In his soon-to-be-released memoir, legendary boxer Sugar Ray Leonard drops a bomb—a “prominent” boxing coach sexually abused him when he was a teen.
Although Leonard is best known for his affable personality, and lightening-fast jabs, the boxer gives fans an inside look at his upbringing, which like so many other famous boxers, was far less than ideal.
In the book, The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring, Leonard writes candidly about using cocaine, growing up in an abusive home, surviving a near-fatal car accident, nearly drowning to death as a child, and fathering a child when he was just 17.
Despite his tumultuous childhood, one thing has haunted Sugar Ray Leonard his entire life—being molested.
According to the book, Leonard was sexually abused as a teen by a “prominent Olympic boxing coach,” addressing what many consider a “growing concern in the sports industry.”
According to the New York Times:
Leonard writes that when the coach accompanied him as a 15-year-old and another young fighter to a boxing event in Utica, N.Y., in 1971, he had the teenagers take a bath in a tub of hot water and Epsom salts while he sat on the other side of the bathroom. They suspected “something a bit inappropriate” was occurring but did not want to question a strong male authority figure.
Several years later, Leonard describes sitting in a car in a deserted parking lot across from a recreation center, listening intently as the same coach, said to be in his late 40s, explained how much a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics would mean to his future.
Leonard was flattered, filled with hope, as any young athlete would be. But he writes: “Before I knew it, he had unzipped my pants and put his hand, then mouth, on an area that has haunted me for life. I didn’t scream. I didn’t look at him. I just opened the door and ran.”
Like many victims of sexual abuse, Leonard said he felt ashamed about the abuse and never talked about it. He admits that his marriage to his first wife, Juanita, failed in part because he was unable to deal with his issues and turned to alcohol to ease his pain.
It wasn’t until Leonard saw actor Todd Bridges discuss his sexual abuse on Oprah that the boxer knew he needed to share his story as well.
“That was painful enough,” Leonard writes. “But last year, after watching the actor Todd Bridges bare his soul on Oprah’s show about how he was sexually abused as a kid, I realized I would never be free unless I revealed the whole truth, no matter how much it hurt.”
Although sexual abuse, especially for men, is taboo, it is certainly not rare. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 1 out of 4 girls, and 1 out of 6 boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before age 18, so talking about it not only helps the victim, but may also inspire others to speak out as well.
Shame, embarrassment, blame, hurt and anger may prevent many men from speaking out and admitting they were sexually abused, but if we are serious about healing and allowing more men and women to live their lives without the threat of feeling shunned for something that wasn’t their fault, we have to create safe, non-judgmental spaces for them to share.