“Solidarity is a very strong tool in this fight.”

Athletes Network for Safer Sports Kicks Off with its First Online Event

(Nyon, Switzerland, 10 June 2024) — After a year of careful preparations, the Sports & Rights Alliance has launched the Athletes Network for Safer Sports, a new program based on findings of an in-depth study and needs assessment consultation with survivors of abuse in sports. On May 29, 2024, the Network organized an online “meet & greet” to introduce Advisory Council members and the vision for the community. Several members and participants spoke about their experiences and hopes for the future of sport.

Kaiya McCullough, a member of the Advisory Council and former professional soccer player in the United States, and current student at Harvard Law School, talked about her motivation to join the Advisory Council of the Athletes Network for Safer Sports: “I experienced abuse, emotional and mental, while I was playing soccer… that eventually caused me to quit and eventually I became a whistleblower. When I was experiencing what I was experiencing, I felt really alone. I think my motivation really lies in wanting to be a person that I wish I had in my corner when I was experiencing abuse.”

During her playing career, McCullough was heavily involved in activism both on and off the field, becoming one of the first college athletes to kneel in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, which came at a cost.

“What I’ve learned through being a whistleblower and just speaking up, I think solidarity is something that is a really powerful tool in this fight. I see this network as a pivotal piece of solidarity moving forward.”

Joanna Maranhão, the coordinator of the Athletes Network for Safer Sports, is a professional swimmer from Brazil who participated in four Olympic Games, and also a survivor, advocate and researcher. Maranhão led the campaign to expand Brazil’s statute of limitations to allow survivors of child sexual abuse more time to report and seek justice, succeeding in establishing a new law, which bears her name (the Joanna Maranhão Law). 

“The incident that happened to me happened when I was 9 years old and, as it happens to most of the victims, it took me a long time to be able to disclose and talk about it. When I finally did, I was already 21 and I had no access to justice due to statute of limitations back in my country. So that’s when I started advocating to lift the statute of limitations. Now I am fortunate and super happy to be coordinating this work with the Sport & Rights Alliance.”

Another abuse survivor and advisory council member, Jessica Shuran Yu, is a former competitive figure-skater, and the first to represent Singapore at World Championships. “We didn’t have people looking out for us. We didn’t have whistleblowers. We didn’t have resources. I think it’s really important to not only raise awareness and be talking about these issues, but also to provide immediate assistance to people in need. Not just in one place or sport, but around the world.”

Ahmar Abdoulaye Maiga is another Advisory Council member and founder and executive director of the non-profit organization Young Players Protection Association in Africa – Mali which provides support and resources for athlete survivors of coercion and abuse. Maiga helped document and advocate against the systemic sexual abuse of basketball players on Mali’s U-19 girls’ basketball team in 2021, leading to sanctions against top basketball officials in Mali.

“I’m from Mali, and what happened in 2021 to the basketball players was terrible, but I would say we were very lucky to have been able to have Human Rights Watch, the Sport & Rights Alliance and other organizations working with us on this difficult challenge,” said Maiga.

“Alone we can do so little, but together we can do so much.”

Another advisory council member, Mary Cain, a track and field athlete once dubbed the “fastest girl in America”, is now pursuing an MD degree at Stanford University School of Medicine. After sharing her 2019 op-ed about abuse in the New York Times, she dedicated her career to driving change in sport, with an emphasis on athlete well-being and gender equity. She is a board member for The Army of Survivors

“I experienced abuse in sport through track and field when I was a minor in the professional side of the sport as well as in my early adulthood, and since 2019, when I came out with the New York Times piece, I’ve been trying to find ways to not only fight to change the systemic problems within sport, but also find community,” said Cain. “I was connected to Joanna and the SRA through my work as a board member at The Army of Survivors. We’re based in the US and trying to work to create change to end abuse in sport through education, advocacy and also legislative change, and it’s really exciting to be able to join this global community to be continuing the way we think about sports and how we protect our athletes.”

The Network will host its next event on Friday, 21 June at 4pm CET on “Holistic and Collective Care Strategies for People Impact by Abuse in Sport”. Led by expert facilitators Julie Ann Rivers-Cochran and Kimalee Phillip, the session will provide an interactive space to discuss wellbeing strategies, trauma-informed practices, and tools for dealing with trauma exposure and burnout – acknowledging that everyone’s healing journey is different, and rarely linear. Interested athletes and allies can register here.

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Sport has the potential to be a catalyst for human development, unity, and freedom, but too often it instead brings harm to its athletes, fans, and communities. We exist to uncover and rectify the many abuses that exist both in and around sport. We aim to transform sports into an authentic force for good.