The legendary Olympic champion has her sights set on achieving an even bigger goal: making the world safe for young athletes.
BY SJ McSHANE
Olympic gymnast Shannon Miller medaled seven times for the United States, including two golds. She is also the only female athlete to be inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame twice, once as an individual (2006) and another time in the team category (2008). Today, Miller isn’t resting on her considerable laurels—or her pile of medals. She’s offering young athletes something bigger than a shot at glory: the tools to combat all forms of abuse.
Miller, part of the “Magnificent Seven” US team that won gold in 1996, says she was not a victim of the horrific abuse scandal perpetrated by team doctor Larry Nassar. Miller, however, has become an outspoken advocate since Nassar was found to have sexually abused 322 girls, mostly minors. He is currently serving three consecutive 20-year prison terms.
The fallout from the Nassar revelations has been enormous. Michigan State University, which employed Nassar, agreed to pay $500 million dollars to Nassar’s victims, and USA Gymnastics was forced to purge its leadership. Miller was part of a search committee to find a new CEO of the organization.
But the tragedy of USA gymnastics goes beyond a single pedophile. Nassar couldn’t have perpetrated his crimes over several decades without enablers, people in positions of power who chose to look the other way.
Now, Miller’s determination and passion are geared towards protecting young athletes against abuse by educating their families and communities with the proper tools to make a much-needed change. With enough support behind her cause, she hopes to make children everywhere safe from abuse – or at the very least prevent the next Larry Nassar.
Robert Irvine Magazine: What prompted you to get involved in raising awareness/education concerning the abuse of young athletes?
Shannon Miller: As a former athlete and as a mom I wanted to understand what I could do to help other athletes and educate my own children in a safe and age-appropriate way. I reached out to a number of different organizations regarding abuse prevention education. What I love about the Monique Burr Foundation is that their curriculum is comprehensive. This means that they not only cover sexual abuse but also other forms of abuse, as well as bullying, cyberbullying, and digital dangers. These are issues that parents face every day with their children. I also love that the curriculum is backed by research. In fact, MBF Child Safety Matters is the only evidence-based comprehensive abuse prevention education available in the United States.
Statistics show that 95% of abuse is preventable through education. That’s incredible! We need to be educating our children so that they have the tools they need. MBF has educated over 2.5 million children since 2010. Since first meeting with them in late 2017, I have joined their board of directors and have joined with Donna Orender on the task force for developing MBF Athlete Safety Matters.
(Learn more about MBF Athlete Safety Matters by clicking HERE.)
I am a strong believer that sports, at every level, offer amazing benefits and life lessons. Let’s not keep our children away from the incredible benefits of youth sports, let’s educate them about safety through youth sports.
What are some of the most important tools that parents, guardians and schools can use to help protect against abuse?
To prevent abuse, we need to educate both adults and children. The Monique Burr Foundation partners with Darkness to Light, an organization focused on educating adults and together they provide 360 degrees of prevention. Every school should be implementing a comprehensive prevention education that is evidence-based or evidence-informed. Parents and other adults can advocate for the use of both of these programs in their schools, churches, youth-serving organizations and more.
It’s also important that parents talk to kids about abuse and bullying in an open and honest way. Abuse—especially sexual abuse—thrives in secrecy. But parents don’t often know how to talk to their kids or are uncomfortable with the topics. I have two young children myself. Even with all that has come to light in the last couple of years, I was still hesitant to discuss the issue with my children. I wasn’t sure how to do it without scaring them. MBF has many resources for parents to help them with this. I can now have these conversations with my kids by reinforcing what they are already learning in an age-appropriate way.
Additionally, we know parents and other adults and caregivers need to 1) become better educated on the issues facing kids; 2) listen to what kids are saying and not saying, and watch for indicators of abuse and bullying because kids don’t often report; 3) establish rules and boundaries and don’t be afraid to learn what their kids are exposed to and doing online.
Why does there seem to be so much abuse towards young athletes? Is it on the rise or have we just not been talking about it?
We don’t really know if there is more abuse now or if society is just now talking about abuse in a more open way. What we do know is that every child is at risk—in school, in sports, in church, in other youth-serving organizations, and many are at risk in their own homes. To protect kids, we need universal primary prevention – meaning general and specific prevention information delivered to every child before abuse or bullying ever happens.
What are the most important tools exercised in abuse prevention?
MBF Child Safety Matters and MBF Teen Safety Matters were developed based on the latest research and best practices in prevention. What research tells us is that kids don’t need a program or a set of strategies that teach them about abuse, and another about bullying, and another about internet safety. They need one set of universal rules and strategies that they can use if faced with any unsafe situation.
The other foundational element is that kids need to learn who a safe adult is and be able to identify at least two safe adults (one in their home and one outside of their home) that they can talk to about unsafe people or situations. The program not only teaches kids this information but teaches safe adults what to do if a child comes to them and tells them they are unsafe or have been hurt.
What are some of the signs to look out for concerning a possible predator? Are there specific actions or words that parents should be aware of?
Abusers come from all walks of life and sadly, they can be anyone. We can’t know by looking at someone if they would likely hurt a child. There are however some behaviors that might indicate an adult may be grooming a child:
– An adult that likes spending time with kids more than adults
– Overly friendly toward kids
– Singling out one child; paying more attention to them than others; giving them gifts
– Trying to spend alone time with a child
– Pushing boundaries (hugging, tickling, patting on bottom) to test a child’s reaction
– Inappropriate (or sexual) touches
Often predators will groom parents as well, making them think they are helping or showing their care and concern for a child. The better we educate both adults and children about these red flags the easier it will be for these types of behaviors to be noticed and stopped before abuse ever happens.
We also know that about a third of sexual abuse is perpetrated by another youth, so we also need to include that information when teaching adults and children about abuse and who perpetrators may be, including peers or other youth.
Can you give some details on what the ‘MBF Athlete Safety Matters’ program is and what your role in it is?
MBF Athlete Safety Matters is a program for youth athletes, of any level and any sport, in grades K-12. It takes the proven content and the five safety rules from the evidence-based program, MBF Child Safety Matters, and applies this to sports settings. In addition, MBF Athlete Safety Matters provides scenarios and additional information to address sport-specific safety concerns, such as appropriate versus inappropriate touch, for example, with spotting or other situations that athletes face in the course of training or competing.
As with MBF Child Safety Matters, MBF Athlete Safety Matters will teach youth athletes, and the adults in their lives, how to prevent, recognize, and respond appropriately to abuse—physical, sexual, emotional, and neglect—bullying, cyberbullying, and digital dangers; and for older kids will also include relationship abuse, sexual assault, and trafficking.