-long psychological trauma on proven match-winners with exemplary athletic prowess and unflinching on-court temperament. These cases also bring into focus the lack of strict security protocols at these year-long camps. Since these are places where offenders are toughest to corner given the sheer nature of physical engagement between the ward and the coach, the SAI needs to be sensitive to such complaints. Things are far from perfect at these sports campuses. While there is a strict code of conduct for players, there are no dos and don’ts for the coaches. Long dragging inquiries and some dodgy acquittals have triggered talk of the SAI being more concerned about its image than the victims. Current provisions of rules and the absence of a central registry that lists such predators means that predatory coaches could be repeating their crimes at other establishments, private schools and academies. The crime and the impunity leads to many athletes staying silent, even giving up on their sporting dreams. It was only in the recent past that most of the young girls and boys withdrew from their sports careers for this reason. Since most girls come from humble backgrounds and they can be easily persuaded or compelled to change their statements or take back their complaints by those ruling the roost in the sports organisations. It has also been found that women coaches, who are charged with the responsibility of taking care of the young girls and boys become complicit in the predatory instincts of the coaches. For many, their future in sports, a way out of poverty, is in the hands of the same coaches who prey on them. This injustice should shake the conscience of sports lovers who will start demanding Olympic medals this year without sparing a thought for the abusive systems where the athletes learn to give up without a fight very early in life. These shortcomings can be the major cause of many promising athletes opting out of competitions at the last moment making the sports suffer the most.