Rising WNBA superstar Breanna Stewart joined the #MeToo movement last October, when she wrote about the sexual abuse she says she suffered as a child in a personal essay for The Players’ Tribune. Stewart attributed the #MeToo movement for giving her the strength to share her story. She wrote that her dad would say to her, “It’s not a dirty little secret. When you’re comfortable with it, and when you’re comfortable being open about it, you could save someone’s life.”
Stewart wrote that she survived two years of sexual abuse at the hands of her aunt’s husband. She said that from the ages of nine to 11, she was always on guard and had a hard time falling asleep at night, that her uncle always found an excuse to be near her, which prevented her from feeling safe.
During those extremely challenging times, the basketball court was a safe space for Stewart. At 11, she found the inner strength to confide in her parents about the abuse. That same day, she went to practice, because “the only thing [she] wanted to do was go play basketball.” For Stewart, like other female athletes who have endured sexual abuse, sport was an outlet to cope with the pain and anxiety caused by abuse.
Stewart went on to become a budding superstar for the University of Connecticut Huskies, leading them to four consecutive national championships, the only team to do so in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) history. Her team success was matched by her personal athletic accolades — Stewart is the only athlete in NCAA history to have won the Final Four Most Outstanding Player award four times.
After graduating, the Seattle Storm selected Stewart with the first overall pick in the 2016 WNBA Draft. Her rookie season in the WNBA mirrored the success she had playing for the Huskies. She was named 2016 WNBA Rookie of the Year and won gold with the US women’s basketball team at the Rio Olympics. More recently, Stewart was featured in ESPN’s 2018 Body Issue in the hopes of supporting others in accepting and celebrating their bodies and the stories they hold.
Stewart credits former US Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney’s account of the sexual abuse she faced at the hands of team doctor Larry Nassar for inspiring her and giving her a sense of community. The sexual assault case against Nassar was greatly fuelled by the rise of the #MeToo movement.
Along with others who spoke out, Maroney international attention to the case against the former US Gymnastics and Michigan State University team physician, who molested the Olympian hundreds of times over her athletic career, starting with her very first appointment.
In January 2018, Nassar was sentenced to between 40 and 175 years in prison, after more than 160 women testified that he had sexually abused them over the past 20 years under the guise of medical treatment. Like Stewart, Maroney wants society to realize that sexual assault is not just something happening in Hollywood. “This is happening everywhere. Wherever there is a position of power, there seems to be potential for abuse,” Maroney wrote in a statement posted to her Twitter account.
While the accolades that come along with being a professional athlete may create the illusion of perfection, it’s impossible to know what an individual is dealing with under the surface.
Stewart’s willingness to speak out and share her story will help fellow victims of sexual abuse understand that they are not alone. Through her partnership with the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, her goal is to connect survivors with someone they can relate to in their struggles and assist people on their journey after surviving abuse.
As more female athletes find the strength to share their stories, speaking out will further the important dialogue surrounding sexual abuse and ultimately help to put an end to it. At the same time, society must also continue to encourage people to share their experiences as a function of the healing process, and inspire others to do the same.