Olympic Sprinter Tianna Madison Sued By Parents for Speaking Out About Her Childhood

Olympic gold medalist Tianna Madison came home from London to accolades for helping the US 4x100 sprint relay team to gold -- and a lawsuit for defamation and slander from her parents, Jo Ann and Robert Madison.
Publish date:
September 11, 2012
sports, molestation, family feud, women speak out

Olympic gold medalist Tianna Madison came home from London to accolades for helping the US 4x100 sprint relay team to gold -- and a lawsuit for defamation and slander from her parents, Jo Ann and Robert Madison. The suit has cracked open a complex family feud that’s been made all the murkier by media stirring the waters, and it’s raising some uncomfortable issues.

What, exactly, is going on here?

Tianna has indicated that her parents mismanaged her finances, a common issue for Olympians, who typically start in sports young, before they’re old enough to handle their own financial matters. Parents often take over this aspect of their careers, and they have an ethical and fiscal duty to handle monies responsibly. This can be a big issue when athletes have significant endorsements and other contracts that represent substantial sums.

Furthermore, she’s accused her parents of knowingly allowing a boy who molested her into their home when she was there, creating an unsafe home situation. She indicated that on her return from London, she’d expose the culture of abuse and bullying she experienced at home.

Her parents claim none of this true, and they just filed suit to the tune of $50,000 in combined damages. The media, loving a good estrangement story that capitalizes on our recent success in London, is all over it with a series of articles painting a lurid picture of parents against child.

The situation may be a lot more complicated, though. Madison was recently interviewed by CNN about her organization Club 360, which promotes self-empowerment among young women, and some of the things she says in that interview are highly revealing. She briefly mentioned her molestation, but more than that, she talked about systemic patterns of low self-esteem and difficulty advocating for herself in childhood, which she was only able to work on when she got out of the house and married her husband, John Bartoletta.

It took someone like my husband to give me the love and tools to help me change it. It was not something I could do on my own. That is why I wanted to start Club 360 -- so we could give these young women love and support as well.

Her words sound like those of a woman who maybe didn’t get the support she needed at home, which would run contrary to her parents’ claims of providing a loving and supporting home environment. It’s also telling that they heavily stress their Christian roots in interviews; Christians are not inherently abusive and terrible people, of course, but there are some strains of fundamentalist Christianity that can be very difficult to grow up with, and that may have been the case here, though we don’t know for sure since it’s not clear which sect her parents belong to.

It’s possible her parents are suing her in the hopes of getting a chunk of the change that comes with coming back to the US victorious from the Olympics. They claim they’re hoping to “wake her up,” which is a rather chilling statement, and one that reflects on the possible nature of her childhood. Suing people to teach them a lesson doesn’t sound like a loving, kind, supportive brand of parenting or Christianity, does it?

Hearsay cases like this are always challenging because of the slippery nature of the evidence. But this one would appear to be much more complicated than it’s being made out to be, and it could spark a larger and important discussion about the lives of young athletes as well as broader experiences of molestation and safe home environments.

Talented athletes start displaying skills early, and they often have a limited chance to be kids, thrust instead into a very grownup world that they’re expected to navigate while also enduring grueling training and preparing for competition. For elite athletes like Tianna, there’s tremendous pressure, and you need a strong support system including not just parents and other family but also teammates, friends, coaches, and advocates. She’s built that now in recovery from her childhood, but a closer eye should be cast on how the system broke down to put her in this position in the first place.

We saw some of the high stakes in fictional form on “Make It Or Break It” (shut up, you know you loved it), along with some of the ways in which elite athletic competition can affect parents. There’s a lot at stake, and some parents don’t cope with it well. Perhaps that was the case with Tianna’s family, in which case getting out, building a life for herself, and speaking out were all important things for her to do.

When the punishment for speaking out is being slapped with a lawsuit by your estranged parents, the result may not be to make you shut up, which seems to be what her parents want. It might be to speak louder. And I for one want to hear what athletes and women like Tianna have to say.