Sports and Psychoanalysis


Mariah Burton Nelson


Sexual exploitation and forgiveness


My mother is a psychiatrist, so I'm comfortable here, among mental health professionals, which is a good thing, because I'm going to be discussing a somewhat uncomfortable issue: sexual abuse. I'll tell you the story of a teenage girl who was molested by her swimming coach for three years, beginning when she was 14 and he was 25. This is a common phenomenon in sports, unfortunately. An athlete trusts, respects, and looks up to her coach, who takes advantage of her youth and naivete.

The girl was, of course, me. It's a distressing story but fortunately there's a happy ending: forgiveness. I know that many of you have patients for whom forgiveness is a significant therapeutic issue. And I would suspect that for some of you, self-forgiveness might be an important part of your work -- since, like all of us, surely you make mistakes at least occasionally!

The sexual abuse part of this story begins when my coach, a handsome and charming man I'll call Bruce, praised my writing, supported my passion for sports, gave me posters and poetry, and, while I sat frozen in fear and confusion on the car seat next to him, eased his hand inside my sweatpants. I felt deeply flattered, horribly ashamed, guilty, infatuated, scared, and, because he was married, brokenhearted.

Bruce called this "an affair" and complimented me on being "mature enough to handle it." He introduced me to the term "statutory rape," explaining that "other people wouldn't understand -- especially your parents," and warning me that if I told anyone, he would go to prison.

I didn't start dealing with the effects of this exploitation until about 20 years later, when I wrote about the widespread problem of coach-athlete abuse in my book, The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football. I didn't identify Bruce in the book, but wrote about my experience with him. After the book came out, I changed my mind about shielding Bruce's identity, and started naming him in public presentations. Though I was not consciously vengeful, one might reasonably interpret my "outing" him as an expression of revenge. Soon someone in my audience reported the situation to his supervisor. Shortly after that, I received a call from Bruce. He asked me to forgive him.

Wary and angry, I refused, accusing him of trying to manipulate me into silence. But he persisted, writing me two letters in which he apologized for hurting me and requested "some sort of peace or reconciliation between us."

I remained wary, but eventually it occurred to me: What if I never forgive him? At age forty, was I facing another forty years of bitterness over something that had happened in my teens? The wound was not healing on its own. I thought, Something has to give. Then I thought, Maybe that something is me.

I called Bruce, and we talked for an hour. Over the next six months, we talked on the phone many times, exchanged many long letters, and met in person twice.

Ultimately I did forgive him. The process of forgiving him changed me. I was not only released from decades of anger about Bruce, I became a more loving, forgiving, emotionally generous person toward myself and others. My story is not unique; in The Unburdened Heart, I offer dozens of stories of people who have become free through forgiveness. I also offer five original keys to forgiveness and freedom:

1) Awareness: Remember who hurt you and how.

2) Validation: Talk to a sympathetic listener.

3) Compassion: Strive to see the offender's humanity.

4) Humility: Reflect on your own mistakes and limitations.

5) Self-Forgiveness: Open your heart to yourself.

Forgiveness frees people from the grudges and anger of the past. It frees us from attachment to the person who wounded us, and from the identity of victim or martyr. Forgivers become free to love more, and to receive more love.

You are in the business of helping people understand the past and unburden their hearts. I hope you will continue to explore the healing power of forgiveness with your patients, and in your own lives. **



Mariah Burton Nelson, a former Stanford and professional basketball player, has written three books about women, men, and sports, including Embracing Victory: Life Lessons in Competition and Compassion (William Morrow), and The Unburdened Heart: Five Keys to Forgiveness and Freedom (HarperSanFrancisco). A former weekly columnist for the Washington Post, she now writes columns for Oxygen Media on their website, and gives customized speeches to about thirty groups each year.