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Turning the spotlight on coaches - Rising concern over sexual and physical abuse of athletes

Published:Sunday | February 17, 2019 | 12:00 AMKaren Madden/Contributor
Dr Walton Small, president of ISSA.
Garth Gayle, general secretary of JAAA.
Diahann Gordon Harrison, Children’s Advocate.

Amid a rising swirl of concern over instances of sexual and physical abuse and neglect of athletes at the hands of their coaches, Children’s Advocate Diahann Gordon Harrison and legal officer at the Centre for the Investigation of Sexual Offences and Child Abuse (CISOCA), Detective Inspector Pauline Pink Bond, are sounding the alarm.

For years, it’s been a dirty little secret being whispered about in the field of sports. Stories of coaches being engaged in, at best, inappropriate behaviour, and going as far as sexual assault and rape.

Despite seven cases of sexual assault and at least two of physical assault at present before the courts, CISOCA and the Office of the Children’s Advocate (OCA) are concerned that those numbers could be higher, given Jamaica’s culture of silence in criminal matters.

“Because of Jamaica’s culture of silence, see no evil, hear no evil, plus the fear factor, because, let’s be real, once there is a power dynamic, there is the fear of vilification, hence the level of cooperation has been quite low, and that directly affects the number of persons that can be held accountable,” said Gordon Harrison.

The Children’s Advocate revealed that in 2018, eleven cases involving coaches were reported to the office and statements collected. Six of those cases involved sexual abuse, three cases of physical abuse, and two instances of neglect, trespassing on the child’s best interest.

Neglect is established where minors fall ill while under the care of the coach, but the children are not taken for medical care. Since the start of 2019, three complaints have been filed to the OCA – one case of sexual abuse and two physical-abuse cases.

It is a situation that deeply bothers Pink Bond.

“Sports is important to the development of our children, but what is mind-boggling is that you find that these children are placed in the care of a coach, and coaches have high reputation, people believe in them. The issue of trust does not arise, but these coaches, who are supposed to protect the children and help them to perform to the best of their abilities on the field of play, are abusing them sexually and physically, and that’s very sad,” Pink Bond noted.

Between 2015 to 2018, seven cases were reported to CISOCA, with those cases at various stages of the court system.

Pink Bond says that number could be higher, as oftentimes, victims do not pursue the matter after making the initial report to the OCA.


A worrying issue for CISOCA and the OCA are cases where schools sometimes fire the coaches when complaints are made against them, making the job of CISOCA more difficult to find perpetrators. Some of these coaches are fired from one school yet remain in the system at other schools.

Dr Walton Small, president of the Inter-Secondary Schools Sports Association (ISSA), insists that ISSA takes a zero-tolerance view on the issue of abuse of students by their coaches. Small noted that such matters are reported to the police.

“But the fact is though, the schools or ISSA are not investigative entities. A lot of the stories are not reported to ISSA. People say things but won’t make a written report and we cannot proceed on anecdotes even though at ISSA, we hear the whispers with some names repeatedly under a cloud, but until we have sufficient information or the abused person or the parent files a complaint, our hands are tied,” said Small.

The issue has also reared its head at the national level, with the selection of coaches to international events.

Garth Gayle, general secretary of the Jamaica Athletics Administrative Association (JAAA), says the body has had to remove coaches after complaints were filed against them.

“The IAAF is very clear about instances of abuse, whether sexual or physical, and whether it involves senior or junior athletes. Where teams include girls or women, then a female manager or managers must be included. And if the allegations against particular coaches are made, then the JAAA have removed coaches from trips,” Gayle stated.

Importantly, Gordon Harrison is encouraging potential employers to utilise the Sex Offenders Registry.

“What is important, and what I encourage persons to do, is to use the registry as far as they can,” said Gordon Harrison. “So I’ve advocated if you are a prospective employer of a coach, a teacher, a band leader – if someone applies for the job, if you are being a responsible adult, a protector of children, then you should establish a case and use the registry, which resides at the Department of Correctional Services.”