Human Rights Watch -
Uncovering Child Abuse in Sport

Every child has the right to play, and sport should be a source of joy and growth. In recent years, the world of sport has been rocked by high-profile examples of child athletes experiencing physical and sexual abuse. Human Rights Watch (HRW) is a pioneer in investigating these patterns and practices of abuse, and holding sports governing bodies accountable for the harm done.

Giving athletes a voice

In February 2020, Understory traveled to Japan to interview current and former child athletes, coaches, parents, teachers, and national sports administrators including the Japan Olympic Committee.  

Trained in trauma-informed qualitative interviewing, we conducted in-depth interviews over X individuals across X prefectures in Japan. In their own words, athletes across dozens of sports shared with us their experiences of physical, sexual, and verbal abuse by coaches and older athletes. Those we interviewed described being struck with hands, feet, and objects as punishment for athletic performance.  

In spring 2021, HRW called upon Understory again to interview girls on Mali’s Under-18 National Basketball Team who were seeking to disclose their coach’s sexual assaults. We interviewed X current and former players on the team, and discovered a pattern of abuse going back decades, in which the coach would force players to have sex with him on team trips, under threat of reduced playing time or removal from the team if they refused.  

Exposing gaps in child athlete protection systems

In Japan, we analyzed the framework of laws and administrative policies intended to protect child athletes, and found them to be inadequate. There were no clear prohibitions on child abuse in the context of sport. Hotlines for the reporting of child athlete abuse—which had been set up in response to past abuse scandals—were found to be defunct. And, due to a lack of investigation and accountability, even coaches with publicly known histories of abuse remained in their jobs.  

In Mali, we discovered that the national basketball federation had been aware of the reports of sexual abuse on the team for years, and had failed to act. We also drafted a letter to the Fédération Internationale de Basketball (FIBA) detailing our findings and asking for an independent investigation. The letter was sent by HRW.    

Driving accountability and advocacy

After the release of the report in Mali, the coach was fired, arrested, and indicted for sexual assault. The president of FIBA, a former president of the Mali Basketball Federation, was suspended; as was the president of the Mali Basketball Federation at the time of the report’s publication.  

In Japan, the report on child abuse in sport gained significant attention, from both national and international media, including The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and the BBC. Advocacy is ongoing in the effort to improve child protection laws and to create a Center for Safe Sport in Japan.