The project Harassment in Finnish Competitive Sports investigated whether harassment is present in competitive sports; what has any harassment been like and who has been guilty of it. Based on the data, sexual and gender-based harassment is common in sports, but not more common than elsewhere in society. The Finnish Center for Integrity in Sports (FINCIS) has drafted recommendations based on the study.
The purpose of the study is to increase knowledge about sexual and gender-based harassment in Finnish competitive sports during the last five years. The study data comprises responses by more than 9,000 Finnish competitive athletes.
“It has been very significant to survey athletes directly. With experience-based responses from athletes, we can lay a strong foundation for making our sports culture even safer and more ethically sustainable. We are now getting research-based information about whether athletes have experienced or observed sexual or gender-based harassment over the last five years in sports and who might have been guilty of it,” says Nina Laakso, Research Manager at FINCIS.
Based on the data, sexual and gender-based harassment is common in sports, but not more common than elsewhere in society. Harassment in sports is linked to cultural structures, such as gender inequality and other differences in social standing, such as age, sexuality, language, ethnic background, religion and disability. Female gender, young age, and competing at higher levels of competition significantly increased the risk of experiencing sexual and gender-based harassment. There were statistically significant differences between sports in how common sexual harassment was. With regard to gender-based harassment, no differences were observed. However, the sport in question did not increase the risk of experiencing sexual harassment as strongly as other risk factors of harassment. Sport-related results also involved uncertainties, such as the different sampling of respondents in different sports.
According to the study, among members of minority groups, experiencing sexual harassment was most likely among men belonging to a sexual minority. Of the minority groups, women belonging to a disabled minority were most likely to experience gender-based harassment.
In this study, sports appeared to be a predominantly male culture in which the right of women and minorities to act is questioned. There is a masculine culture of speech in sports that seeks to differentiate itself from women, femininity and homosexuality. Verbal harassment targets not only women and minorities but also men. Such use of harassing language creates a reality in which certain kinds of people or certain groups of people are considered inferior to others. This limits their scope for action in sports.
The lead author of the study, Annukka Lahti, emphasises intervening in harassment, such as inappropriate joking and “just banter”, with a low threshold.
“Intervening creates a safe environment that concretely shows that harassment will not be tolerated. The respondents considered intervention a key method for eliminating harassment. In an environment where harassment is intervened in, everyone can use their resources on the essential part: the sports,” Lahti says.
FINCIS emphasises the responsibility of different parties
Based on the results of the study, FINCIS recommends that the entire sports community continue determined measures to change the sports culture. Many operating models and services have been developed in sports to prevent and intervene in harassment. They should be deployed in all sports, and especially everyone involved with athletes and sports should be informed of them. By identifying and acknowledging harassment, the phenomenon can be prevented with increased effectiveness and ultimately eliminated it from sports altogether.
“Now is the time for everyone to assess their behaviour and role as well as respond to the need for change. This is a good opportunity for the entire sports community and its stakeholders to develop their activity. At the same time, we can create an exemplary new and open sports culture that the rest of the society can also learn from”, says Teemu Japisson, Secretary General of FINCIS.
FINSIC’s recommendations for different parties
Athletes and coaches – courage to change and intervene
The harasser is often an athlete. Therefore, they should critically evaluate their own actions as both individuals and groups. If necessary, they should change their behaviours. Athletes have a responsibility to intervene in harassment and report it.
Coaches should consider their coaching practices and feedback channels. Harassment must not be tolerated at all. Intervention is essential, regardless of the position or role of the harasser.
Commitment to harassment-free sports requires understanding the boundaries and respecting them. When words and actions meet, an open atmosphere in which everyone deserves respect in being themselves emerges.
Sports organisations – Increasing awareness and facilitating openness and change
Sports organisations should make use of and disseminate existing best practices, materials and operating models for preventing and intervening in harassment. The organisations should make sure that the necessary information is easily available. The organisations should open an extensive discussion about the culture of speech in sports. It is important that the sports community can provide everyone with a safe environment.
You are not alone (‘Et ole yksin’ service) – Expertise and support from outside sports
The Et ole yksin service of Väestöliitto, the Family Federation of Finland, provides lots of high-quality materials for different target groups, relating to the prevention of harassment and intervening in it, among other things. Athletes, coaches and other sports stakeholders should be made aware of the service. The continuity and funding of the service need to be guaranteed.
Sports journalists and media – Impacts and responsible news coverage
Sports journalists and media are one of the most effective parties in eliminating prejudice, shaping attitudes and creating images. Sports-related stories, verbalising and illustrating sports, can strongly contribute to promoting harassment-free sports. It is the task of the media to intervene and showcase problems in a responsible way. At the same time, both the content and tone of the articles and stories should be considered.
Sports enthusiasts – Responsibility for the supporter culture deserved by athletes
While the sports community is developing its activities towards a revised harassment-free sports culture, those following sports and athletes should also assess their actions as well as their impacts on the experiences of athletes and other parties.
The study investigated the current situation of sexual and gender-based harassment in competitive sports. According to its task, FINCIS has produced independent and reliable information based on which sports stakeholders can develop their own activities.
“I consider it as a very responsible activity that sports federations have been willing to investigate how much and what kind of harassment takes place in sports. We listened to the athletes, and through their experiences and wishes, all of us can contribute to transforming the sports culture. In order to facilitate the change, the sports community must create more platforms where athletes can freely voice their own views,” Japisson says.
The Secretary General also considers it important to monitor and investigate the occurrence of harassment going forward as well. This will provide reliable information about any changes and the impact of the measures taken. Follow-up studies can find out whether the Finnish sports culture has changed in the desired direction.
The study targeted athletes engaged in competitive sports under a sports federation and players of the Finnish national ice hockey league. The licensed competitive athletes who took part in the study were aged at least 16 in December 2019, i.e. born in 2003 or earlier. The survey was sent to 160 000 athletes and a total of 9,018 athletes responded to the study. Women accounted for 4,751, men for 4,236 of the respondents, 12 reported ‘other’ as their gender, in addition to which 19 were unwilling to respond. There were 48 sports federation and sports organisations. FINCIS realised the study in cooperation with the Research Institute for Olympic Sports KIHU and the federations that took part in the survey.
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