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Abuse of Women in Athletics

By: Flora Oliveira

Let me set the stage:

Imagine four people sharing two lanes…

Not the big, spacious lanes you drive on, but the ones on a bright, red, 400 meter track. 

At practice, sharing lanes to run together was our usual routine; our group, accustomed to one another, shared swift strides to make time trials. You can imagine our surprise when one of my teammates and I collided and ate… shit. Now, this isn’t a story about me succumbing to some injury and being lucky to overcome it, this centers an overarching problem of injustice in athletics. After tumbling to the floor and painfully developing a major concussion (which cost me a month), I was told I was faking it. As if getting up immediately after blacking out, proceeding to jumble my words, and blabbering on in confusion was not emotionally daunting enough, my coach’s (let’s say coach X) first remark was, “maybe it’s not your body, maybe you just need glasses so you can see.” This was not the first comment about my vision, but alas, common with concussions, there I was crying uncontrollably in front of the one person that warned us not to show emotions on HIS track. With a quick “don’t be so emotional” jab and a “go home,” my teammate and I quickly got help from our trainer and left. 

Don’t get me wrong, his words, as horrible as they are, are not individual. This is the reflection of a system designed to break women* athletes. Recently, Mary Cain collaborated with Lindsay Crouse and New York Times, to expose the harsh coaching tactics of one of the biggest athletic companies—Nike. Not only does Nike abuse and capitalize off women in sweatshops overseas, they also destroy the bodies and lives of young women athletes in the US. 

Mary Cain, once the fastest woman alive, was recruited by Alberto Salazar, a Nike endorsed coach, who, as she states, “physically and emotionally abused” her at the age of sixteen and on. The all male led staff, became obsessed with Cain’s weight, forcing her extreme decline in health. Disturbingly enough, Cain’s story is not an uncommon one.

As I spoke with one of my fellow teammates, I received the same response. Jaleah Calvillo further emphasized that women athletes everywhere were mistreated and somehow, no one was listening. Calvillo, shared her story with Instagram on Friday. She, like many other athletes, was told to lose weight. The infatuation with controlling women’s bodies for profit was nothing new to Calvillo. She too had been told that carbs were just another obstacle on her way to success. Followed by a year of malnutrition and 4-inch tear in one of her quad’s, the blame for her injuries was put on her “undesirable” weight. Striving to meet coach X’s desired look, she began intaking as little as “1,200-1,800 calories a day while practicing three times a day,” causing many more injuries in Calvillo’s junior and senior years. 

After six academic years with coach X’s reigning commands for us to “stop eating white bread they make your arms look bready” or comments on like “she has wide birthing hips, that’s why she runs like that”, or “fat don’t fly” — the overwhelming amount of reports about coach X were finally unignorable. Like many of the other coaches, he too was besotted by the weight of his athletes. His words, although intangible, only reiterated a variety of  physical requirements he made mandatory for his athletes, including skinfold tests, and “suggested” eating habits.

After years of conducting body fat tests, endorsing malnutrition, causing injuries, mentally abusing and harassing athletes, coach X’s repercussion was … retirement. A repeated decision which still salvaged our world renowned coach X’s reputation at yet another college. This decision to allow retirement was made before at previous institutions, and it cost many more women athletes’ careers and health. The toxicity of this culture does not only pertain to the standards set by the coaches, staff, or administrations’ reluctance to step in, but the toxicity also manifests when coaches implement shame further isolating athletes from each other. Lack of support or community in such an environment can be detrimental to the mental and physical health of athletes and in turn, their voices were stifled. After Calvillo’s recent Instagram post, she realized how many other women, on her very own team, were going through similar situations. Although each faced similar struggles they felt alone. These women suffered in a system that claimed to protect, educate, and guide them.

NY Times shared a great piece about Mary Cain who struggled under the pressure of a culture created by Nike, but what about all the other women athletes going through the same thing? How was this same culture created in non-sponsored athletics (i.e non-olympic level athletics)? Like most questions, there isn’t a clean cut answer. Of course the coaches, staff, and administrators are at fault for their part in causing and allowing the suffering of women, but without a patriarchal system that affirms these actions, such overarching problems of injustice in athletics , the perpetrators would have faced effective repercussions.  Collegiate athletics is no different from Olympic, amateur, or junior athletics; all are run under the same patriarchal system that assigns standards for women’s bodies– especially for black, queer, and POC bodies. This same culture affecting Nike athletes can be seen everywhere, and we must consider the fact that internal politics play a disturbingly big part in the lack of adequate preventative measures.

 On all levels of athletics, capitalizing on  athletes’ bodies is evident, but when do institutions begin to prioritize the actual person instead of the profit they bring in? Despite all of the women who spoke of their experiences, the institutions continued to focus on their profits, silence women’s voices by concealing the institution’s wrongdoings, and continued to support men like coach X before even acknowledging the effects of these actions. Still, with lack of adequate rules and repercussions to avoid coaches like coach X, we must ask: when will internal evaluations be conducted in order to prevent a recurrence? Such institutions,  which prioritize profit must be carefully examined. Events like those experienced by Calvillo, Mary Cain, and many other countless testimonies, are not isolated occurrences. The capitalist nature of these institutions/systems lead to the welcoming of such damaging perpetrators. The very systems these athletes are recruited by, present a set of circumstances no women should face– one which deeply reflects the gendered effects of colonialism. By sharing these women’s stories we can begin to understand the change that must come. Tons of women who have shared their similar, seemingly isolated, stories. I believe there must be an immediate call for preventive measures, reexamination of the prioritization of misogynists’ job, and a fundamental change in our gendered system.

Contributors: Jaleah Calvillo, Shelby Hightower, Rochelle Nadreau, and other anonymous athletes  

Disclaimer: The initial version of this article was published with the term “womxn” but I have come to learn this term evades connecting trans women to their identity as women. Since then, the article was updated. I want to emphasize that my use of the term “women” includes nonbinary folk, intersex folk, and all folk who are oppressed by the patriarchy and/or face misogyny.