Time Out.

A recent study found that 83 percent of athletic training students experience sexual harassment. Head athletic trainers can play a huge role in changing this alarming statistic

By Laura Smith

Laura Smith is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Coaching Management, 11.5, August 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1105/yelling.htm

Say "sexual harassment in athletic training," and two names probably come to mind: Jamie Whited and Peyton Manning. In 1997, University of Tennessees Athletic Trainer Jamie Whited filed allegations against the men's athletic department--her list of grievances included 33 incidents of sexual harassment, some conducted by then Volunteer quarterback Manning. She had tried to discuss the incidents with her supervisors to no avail, and the department ultimately paid a $300,000 settlement.

Thanks in part to Manning 's high profile, the case received wide coverage. But evidence suggests that the scenario is far from unique. Depending on the survey and the population studied, the number of athletic trainers and athletic training students who have experienced sexual harassment on the job ranges from 25 percent to an astounding 83 percent--and the majority of cases go unreported.

What exactly are a head athletic trainer's responsibilities when it comes to sexual harassment? Where are the danger zones, and what can you do to help ensure that your athletic training rooms are free of sexual harassment? Legal experts and experienced head athletic trainers agree that the keys are education, preparation, and a zero-tolerance policy--all established before an incident occurs.


Two laws are typically used to prosecute sexual harassment. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects employees in the workplace, and Title IX protects students and graduate assistants at institutions that receive federal funds.

These laws, and related court cases that have followed, have defined two types of sexual harassment. In quid pro quo sexual harassment, the victim's job security, promotion, or other benefits hinge on accepting unwelcome behaviors, usually from someone in authority. One example would be an athletic training student whose grade depends on accepting inappropriate comments or advances from a clinical supervisor.

The second type is hostile work environment sexual harassment, and this is more likely to cause problems in an athletic training setting, according to Barbara Osborne, JD, Assistant Professor of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of North Carolina and an expert on legal issues in athletic training. "Quid pro quo sexual harassment undoubtedly has happened in athletic training, but I am honestly not aware of a single case," she says. "Hostile work environment, on the other hand, is pervasive."

So pervasive, in fact, that a 1998 East Stroudsburg University study of 825 athletic training students enrolled in 37 CAAHEP-accredited programs found that 83 percent reported having experienced hostile environment sexual harassment in the course of their work, primarily from student-athletes. Male athletes were the most frequent offenders, with football players and wrestlers topping the list. (The study was published in the April-June 2001 issue of the Journal of Athletic Training.)

In the business world, most harassers hold positions of authority over those harassed, but courts are increasingly willing to say that student-athletes can be held accountable as sexual harassers under a hostile environment definition. "This is a new area for the courts," says Elsa Cole, General Counsel to the NCAA. "At first there was an assumption that the athletic trainer would always be in a position of power, so they would not be in a position to be harassed by students. The courts are shifting their thinking to recognize that where there is a lack of an age disparity, or where there is a large number of males and a single female or vice versa, the power balance can shift so that the students are in control and able to create a hostile environment."

"Hostile environment can be all sorts of small things that add up to a pervasive tone of hostility, or one incident that is so severe it creates a hostile environment on its own," says Leslie Annexstein, JD, Senior Counsel at the National Women's Law Center. "There can be a single perpetrator, or it can be a group."

Offensive posters on weightroom walls, sexual jokes thrown around the training room, comments about someone's body shape, and unwelcome physical contact all qualify as contributors to a hostile environment. Such harassment can occur male to female, female to male, male to male, or female to female.

"The key to the issue," says Osborne, "is that hostile environment sexual harassment is defined by the receiver of the message, not by the intent of the sender. An individual or a group can create a hostile environment without meaning to."

"Basically, if someone is being made to feel uncomfortable by any type of unwelcome behavior that is sexual in nature, and they can demonstrate that the behavior is causing them discomfort in class or at work, it will probably be supported as sexual harassment in court," summarizes John Hauth, EdD, ATC, Chair of the Movement Studies and Exercise Science Department at East Stroudsburg University and lead author of the 1998 study. Courts use a two-prong test when evaluating allegations of hostile environment sexual harassment. "There's the 'objectively speaking' test," Annexstein explains. "Would most people objectively looking at something say, 'Yes, I can see where that would be offensive or someone might have a problem with it'? Then there is the subjective test: 'How is it making the person experiencing it feel?' Courts consider both questions."

Syracuse University Head Athletic Trainer Timothy Neal, ATC, uses a simpler test. "I ask my staff and students to think of someone in their lives who they care about--their mother, their sister, their wife," Neal says. "Then I ask them if they would want her to be subjected to the behavior in question when she went to her job every morning. It's simple, but it works."


Because concrete definitions are hard to find, creating a department free of hostile environment sexual harassment requires the head athletic trainer to set unmistakable expectations. "The head athletic trainer sets the emotional tone," Neal says. "I know my stance is going to set the standard, and I don't engage in any sexually harassing behavior. I don't tolerate it from those under me, and I don't put up with it being done to the people who work for me."

"As a leader, the head athletic trainer needs to know that his or her actions are being noted, and that they're being viewed as examples of acceptable behavior," Annexstein agrees. "If you see something happening that could be construed as sexual harassment, immediately step in and stop the behavior--don't hesitate just because the victim isn't saying anything. You send a very strong message by walking over at that moment and putting a halt to the behavior."

"I immediately confront any athlete, coach, student, or staff member if I think they're bordering on crossing the line," adds Don Bishop, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer at the University of Northern Iowa. "I tell potential offenders I am also to protecting them--there are serious consequences for sexual harassment, and I don't want to see that happen." "People constantly test boundaries," says Jeff O'Brien, Director of the Mentors in Violence Prevention Program based at Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "They're figuring out what's going to be tolerated and what's not. When you address relatively small things, like inappropriate jokes, you clearly define where those lines are and you prevent bigger problems later on."


Along with setting the right tone, it's imperative to educate your staff about your school's sexual harassment policies and procedures. "Seventy-five percent of the 825 athletic training students we studied did not understand their university's sexual harassment policy," Hauth says.

"When you go to court, they ask three questions," says Phyllis Powell, Affirmative Action Officer at Central Michigan University. "Do you have a written policy that is widely distributed? Do people understand the grievance procedure? Do they know where to go to report sexual harassment? If you can answer 'yes' to all three questions, you increase your credibility and decrease your liability."

John Mason, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer at Central Michigan University, relies heavily on Powell to spread the word among his staff members. "The affirmative action office provides refresher courses on CMU's sexual harassment policy to all staff members every two years," he says, "and any time a new staff member comes on board, that office discusses the policy with them. New and returning athletic training students are educated on the policy as part of their orientation each year."

Some schools even institute a separate policy for their athletic training students. "Our policy very closely follows what the university has in place for all students," explains Bishop. "The key difference is that it requires students to involve the department administration when a problem arises." UNI's policy requires that sexual harassment complaints go directly to the Coordinator of the Division of Athletic Training or the Director of Sports Medicine, who then informs the school's Office of Compliance and Equity Management (OCEM).

Neal relies on SU's general policy, but finds it useful to break down the legal jargon into simpler terms. "Syracuse has a very involved policy, but I have a shorter list of cardinal rules that I post in my office and distribute," he says. "The rule dealing with sexual harassment simply states, 'Sexual harassment of any sort will not be tolerated, toward others or toward you.' I think if you give people a long, complicated policy to read, they can get caught up in the nuances instead of the basics. I make it very simple and very direct. We get into the details later."

Those details are thoroughly discussed during orientation with SU's graduate assistants. "Our orientation lasts two weeks, eight hours a day, for both new and returning students," he says. "The first day, I don't even talk about medicine. I talk about professionalism, and sexual harassment is an area we discuss at length."

Mason discusses the issue whenever a student or staff athletic trainer is about to be assigned to a new sport. "We remind them that they will be working closely with people and having hands-on contact, and we let them know what we expect and don't expect to happen," he says. "We remind them not to work one-on-one with athletes behind closed doors, and we tell them that they need to inform us of any sexual harassment issues right away."

Several head athletic trainers find that meeting with men and women separately allows them to address the concerns of each in greater detail. "Some of the points are the same, but the nuances differ," Bishop says. "I talk specifically with females about issues pertaining to working with a male sport. I stress to them to be aware of the role they are in, and I talk about the 'good old boy' attitudes that they will probably encounter at some point in their athletic training careers and how they should handle them."


A key part of your educational efforts involves teaching staff and students how to respond to unwanted advances. In the East Stroudsburg study, 68 percent of those who said they had been sexually harassed also said they did nothing about the behavior. "I educate people that the easiest time to address sexual harassment is the first time it happens," says Powell. "If you let it go the first time because you think, 'Well, that wasn't such a big deal--I can handle it,' it will happen a second time. Don't laugh or play along to try to gain acceptance or avoid making waves. If you do, it's not going to go away." "Ignoring sexual harassment always makes it worse," Hauth agrees. "The way the harasser interprets that is, 'Well, that didn't really bother her. Let's try this.' But nearly half the time, sexual harassment ends when the victim goes to the individual and says, 'I don't appreciate this, and I want it to stop.' That can be difficult for people to do, so we give them tips on how to do it."

Powell suggests they rehearse a planned phrase or sentence, write down what they want to say in advance, or practice the confrontation ahead of time with someone they trust. "We educate people to address specific behaviors when they confront the harasser," Powell says. "For example, you can say, 'Please do not call me 'sweetie' or 'honey' anymore. Address me by my name.' Or, 'I am uncomfortable with you putting your arm around me. Stop doing that.' And indicate that you will report the behavior, if necessary."

Some people, however, won't be comfortable confronting their harasser, and the law doesn't require them to do so. "It can be empowering for a victim to confront the behavior, but they are not responsible for doing so," O'Brien says. "I often hear people say, 'If he or she would just stand up to the behavior, it would stop.' That's a victim-blaming mentality. It's okay if someone can't confront the harasser and we encourage them to report the behavior to someone who can deal with it."

When a team is on its own turf--in the locker room, on the bus, in a hotel--their conversation may turn to topics that the athletic trainer finds offensive, even though their comments are not directed at him or her. These situations require the athletic trainer to find a delicate balance between confronting truly offensive behavior and ignoring harmless juvenile behavior.

The athletic trainer should not be forced to tolerate a hostile work environment, says Neal, but locker room talk among team members walks a fine line. "Frankly, as an athletic trainer, you're going to hear some of it," he says, "and that goes for women's teams as well as men's. Part of wisdom is knowing what to overlook." However, when a situation is clearly out of bounds, the best tactic is for the head athletic trainer to approach the team's coach. "Tell him or her, 'I have been getting reports of your team engaging in conversation that makes their athletic trainer uncomfortable,'" Neal advises. "Ask for the coach's help in monitoring the players' conversations and request that he or she address any inappropriate discussions and ask the athletes to not discuss sexual topics in the athletic trainer's proximity."

Students and staff also need to be educated on how their own behavior plays into the situation. "We tell people that their own demeanor is going to let people know what is and isn't acceptable around them," Hauth says. "Once you've laughed at an inappropriate joke, or wandered into inappropriate territory in your own conversation, people are going to assume that it's okay to direct that behavior back at you. You have to safeguard yourself by starting off on a professional foot--and staying there." The advice is particularly pertinent for athletic training students and graduate assistants, Neal says. "I tell them, 'Even though you may be only a year or two older, you are a professional in this environment, not a peer,'" he says. "And I work to help them understand what professionalism looks like."


Chances are, at some point in every head athletic trainer's career, a student or staff member will come to him or her with a complaint of sexual harassment. The first step is making sure the complainant is aware of the formal grievance process specified in the university's policy. In most situations, the next step is carefully gathering all the relevant information, then evaluating whether the complainant wants to take the formal grievance route or attempt a less formal resolution.

"My job is fact-finding and facilitating the university's process," Neal says. "I ask the complainant to document everything that has happened, and I talk to each person involved to find out as much as I can. In every case, I listen to both sides. Ant then I document carefully what I've found."

The key to evaluating the situation can be determining whether it represents a one-time slip-up or a pattern of behavior. Isolated incidents can often be dealt with by addressing the harasser directly. "If my investigation reveals that I'm dealing with a single lapse due to immaturity, I confront the individual, discuss why the behavior was inappropriate, and let them know we that don't expect to see it happen again," says Mason.

"Many times in my investigation, I find that a misunderstanding is involved, so I get the two parties together to discuss it," Neal adds. "Usually an apology is offered and that's where it ends, although I document the situation for future reference and give a copy to my athletic director."

Legal experts refer to this as confronting sexual harassment via the "informal" route, which has its advantages. "Most people who complain just want the behavior to stop," Annexstein says. "There are fewer procedural hurdles that have to be cleared in an informal route, so it can be quicker."

Other times, however, the situation is more serious and requires a formal approach. "If there has been a pattern of behavior, or if we're not comfortable with the responses we get and we don't feel assured that it will not happen again, we have to go further," Mason says. "Once a victim has decided to go the formal route, the head athletic trainer's job is to assist him or her in filing a formal complaint," Annexstein says. "The procedure should be spelled out clearly within the school's sexual harassment policy, including the name, campus address, and phone number of the person they need to complain to."

Whether the head athletic trainer handles the problem informally, or a formal complaint is filed, it's usually necessary for him or her to report the incident higher up. "Here at CMU, the affirmative action office is the central clearinghouse for all complaints of sexual harassment, formal and informal," Powell says. "Every complaint is reported here." Knowing your own university's policies in this area is key.

Many complainants will express concerns about confidentiality, and may ask that their names not be revealed. It's important to assure the complainant that you will keep the complaint as confidential as possible, but it's equally important to let them know that they may not be able to remain completely anonymous.

"You cannot promise ultimate confidentiality to anyone," says Powell, "because if that person eventually files a complaint outside the university, the first question in court will be, 'Did you tell anyone at the university?' When they say, 'I told the head athletic trainer,' the next question will be to the head athletic trainer, asking, 'Why did you not report the incident using the university's system?'" .

Lastly, when a complaint of sexual harassment comes across your desk, know when to get outside help. "There are levels of sexual harassment that I would not deal with," Mason says. "I would refer the complainant to either my direct supervisor or the office of affirmative action right away. Most of the incidents I've dealt with have been pretty low-level things--verbal comments, inappropriately putting an arm around someone, and things like that. But it's important to recognize that there are things we're not equipped to deal with, and those are the ones you pass up the command chain. If you don't feel comfortable handling something, get help." .


The sexual harassment complaint a head athletic trainer is most likely to hear is of student-athletes, individually or as a group, harassing an opposite-sex athletic trainer or athletic training student. "The idea of a student-athlete being the harasser is probably the biggest concern right now," says Barbara Osborne, JD, University of North Carolina Assistant Professor of Exercise and Sport Science. "And it's completely an issue of needing to educate them." .

One program that's working hard to educate student-athletes is the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) Program, a gender violence prevention and education program based at Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society that enlists high school, college, and professional athletes as trainers. .

Director Jeff O'Brien says the program has found success with a "bystander" approach to educating athletes. "Most people trying to educate student-athletes look at them as part of the problem," he says. "We look at them as part of the solution." The MVP approach asks student-athletes to consider ways they can intervene as bystanders if they see a teammate crossing sexual harassment lines. "We base the training around scenarios," O'Brien explains. "We'll say, 'You're in the athletic training room with your teammates and they're making sexual jokes. What do you do?' .

"We talk with them about their leadership role, their visibility, and their potential for creating change. The difference sounds small, but it's profound, because it prevents the defensiveness that usually keeps them from being open to learning about the issue. "Because we're not accusing them of anything, it allows them to talk about what's really happening," O'Brien continues. "We get at the core of why sexual harassment happens. For instance, why is it that so many people who engage in forms of sexual harassment like cat-calling and joke-telling do it in a group, as opposed to when they're alone? Is it really about the victim, or is it about their status in the group? We deal with questions of that nature." .

For more information, go to www.sportinsociety.org/mvp.html.

While athletic trainers can be the targets of sexual harassment, they're also open to accusations of sexual harassment themselves. "Basically, athletic trainers are in a hands-on field in a hands-off society," says Central Michigan University's Affirmative Action Officer Phyllis Powell. "But there are a number of things athletic trainers can do to protect themselves. .
"First, make sure you explain to athletes exactly what you're going to do before you do it when you're giving care," she cautions. "Tell them where you're going to touch them and why. If they express concern or you feel you need someone else in the room, stop what you're doing and take care of that." .
Paying attention to the athlete's responses and comfort level is also important. "If he or she seems uncomfortable, that's a red flag--don't ignore it," Powell says. "Learn to recognize those signals." .
Finally, Powell urges athletic trainers to focus on establishing their credibility from the start. "The way you conduct yourself every day, the things that come out of your mouth, and the behaviors you exhibit toward colleagues and athletes are the things that can save you if someone levels a false allegation at you," she says. "If you've conducted yourself in a professional manner all along, it's going to make a difference." .