Listening to Victims of Maltreatment in Sport: Avoiding the DARVO Effect

#WeRideTogether, following our values and mission to bring evidenced-based proactive prevention tools to athletic spaces, consistently connects with subject matter experts in academia. With our intention to promote awareness of best practices and current research findings, #WeRideTogether shares insights from Dr. Bri Newland of NYU and Dr. Shannon Kerwin of Brock University. 

These authors place necessary emphasis on how the impact of individual and institutional responses to victims of abuse and misconduct shapes sporting cultures. By providing language and a template for change, Newland and Kerwin encourage organizations to reflect and reform to better protect athletes. The bottom line – how we respond to abuse matters. 

As researchers who study abuse, we review abuse and maltreatment data that have occurred in North American sport (i.e., The Sport Information Resource Centre; Child USA), and have been astounded by the amount of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse existing in this context. Through our research and consulting work, we are attempting to change sport’s culture. As consultants, we have worked with organizations to create or revise policies and programs that educate administrators, coaches, parents, and athletes on how to create safer sporting environments and hold perpetrators and accountable. 

Unfortunately, when we focus solely on the abused and the abuser, we fail to miss the system around individuals that makes abuse possible. In particular, the sport organizations that construct sport programs, invite participants, recruit coaches, and define excellence typically fall away from the public eye or mainstream critique. We may be quick to fire those in power without critically reviewing their behavior or understanding the long lasting impact that reactions from organizational stakeholders have on victims. Further, we also fail to scrutinize the institutional actions (or lack thereof) or policy that enabled such behavior to exist and go unchecked. 

A reflection on DARVO and the psychological effect narcissists, not just abusers, have on victims is essential to understanding how we may recast the current sport culture as one that offers safer environments and relationships for athletes.

What is DARVO?

DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse roles of Victim and Offender) is a response exhibited by those accused of sexual offenses. It involves denying the behavior, attacking the accuser, and reversing roles to assume the victim's position. DARVO occurs at both individual and institutional levels and has been subject to empirical research to understand its impact [see linked resources]. 

Jennifer Freyd’s work in this area has identified DARVO as a response pattern involving the denial of accusations, attacking the accuser, reversing the roles, painting the perpetrator as the victim. A classic example of DARVO in the media is Donald Trump’s response to losing the trial and defamation case to E. Jean Carroll, who accused him of sexual assault. In the media, Trump 1) denies any wrongdoing, 2) verbally attacks Ms. Carroll for months on social media, press conferences, and the campaign trail, 3) tries to cast himself as a victim of ‘witch hunts’ and false accusations, and 4) attempts to make her the offender for holding him accountable for his actions.

Institutional DARVO occurs when institutions engage in this response, such as when law enforcement accuses rape victims of lying. A clear example of institutional DARVO was Michigan State University’s leadership ignored reports from several athletes for years. Larissa Boyce first reported being highly uncomfortable and suspect of the intravaginal treatments she was receiving, and because she openly discussed her experience was berated by MSU officials for accusing a respected doctor of sexual misconduct. She did not press charges and for most of her life lived with the shame and guilt that she was the problem. She wasn’t, she was a victim of abuse and DARVO.

Freyd and others’ research have examined the impact of DARVO, including its association with victim self-blame, along with its effects on perpetrator and victim credibility. Efforts to counter this response pattern through anti-DARVO measures and promoting institutional courage are gaining traction. Institutional courage is an institution’s commitment to: 

  1. seek the truth and engage in moral action, despite unpleasantness, risk, and short-term cost; 
  2. protect and care for those who depend on the institution; 
  3. acting as a compass oriented to the common good of individuals, the institution, and the world; and 
  4. becoming a force that transforms institutions into more accountable, equitable, healthy places for everyone.

Sport organizations and systems around sport don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The Center for Institutional Courage outlines 11 steps that can be used to inform institutional policies and responses to abuse accusations. They encourage organizations to adopt one or two policies modeled after these steps as a practical introduction to practicing institutional courage, but ultimately institutions should aim to incorporate policies that address all 11 steps. 

As leaders in sport, there must be a commitment to communication, openness, transparency and holding folks accountable for their actions (or inactions). There must be a recognition of DARVO, and strategies in place to reduce the presence and prevalence of DARVO at both the institutional/organizational and individual levels of sport to protect our athletes from abuse in sports.

We encourage you to reflect on how individuals and institutions in your sport have responded to abuse. Is their behavior an example of DARVO or one of Institutional Courage?

Dr. Bri Newland

Assistant Dean, Division of Applied Undergraduate Studies

Cl Professor, Preston Robert Tisch Institute for Global Sport

Academic & Conference Chair, North American Society for Sport Management

Editor, Sport Marketing Quarterly

Associate Editor, Managing Sport & Leisure

Associate Editor, Event Management

Shannon Kerwin, PhD (she/her/they)

Associate Professor

Graduate Program Director

Brock University — Department of Sport Management

Bri Newland is a Professor in the Tisch Institute for Global Sport at NYU. She is currently involved in a research study that explores institutional responses to reports of abuse in the United States. Shannon Kerwin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sport Management at Brock University. She is currently involved on a research team that is engaged in a comprehensive federally funded research grant exploring athlete, coach, and administrator perceptions of safe and unsafe sport in Canada.

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