Michael Houston

The Me Too Movement can be traced all the way back to 2006, attributed to sexual assault survivor and activist Tarana Burke, who posted on Myspace about her ordeal and how she sought empowerment from it - but like most notable activism in recent years, it picked up steam when celebrities posted similar messages.

Actress Alyssa Milano was the first major name to speak up in what was regarded as the Me Too Movement, writing on Twitter in 2017 "If you've been sexually harassed or assaulted write 'me too' as a reply to this tweet", following various accusations against former producer and convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein.

This spread beyond the rubbing shoulders of Hollywood and across the world - it was not just predatory producers anymore, it was your average woman working in all sorts of jobs, students and unfortunately, many cases with underage girls. Many men came forward with their stories too.

It was not the first time this had been brought to public attention, but it was the first time a shift was felt.

Having grew up in the 2010s, there was a significant culture change. Feminism started losing its unfair tag of being associated with militarism, edgy jokes on taboo subjects were no longer blurted out without consideration; and most importantly, people started to become better informed about consent. 

In hindsight, that movement should have flipped a switch in sport to improve safeguarding straight away, but unfortunately, few were public about their ordeals and those who took action behind closed doors were often hushed.

Maggie Nichols was the first known complainant to USA Gymnastics over the sexual abuse they faced from disgraced doctor Larry Nassar, filed in 2015.

Nichols was then omitted from the Rio 2016 Olympics team, despite being one of the country's brightest talents.

It was only when the Indianapolis Star and sexual abuse survivor Rachael Denhollander worked together on a story in September 2016 did the sporting world start to take notice.

In the end, more than a hundred gymnasts testified against Nassar, who was convicted in January 2018, while USA Gymnastics were accused of putting the organisation's brand above the welfare of its athlete.

The scandal and the 2020 Netflix documentary Athlete A on the subject lit a fire in those who had been sexually assaulted, verbally or physically abused or bullied in sport.

Several national gymnastics bodies were questioned over the conduct of their staff including in Britain and Russia.

It did not end with gymnastics - these concerns spread to various sports across the spectrum including athletics, triathlon, speed skating, swimming, football, and even into the theatrical world of professional wrestling.

The latest scandal to surface is in the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL), leading to the sacking of North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley after being accused of sexual coercion at a number of clubs and leagues over a decade.

NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird resigned from her position too.

Former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Meleana Shim spoke against Riley, with the former accusing him of being pushed into having sex with him.

Alex Morgan criticised the NWSL's handling of abuse allegations ©Getty Images
Alex Morgan criticised the NWSL's handling of abuse allegations ©Getty Images

One of the United States' most famous players, Alex Morgan, said the NWSL were at fault for institutionally not taking the allegations seriously enough.

"The league was informed of these allegations multiple times and refused multiple times to investigate the allegations," she said in a tweet.

"The league must accept responsibility for a process that failed to protect its own players from this abuse."

Ex-Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke, who was also in the NWSL, caused four players to leave the club due to mistreatment, having been accused of making racist jokes and bullying the athletes.

Only now is the NWSL implementing appropriate safeguarding measures for players and staff to make complaints.

Let's not dwell on the ethics of these coaches, because I cannot do anything but condemn these actions, instead, let's look at how governing bodies can protect their athletes.

It has been four years since Milano's tweet and we are still having new cases reported and organisations fixing their rules.

UK Athletics (UKA) is one of the latest to change its procedures after facing hard criticism from sexual assault survivor groups, which led to a zero-tolerance approach to coaches who have been sanctioned for sexual assault or severe abuse.

Safeguarding procedures are now being put in place across athletics in the United Kingdom in response to an internal review, which UKA acted on.

A petition started in February further affirmed the need to protect athletes, which UKA took note of.

Elise Christie spoke about her sexual assault in her new autobiography Resilience ©Getty Images
Elise Christie spoke about her sexual assault in her new autobiography Resilience ©Getty Images

Add to this the likes of Elise Christie, who revealed earlier this week that she was sexually assaulted on a night out when she was 19, and it shows athletes are willing to open up about their trauma with less stigma, compared to even five years ago.

When you hear of the harrowing stories that have come from these scandals, despair is the go-to emotion for the lives that have been affected, but these brave athletes and people give me a sense of optimism. 

Five years ago, a lot of the procedures implemented then would look amateur in comparison. Athletes are clearly empowered to share their stories too.

I personally know a few athletes who never spoke about abuse they faced prior to the movement shifting into another gear; and are now comfortable enough to be open about it to help enforce change.

The United Kingdom is going through its own questioning of safeguarding in its emergency services after a police officer was convicted for the murder of Sarah Everard, after making a false arrest. He committed the crime while in a position of power, not dissimilar to a position of power that coaches and staff members have over their athletes. 

And that circles back to the alleged crimes of Riley, who is one of many who will hopefully be unable to access sport or most importantly, be prevented from being able to be abusive by rigorous measures.

However, it is not enough to simply say "it's getting better" - if your local club or national organisation does not have appropriate measures in place, campaign for them to do better.

There isn't an excuse for not putting together safeguarding plans in 2021, even if these controversies have not been felt in your sport. It's better to have it and not need it.