Sport Slogans: Inspiring Athletes or Silencing Victims?

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“Believe in Something Even if it Means Sacrificing Everything” is another well intended slogan that sends the wrong message to athletes.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why Nike chose this slogan for Colin Kaepernick. I will admit, when I first saw the Nike campaign flash across Twitter, I thought it was awesome and I even retweeted it without thinking. I identified with it because I have sacrificed a lot to do the work I do. When I took time to reflect on it, I began to realize this slogan is no different than the other harmful slogans I give as examples in my presentations to parents, schools, and coaches on child sexual abuse prevention.

I am all for rallying behind a cause. I am all for making sacrifices to achieve goals. However, Nike’s new slogan does not send a healthy message by suggesting athletes sacrifice everything for something they believe in. It is the use of the word “everything” that bothers me. Not everything needs to be sacrificed, especially not your physical and mental well-being.

What do sports slogans have to do with sexual abuse? You might not think these slogans matter much but if they didn’t they wouldn’t have the ability to be recognized universally in every sport and almost every nation. A search on the internet for the psychology behind slogans turns up almost five million hits. The neuroscience that makes them unforgettable is a form of brainwashing. What you repeat, your brain believes to be true.

Slogans such as “pain is weakness leaving the body” or “no pain, no gain” or “pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever” pretty much convey to athletes - screw whatever you are going through, winning is all that matters. Athletes are pushed to succeed at all costs by parents, coaches, organizations and companies. They fear if they speak up they will not be able to compete in the sport they love. Predators know this and count on it to provide them the opportunity to abuse victims with no consequences.

Sexual assault and abuse are rampant in sports because athletes are trained to listen and follow orders. Penn State Football Coach Jerry Sandusky had 26 football players who said he victimized them, who knows how many victims he had over his thirty-year career. Five lawsuits have been brought against the SoCal AYSO for coaches who molested soccer players. Over 300 gymnasts have disclosed abuse at the hands of US Olympic Gymnastics Doctor Larry Nassar over a period of three decades.

Everyone asks why didn’t the victims speak up? Why didn’t the victims come forward sooner? The answer is because we have created a society that tells victims to stay silent. Slogans telling athletes to sacrifice everything are repeatedly pounded into the minds of these athletes and they convince themselves they must push through the pain to win because “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” according to Vince Lombardi, revered as one of the greatest coaches ever.

Sexual assault and abuse are very shameful by nature, but when you have an entire industry repeatedly telling you to “suck it up buttercup” and “just do it” you are telling the victim to allow the abuse to happen because that’s what athletes are expected to do. The essence of this messaging is that athletes have to suffer and not complain. That mentality propagates victimization.

It is possible to promote positive messages to athletes that inspire greatness without insinuating it requires pain, suffering, and silence. “You can become strong and powerful and beautiful” – Serena Williams.