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BAVO hosts ‘Athlete A’ screening, panel with prominent advocates

| Tuesday, February 23, 2021

The Saint Mary’s Belles Against Violence Office (BAVO) along with the Army of Survivors, a national advocacy group that supports current and former child athletes who survived sexual violence, hosted a screening of the documentary “Athlete A” followed by a panel on Monday night.

The panel included Caroline Sylvia, a therapist at Michigan State University Center for Survivors; John-Michael Lander, a former competitive diver, survivor of sexual abuse and a board member of the Army of Survivors; and Jennifer Sey a producer for “Athlete A,” and a former gymnast who spent seven years on the national team and the author of “Chalked Up.” 

Julia Zusi | The Observer
Advocates against sexual abuse in the athletic and sports world spoke at a BAVO sponsored event Monday evening.

The panel started with a question from host Louise Harder, who is a founding board member of the Army of Survivors, directed to Sey asking about her experience as a young gymnast.

“I would say it was a culture of incredible cruelty, and that was not only accepted but celebrated,” Sey responded. Sey said she at one point switched to a gym with more intense coaches because she “was inculcated by the culture” to think the cruelty was better and more effective. She tied this experience to the topic of the night when she said “an abusive culture creates the conditions for even worse abuse to occur” 

Lander then shared his personal experience.

“I was groomed for months before anything had happened and before that they groomed my parents so that they got my parents’ trust,” he said. “Then it was this slow process where I began to normalize anything.”

Lander said verbal abuse is normalized and effective in convincing athletes not to trust themselves. “There’s fear with each athlete that we’re not good enough [and] that we can be easily replaced,” he said.   

When asked what the public can do to create a culture to protect people from abuse, Sylvia said it is important to “hold perpetrators of sexual abuse accountable, consistently and regardless of their positions of power.”

She also spoke to the importance of transparent policies and she emphasized the significance of “creating a culture of believing survivors first.” Sylvia said the biggest reason many people do not believe survivors is because of the myth of false reporting. Sylvia then presented data from the FBI that showed “false reporting [of sexual abuse] is only about two to eight percent.” 

“The sunlight needs to be let in,” Sey said in response to a question about changing the culture in gymnastics.

“The sunlight came in for them,” Sey said in reference to the gymnasts who shared their stories of being survivors after realizing their suffering should not have been normalized.

She also emphasized the importance of teaching children they have the ability to say “no” and walk away. “I didn’t know I could do that,” she added.

Sey mentioned the importance of parents and athletes investing in gyms and training that does not support verbally and physically abusive coaching and doe not hire sexual abusers.

“I think it’s going to be driven by the athletes and the parents and by the coaches who want to make it better,” she said. “My dream would be that [the leaders of the sports] would be the one’s to do it, but I don’t think they get it yet … I think the leadership will catch up if we push hard enough for cultural change.” 

Sylvia explained that the long-term effects of trauma caused by sexual abuse are different for different survivors, but the work she does has shown the feeling of shame to be the most common and lasting side effect.

“The best thing we can offer survivors is support and belief,” she said. “Healing is 100 percent possible.” 

Sey wrapped up by noting that “the shame dissipates when you tell your story.”

All three panelists agreed that it is important for change that athletes and parents as well as society as a whole start by holding people accountable and then by focusing on cultural change.

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