Victims or winners:
Why children’s rights should be the next big issue for sport

This is a guest article written by Play the Game/Danish Institute for Sports Studies, which aims to raise the ethical standards of sport and promote democracy, transparency and freedom of expression in world sport. In the article below, writers Søren Bang, Christina Friis-Johansen and Jens Alm reflect on how, despite sport being hailed and promoted as a good for children and society at large, and often justified as such, there is a growing awareness on the downsides of sport that sometimes turn children into victims rather than winners. 

[1 July 2019] A couple of months ago a Canadian study covering 1,001 current and former athletes from national teams found that 17 percent of participants have experienced psychologically harmful behaviour while doing their sport, 15 percent reported having disordered eating behaviours, and 13 percent said they have had suicidal thoughts. Only a small minority said they had reported their experiences to their sports organisations. 

Even if such numbers are subject to some uncertainty, they are in stark contrast to how sports organisations - often with little modesty and with backing from governments and commercial interests - praise their own work and importance. Sport is widely recognised as a social and cultural good that everyone, including children and young people, should have access to. Sport may even provide children with a strong platform of life-long physical, psychological, social and democratic skills and values, qualities that are beneficial for communities and society at large.

For the same reasons, most governments gladly support it, and internationally, we have charters and conventions like UNESCO’s International Charter of Physical Education, Physical Activity and Sport as well as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that support and promote children’s free and equal access to physical education, sport and other recreational activities. 

And yet studies like the Canadian one remind us, once again, that not everything in the garden is rosy. 

Victims rather than winners

Solid documentation and thorough surveys on children’s well-being in sport is sparse, a shortcoming that tells its own story of the policy priorities in sport. However, the evidence we do have at Play the Game, acquired through contributions to our conferences and projects, is a solid knowledge of sport’s controversial sides – from doping to match-fixing and other forms of corruption – and the underlying governance issues. Seen from such a position, there are many good reasons to believe that children’s rights in sport not only will be – but even should be – the next big issue for sport to address.

Firstly, many children still do not have the equal and free access to sport as promoted in declarations. Children’s sports participation can be severely restricted by a lack of resources, limiting social structures, cultural barriers or gender inequalities. Such barriers often reflect the surrounding society, but even in a rich and equal country as Denmark (Play the Game’s home country), we have significant social differences in children’s participation in sport.

Secondly, and this is more troubling for sport itself, there are inherent risks in sport that can in fact turn young people into victims. Such risks that span from harassment to sexual abuse can be especially delicate to handle for sporting organisations, because their mere presence somehow questions sport’s own values and systems. The USA Gymnastics’ sex abuse scandal involving numerous underage elite gymnasts is one of the most severe examples of this. But examples abound – in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, South Korea, France, and Colombia – and all tell stories of children and young people who entered a sports environment that should have offered safety, fun and personal confidence-building, but did the contrary.

Only a minority of sports federations have independent ethics committees and reporting systems, which can help the safeguarding of children.

One could argue that sexual, physical or psychological abuse is relatively rare in the sporting world, that most sports activities are organised in a good and responsible way, and that grassroots sport is less prone to harsh or abusive treatment of athletes than in the elite sporting world which, by nature, is a highly demanding subculture. These are all valid points, but they do not negate that abuse exists. Children’s safety will always be an issue in places where children spend a great deal of their leisure time. And even if the risks are lower in recreational sports, this is where the vast majority of children who do sport spend their time. 

Thirdly, in many sports millions of children everyday meet a culture that contains a strong element of competitiveness, from which follow discipline, personal sacrifices and unequal distribution of resources between the talented and less talented. Indeed, competition can incite excitement and motivation, but if unleashed and left unchecked, competitive sport ruthlessly produces winners and losers in a world where the desire to be the best all too often leads ambitious sports leaders and even parents to inspire a culture of undisputed respect for authority figures and of silence when injustice occurs.

It’s important to develop inclusive, engaging and safe sporting environments that are adapted to the needs of children rather than the adults running the sport.

This culture of top-down control clashes with the examples of athletes challenging their sporting organisations in cases of injustice and raises the question of what influence athletes can have in standing up for their rights? If even adult athletes feel they are sometimes not allowed to influence their own sporting life, it’s obvious that the rights of children, including their right to be heard and to challenge abuse, are at risk. 

Many questions to be answered

There is growing focus on how sport should go better hand-in-hand with human rights in general, for example, when awarding major sporting events in light of the selection of host countries with poor human rights records. With regard to children,  we have seen a growing acknowledgement among governments and sports organisations of how important it is to develop inclusive, engaging and safe sporting environments that are adapted to the needs of children rather than the adults running the sport. But as documented in Play the Game’s recent studies on governance in national and international sports federations, most federations do not comply with basic governance standards. We also know that only a minority of sports federations have independent ethics committees and reporting systems, which can help the safeguarding of children. 

In view of this, can we actually trust sports organisations to handle children’s rights in an efficient and trustful way without pressing for governance reforms in sport to secure more democracy, transparency, and accountability? How can sports organisations themselves make sure that their policies are transformed into action on the ground where children meet sport? And how can sports organisations inspire leaders at all levels, also in grassroots sport, to include children in decision-making, in shaping their own local practice of play, sport and physical activity?

Some governments, like Denmark and the Netherlands, have sports-specific legislation in place which address certain risks, such as sexual harassment or unhealthy elite sport cultures. A few others, like the United Kingdom and Australia, have also set up a number of minimum requirements for sports organisations’ governance structures and policies. In Sweden and Norway, governments and sports organisations have gone a step further by referring directly to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in policies and the law. While these examples are certainly positive, some questions still remain. 

How can governments promote and secure children’s rights in sport in the most efficient way to support equal and inclusive access to sport? And should governments set up much more specific requirements for sport to adhere to in return for public funding? 

With regards to safeguarding children, what is the right balance between governmental interventions and sport’s autonomy and dependence? The concern here is that sports often depend on voluntary work; yet excessive regulation could affect the motivation to do voluntary work and in turn the availability of sports provision for children.  

Is the formal recognition of the Convention on the Rights of the Child mostly a symbolic step or is it an efficient way to make sure that clubs, federations and other actors in sport focus more on the needs of all children regardless of talent? 

At our own Play the Game conference this autumn in Colorado Springs, some of these issues will be discussed, not least the abuse of children in sport and the need for governance reforms. But the many questions indicate that children’s rights will climb even higher up on the general sports political agenda - and for good reasons.

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