Mary Harvey, CEO The Centre for Sport and Human Rights
An iconic name in women’s football, Mary played for the US Women’s National Team for eight years, where as goalkeeper, her team won the first-ever FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991 as well as the gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Since then, Mary has worked towards achieving equity within sports and is now mobilising a new global movement dedicated to implementing human rights in sport.
Read on to hear why the creation of the Centre for Sport and Human Rights (CSHR) is crucial for the future of the sporting industry, and how Mary and the team are weaving compassion into everything that they do as they seek to create positive change.
Well, its inception was triggered by work done on sustainability around the London 2012 Olympics. Individuals who worked on this event wanted somewhere to share their learnings in the hopes that this would be applied to future mega-sporting events. The need for an organisation that was dedicated to working on human rights issues in sport became clear after we witnessed the corruption scandal at FIFA, issues such as forced displacements in Rio ahead of the 2016 Olympics, and the increasing awarding of events to countries with egregious human rights records. The human rights community had been calling for change for a long time, but the parent organisation of CSHR was the first organisation to bring together sports bodies, governments, civil society, corporates and others to ensure that sports organisations walk the talk and fulfil sport’s potential to be the amazing social force we all know it can be. We use the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, unanimously adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 as the playbook for sports bodies on how to implement human rights. The Centre came in to fill the gap in knowledge and accountability and was built over a period of time between 2015 to 2018 under the leadership of our Chair Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The starting point for our work is that sport — and when I refer to ‘sport’ I’m referring to both mega sporting events (MSE’s) as well as grass roots and day to day sports — has an obligation to ensure that people who participate in it are not negatively affected. So let’s start with just the notion that sport shouldn’t harm people. Once we ensure that, sport indeed has a unique power to be a force for good in society. But we are the first organisation that has attempted to bridge the worlds of sport and human rights, as we believe that in doing so, we can ensure that sport not only protects human rights, but also enables it to leave a lasting human legacy through its activities.
“Sport has a unique power to be a force for good in society”
I’ve been an athlete since the age of 12, and played just about every sport I had access to. So I’ve directly experienced the tremendous positive impact that it can have. But I also know that I’m very fortunate. The tragic reality is that for many, sport has been a cause of significant harm and trauma in their lives. What led me to the Centre was my firm belief in its mission. For someone who has benefited from sport, but has a strong sense of duty to ensure that sport has safeguards in place to deliver on its promise for human development, it was a good fit. The Centre, its staff and the members of its Advisory Council, is a community of dedicated people who are all aligned around this common goal of making sport safer for everyone.
Our vision is of a world of sport that fully respects and protects the rights of all people. ‘all people’ refers to all the different groups that are affected; athletes, workers, fans, journalists, people living in the communities where events are held. Our goal is to ensure that these groups have their human rights protected. We do that by convening the actors who make up the ecosystem for the world of sport together, through this shared goal. The likes of sports governing bodies, such as FIFA, UEFA, Local Organising Committees, governments, sponsors of mega-sporting events, broadcasters etc. We bring together all these groups with civil society organisations, trade unions and NGOs — to work together in collective action to tackle tough problems, and to ensure human rights are protected and affected groups are part of the solution.
Our activities are focused on sharing knowledge of best practice to prevent human rights harms, building capacity through tools and guides we’ve developed to enable those in sport do this work, and through this, we increase accountability for upholding human rights in the world of sport.
No day is the same. One day we’re convening a conversation between NGOs, governments and sports bodies to try and solve a complex human rights issue, the next we’re speaking to the lawyers of people who have been abused, and in the same breath working to influence governmental processes to take action. Directing strategic change is core to our work. We’ve supported sports governing bodies to develop their own human rights policies, helped event organisers embed protections for human rights into their operations, and engaged governments with their involvement in their duties to protect rights.
What makes us different is that we’re independent, we put affected groups at the centre of what we do, and we’ve been founded by those UN agencies who are the standard bearers for human rights globally. We work with and involve people who are affected in the conversation. It’s critical that their voice is included in the process. It’s about putting the voice of those affected in the centre of the room, and working through what their concerns are. They’re going to come up with ideas and points of view that haven’t been considered, and any understanding of human rights risks starts with putting their welfare first.
From athlete abuse, as you mention, to the health and safety of migrant workers, worker deaths, journalists being denied access or even detained, cases of forced labour and human trafficking, there are unfortunately many human rights abuses that can occur in sport — none of which are acceptable. Given that sport is such a prestigious and high profile sector, the industry really should be setting standards as an exemplar of good practice. Our role is to step into these breaches and bring people together, to not only support the affected people but to try and change the treatment of all individuals.
What we’ve learned, is that abuse of athletes is happening in many forms (emotional, physical, sexual), across many sports, and is occurring in every corner of the globe. Think about that for a minute. It’s tremendously widespread, and elite athletes are incredibly vulnerable, given large power differentials and what’s at stake: careers, the Olympics, their livelihood. And indeed we have seen high-profile examples where athletes, child athletes in particular, have not been adequately protected. For example, the former US national gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar who sexually abused over 350 girls globally, or the former president of the Afghanistan Football Federation, Keramuddin Karim, who abused members of their women’s national team. But the problem is much more widespread than these high-profile cases. I’m afraid that we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg.
Human Rights Watch have recently released a report focused on child athlete abuse in Japan; “I was hit so many times I can’t count”. It uncovers the experiences of cruelty and abuse of athletes in Japan — something that has been part of the culture and normalised for far too long. Shedding light on these experiences and the impact this has had upon the victims, and those around the victims — from depression, physical disabilities, lifelong abuse and even suicide — as well as highlighting the lack of protection and structural inequities that exist, is a mechanism for change.
Impact is experienced in so many different ways. For example, prosecution of abusers, therapeutic support for survivors, and mechanisms for accountability and systemic changes within sports bodies. We’ve made a lot of progress, but there is a tremendous amount of work ahead to ensure athletes are protected.
As you might be able to see from these examples, the fundamental source of abuse is power. As mentioned above, in elite sport, sport administrators, coaches and other personnel are often gatekeepers — and in some cases — sole gatekeepers — to athletes receiving training or competition opportunities, financial resourcing for travel and training, and opportunities to advance, to name a few. This is what is meant by power differentials being so high. Unfortunately, that is fertile ground for abuse. In the cases I mentioned, abuse wasn’t always reported, incidents were covered up, athletes were forced to deny their own experiences for fear of retribution including loss of career or worse. And it’s not only those perpetrating the abuse. Bullying, grooming, manipulating poverty — there are bystanders through all of it. People knew what was going on and chose not to act, as they operate in a culture or a system where whistleblowing is detrimental to careers.
The other issue is neglect of the physical and emotional wellbeing of athletes. When an athlete is injured, for example, is the priority to ensure that they receive the medical attention and support they need to enable their full recovery — or is there a culture cultivated where athletes afraid to report injuries, or intimidated into training while injured? It should never be the case that an athlete has to sacrifice their voice and their human rights in pursuit of the end result. When a culture that values performance over protection becomes normalised, it has a huge impact on the whole life of an individual; physically, psychologically, emotionally.
The culture in the sports environment may also impede reporting. A culture that values performance over protection. When those behaviours become normalised, it has a huge impact on the whole life of an individual; physically, psychologically, emotionally.
“There is an assumption that as an athlete you have to sacrifice your voice and your human rights for the end result.”
We have to tackle change from two angles. Firstly, we need to take the steps to prevent harm from occurring, but secondly, it’s also critical to have adequate structures in place when harm occurs. Does the process to report and investigate adequately protect the victim? Is the process safe? What support is available? What are the cultural implications? Our strategic plan on remedy examines these key issues.
Abuse is a really hard topic to discuss. But we need to normalise the conversation so people can understand. Coaches, administrators, officials, athletes — can all benefit from having greater awareness of what unacceptable behaviour is and how to prevent it. In doing so, it’s important to capture the experiences of people who are survivors of abuse. Listen to their stories. The stories of abuse we’ve tracked around the world, different countries, different sports, different ages — all have eerie similarities with respect to how abuse occurred. We need to understand their experiences in order to build effective prevention and mitigation measures.
2. Be an active bystander
Someone always knows. These incidents occur within the systems of power and neglect, which are not always friendly for the victims. If you see or hear something — say something. Report it. If you’re working within sports bodies, do your complaint or reporting mechanisms enable safe and anonymous reporting by either victims or whistleblowers?
3. Demand diversity within power structures of sport
This is critical. There is a bevy of research that clearly links increased performance of organisations with diversity at its senior levels. So one would think that in the world of elite sport, where performance is a key driver, that we would see diversity more readily embraced. But with some exceptions, the reverse is true. There’s simply not enough diversity within the power structures of sport. There need to be more women, more people of colour, inclusion of persons with disabilities and members of the LGBTQI+ community, among others.
Just this year, we’ve launched a new podcast raising awareness of the issues we deal with on a daily basis. The content focuses on how the worlds of sport and human rights are coming together to achieve positive change in the lives of people around the world. We also have a webinar series, tackling athlete activism and athlete abuse. Have a listen and let us know what you think.
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