Thank you Harry O’Brien

Collingwood footballer Harry O’Brien’s decision to speak publicly about his struggle with a “very complicated history of sexual abuse, suicide and depression” and his request for “a bit of space, because I’m going through this real stuff here and it’s really tough” has received considerable media attention and justifiably garnered him much support and respect. Harry O’Brien’s short and direct statement naming this “real stuff” is I suggest a significant step in furthering public understanding of sexual abuse, which also has the potential to provide validation, encouragement and hope to those who have been sexually victimised.  

In challenging the media, “If you want to speculate on something, why don’t you speculate on my history of sexual abuse”, O’Brien placed an emphasis on considering how sexual abuse can impact on people’s lives. Although, there has been some recent discussion of suicide and depression affecting sportsmen, O’Brien is the first current player to name these issues in relation to a history of sexual abuse.

When high profile sportsmen, like Harry O’Brien, speak about confronting such difficulties it can significantly influence our community understanding and responses in positive ways.  In our society, sportsmen are often encouraged to see themselves as epitomising the masculine stereotype; strong, competitive, as combative, able to look after themselves in confrontations, as resilient, able to dig deep and step up during difficult times, to cope with whatever is thrown at them. When these idealised, ‘heroes/warriors’ name personal difficulties and specifically a history of being sexually abused, it makes it easier for other men to speak about personal difficulties and experiences of abuse.  The implication being, that if abuse can happen to these ‘real men’, then can happen to any man. This public awareness is particularly helpful for men who have been sexually abused, as we know that one of the barriers to men’s disclosure is that they worry that they will be judged and considered ‘less of a man’ for having been sexually abused. It is a major barrier to disclosure that contributes to men typically not telling anyone about what occurred until 22 years after the event/s, on average 10 years later than women who have been sexually abused.

When high profile sportsmen identify as having had a history of sexual abuse, it can help break down the sense of isolation and provide some hope and encouragement to those who have been abused in that it demonstrates that it is possible to live a purposeful, full life, where you can contribute and achieve despite the experience of abuse. This is not to deny the reality that sexual abuse can have a profound negative impact on a person’s life.  Sadly, the experience of Peter Jackson graphically demonstrates this (Jackson – who was sexually abused as a 15 year old, went on to play rugby league for Australia, subsequently struggling with depression, self esteem, drink and drugs).  For us in Australia, public acknowledgment of the resilience and achievement of those who have been sexually abused can be important in disrupting a sometimes overwhelming media narrative of disaster and destruction that can unhelpfully diminish people’s sense of hope and encouragement. As one man who was sexually abused has stated:

“The media image of guys who have been abused is often that his whole life is wrecked. This doesn’t give us hope. Because basically, we need inspirational work and stories to be told, because otherwise we get the sense that we can’t deal with things, that we don’t have it within ourselves. It’s sort of like a constant underestimation of our ability to deal with things, and to find peace in the midst of it all, in the midst of the pain and suffering.”

Elite Sportsman

In recent years, a number of high profile international sportsmen have come forward and spoken of being sexually abused.  These sportsmen have also made significant contributions both in their chosen field and within local and national communities.

Greg LeMond is a retired road racing cyclist who became World Champion in 1983 and 1989 and won the Tour de France in 1986, 1989 and 1990. In 2007, LeMond spoke publicly about being sexually abused and how it had impacted upon his life.  LeMond has taken a strong stance against the use of performance enhancing drugs in cycling, he has made philanthropic contributions supporting those experiencing Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ADHD and is a founding board member of the non profit organization 1in6.org whose mission is “to help men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood live healthy happy lives’  

Sugar Ray Leonard is a retired boxer who represented the USA at the 1976 Olympics, where he won a gold medal, he went on as a professional boxer winning world titles in five weight divisions, was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame and named ‘Boxer of the Decade’ for the 1980s. In 2011, Leonard revealed in his autobiography that as a young boxer he was sexually abused by a trainer and another man and detailed his struggles with alcohol.  Leonard has been the long time Chairman of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and founded with his wife the Sugar Ray Leonard Foundation supporting accessible housing, job training health care and education.          

Robert Allen (R.A.) Dickey is a current American baseball pitcher, who in 2012 was selected as an All Star player, won the Sporting News Pitcher of the Year award and Cy Young Award.  In 2012, in his autobiography Dickey spoke of how he was sexually abused as an 8 year old and later as a teenager and his struggles with suicidal thoughts.  The same year he appeared on the cover of Sport Illustrated as a ‘champion who stepped out of the shadows, shined a light on the dark secret of child sexual abuse, and showed us how to understand and to begin to heal”.  He is committed to charitable work supporting provision of medical supplies and assistance to the poor in Latin America, raising awareness and financial support to address human trafficking in India through the Bombay Teen Challenge, plus assistance to groups addressing the impact of childhood sexual abuse.           

Theo Fleury is a retired Canadian ice Hockey player who represented Canada twice at the Olympics, winning Gold in 2002, played in seven All Star Games and in over 1000 games in the NHL between 1989 and 2003.  In 2009, Theo wrote in his biography of being sexually abused as a child and a history of alcohol and drug abuse. He has actively supported charitable causes, forming a number of hockey schools, donating proceeds to minor hockey associations, he joined with the Crohns and Colitis Foundation of Canada to host annual golf tournament that to date has raised over $1 million. He has more recently added his support to raising awareness and money to address childhood sexual abuse. 

Brian Moore is a retired English rugby union footballer who represented England, winning  a total of 64 England caps between 1987 and 1995, winning Grand Slams in 1991, 1992 and 1995. In 1991, he was voted Rugby World Player of the Year.  In 2009, Moore revealed that he was sexually abused as a 9 year old by a male school teacher.  Within a week of this disclosure he received over 20 letters from people who had similar experiences, including school colleagues and two well known rugby players.  He is now a BBC Sport presenter and committed to raising awareness and to charitable causes. 

Ian Roberts is a former Australian rugby league player who played representative football for New South Wales and Australia.  In 2006, Roberts gave evidence at a court hearing of being sexually abused as a 15 year old.  In 1995, Roberts was the first elite Australian sportsman and first International Rugby player in the world to publicly identify as a gay.  He is committed charity worker, visiting children in hospital, supporting young people and GLBTQ advocate.

Harry O’Brien, is amongst a group of elite sportsmen who have not only publicly named personal struggles and history of being sexually abused, but committed themselves to making a positive contribution to their local community.  He is a multicultural ambassador, doing charitable work for both UNICEF and the campaign ‘Knives Scar Lives’.  

In detailing these men’s achievements and commitment there is no suggestion that they are better than anyone else that has been sexually abused or that they have not struggled with the impact of sexual abuse. These men do though, through their personal perseverance, resilience and commitment in supporting others, provide a counter weight to reporting of sexual abuse that focus solely on the profound negative impact that sexual abuse can have on people lives, failing to acknowledge the positive contribution those who have survived abuse make within our communities.  

I hope that Harry O’Brien will be allowed the space and time to access support in order for him to sort stuff out. What is also clear is that by publicly naming personal struggles with a history of sexual abuse, depression and suicide, Harry O’Brien has furthered public awareness and understanding and I suggest provided a considerable degree of support, encouragement and hope for those who have been through similar experiences.   

Thank you Harry O’Brien

Gary Foster - Living Well