This is a true story but names have been changed for reasons that will become obvious.
Once upon a time I was responsible for Under 23 crews in a country that also won’t be named (those who know my history a bit will figure this gives a choice of three.) Trials time had rolled around and the selectors had published the list of who they wanted at the trials. I was responsible for the coaching of the teams and their performance but had no role in the selection, which is another article in the making!
As I read the list I realised that I had a quandary to deal with. One of the women invited was a prostitute, or I thought she was. I had heard this second or third hand from members of her club but it didn’t seem to be general knowledge around the rowing scene. Not illegal in the country of which I write, but still not necessarily what a clean living amateur sport needed to help with the public image. And what about her rights to live as she pleased, and to privacy and, anyway, was it only a rumour? So; what to do, how to react?
I initially did the easy thing, nothing. I then called a contact at the club and was told, yes, Mary works in the sex industry, and, no, it wasn’t widely known.
As I pondered how to react, what to do, I vacillated between simple “it’s her life, it’s not illegal, not my problem” to “imagine the headlines, imagine the phone calls from the mothers of the other girls in the crew if we select her” panic. I decided that one thing at least I could do for Mary was to help her have a fair rowing trial so I said nothing to the selectors about her occupation. And, I confess, I thought if she didn’t make it nothing would need to be done. A weasel way out I know.
Of course she did make a crew. Well done Mary! The selectors called me in after they had deliberated and showed me the crews they intended to select and asked if I had any comment. I said “Well, yes…” and told my story. After some toing and froing their attitude was simple and admirable; “She is good enough so she’s in. We don’t care about her private life.” OK, then still my problem to deal with.
Our CEO was also at the meeting and I turned to him and asked “ What do you think?” His response was equally simple but rather less admirable “ Your problem, you deal with it.” So nothing had changed except my problem had become real and urgent. And there was extra pressure on my decision because I knew the CEO was not to be trusted and would give me no support if trouble came. If the story broke it would be me and my job threatened, not his.
The crews were announced and the athletes sent away home to organise their lives and get ready to train in the new crews. I arranged to visit Mary’s home town to talk to all the new members of the squad who were based there and to arrange training programmes etc etc. When I hit town I rang Mary and asked for a 1 on 1 meeting at a café, a nice neutral space. There you could have seen a rather nervous National Coach figuring how to ask a pleasant young woman “Are you a prostitute?” Not something I had done before!
Anyway, the answer was yes. So I did have a problem. Mary and her madam and I had a couple of long and difficult discussions and in the end they agreed to do as I asked and for Mary to stay off the game while she was actually in the team. The discussion took me to places I had never been before; the madam was arguing strongly for Mary to be allowed to do what she normally did, and angered by my insistence that it wasn’t appropriate, threatened to go public with the names of several rowing big wigs who were her regular customers. I was tempted!
Anyway, back to the rowing. The crew trained diligently, and the secret stayed secret. Every week I scanned the headlines in the tabloid press for revelations but they didn’t come. Mary did complain to me that the job we found for here paid much less for much more work than her regular employment but she stuck it out. At the final regatta the girls won a gold medal.
At the end of the campaign I was a relieved coach.
On reflection though I am still not sure I did the right thing. Does it matter what a crew mate does out of rowing time? Was I worrying about myself and not about the athletes I was responsible for? Was I failing in my duty by not trying to persuade Mary to give up her occupation? I don’t know. What do you think?
Not long after this campaign Mary gave up prostitution, went to university and got a qualification ad is now an apparently happy and successful social worker. A very happy ending.