Foul Play: The Truth Behind Child Abuse in Sports

By Nader Ihmoud

Though youth coaches are typically tasked with the development of children, the normally close relationships can, at times, be subject

to abuse.

Coaches, as leaders and role models, are generally concerned with developing the young athlete’s skill and dedication, guiding and mentoring them toward success. However, in some instances, the educator takes advantage of his or her role, as happened in the recent Pennsylvania State University scandal, in which coach Jerry Sandusky, the former defensive coordinator for Penn State’s football team, has been charged with sexually abusing children he befriended through his

charity organization.

Sexual abuse victims are abused 90 percent of the time by someone they know and trust, and recent reports accusing Division I coaches of child abuse are shedding light on a historically overlooked crime and

its perpetrators.

Experts feel the closeness of the coaching relationship can facilitate a predatory interest in children.

“If you have a coach who is not a good person, they obviously [have] special access to a young person, and we’ve certainly seen examples of that,” said Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics, a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve the ethical quality of society by changing personal and organizational decision-making

and behavior.

Sexual abuse of children can happen at schools where there is a power and status differential that unfairly puts teachers and educators in a privileged position, according to the report, “Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature,” (2004). Youth coaches often occupy a similar position

of power.

According to “Hostile Hallways” a survey conducted in 2000 for the American Association of University Women, coaches are second only to teachers in frequency of sexual misconduct.

Deborah Donovan Rice, Executive Director of Stop It Now!, which combats sexual abuse of children, believes parents need to be more involved with the coach and sports organization.

“I know it sounds very common sense and very straightforward, but it’s not easy to do,” Rice said. “It’s not easy to have a conversation about sex, especially sex

with children.”

Because a high number of sex crimes against the young go unreported for a variety of reasons, including children’s difficulty in expressing what’s happening to them, exact figures on sex crimes in school sports are largely unavailable. However, certain strategies can lead

to prevention.

Daniel Rhind, a lecturer in youth sport at London’s Brunel University who also leads the Brunel International Research Network on

Athletic Welfare., believes preventive strategies should focus on the coach. Such strategies include criminal records being checked, as well as required attendance at safeguarding education events.

Robert Bell, children’s justice coordinator for the greater Phoenix area, said the key characteristic of an offender is the ability to have access to children. According to the Educator Sexual Misconduct report, coaches are responsible for 15 percent of all school incidents of child

sexual abuse.

Charol Shakeshaft, the Virginia Commonwealth University professor who prepared the report, found that teachers whose job description includes time with individual students are more likely to sexually abuse than teachers who do not. Coaches and music teachers fit

this description, she noted.

Selection of the victim is influenced by the compliance of the student and the likelihood of secrecy. The perpetrators then lie, isolate, make the victim feel complicit and manipulate them into sexual conduct, she wrote.

Bell, who works with agencies involved in child abuse investigations, said the biggest variable in any criminal case is having to convince a unanimous group of people that a person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

“The key to a successful prosecution is really working in a multidisciplinary effort,” Bell said. “Law enforcement, child protective services and the prosecutorial body, whether it’s a county attorney or district attorney, have to begin working on [any given] investigation together from the outset to make sure that the investigations are thorough.”

One of the most important pieces of evidence for a successful prosecution is a child’s testimony. Others include a confession by the suspect, physical evidence or acts that are similar in nature by the accused.

“It really takes a lot of cumulative evidence to be able to convict someone of that crime,” Bell said.

In other words, the burden of proof is on the victim, which some experts view as a flaw in the system.

Rice believes prosecutions should not hinge on the child’s testimony.

“Too much weight is put on the shoulders of children to testify on their own behalf,” Rice said. “These children don’t have the words or the concepts to describe sometimes what’s been going on with them.”

Bell stressed the importance of a community’s willingness to stand up against child abuse. Unless people report it to the police and child protective services, an investigation and prosecution will not be possible.

“We have to have a community that’s willing to stand up and say, ‘You can’t do this to a child. We’re going to report this, and we are going to have to evaluate it,’” Bell said.

Because child molesters usually prey on those they become close to, an effective method of prevention is screening the coaches hired by sports organizations. The National Counsel of Youth Sports provides resources for organizations, such as Little League Baseball and U.S. Youth Soccer, to conduct a screening process.

In 2002, the members of NCYS learned they had to start creating best practices and policies around child safety, or else forfeit insurance coverage, notes Sally Cunningham, executive director of NCYS.

Following two years of summits, studies and meetings with leaders of NCYS and insurance underwriters and brokers,the organization created the National Center for Safety Initiative, a third party group to handle the screenings.

Cunningham said at least two vendors are required for each screening process, based on NCSI’s guidelines.

“There are seven different [criteria] they must meet to even be put into this pool of vendors to be used [for] background screening,” Cunningham said.

Studies suggest preventing child abuse will allow the children to grow up with some sort of normalcy. Eighty percent of young adults who had been abused meet the diagnostic criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder at the age of 21, such as depression and anxiety, according to the Child Abuse Prevention Center.

“From speaking to victims of abuse, it is clear that the impact of their experience is long lasting, even decades after the abusive relationship has ended,” Rhind said.