This week and last, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Child is meeting to review the progress made under provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. 194 nations will participate, except for three, which have yet to ratify the CRC: Somalia, South Sudan, and the United States.*
I have had the privilege of working with the committee on a special youth sports project, but to say that I am embarrassed and frustrated that the United States, which played an active role in drafting the CRC and signed it in February 1995, has thus far failed to ratify the convention is an understatement.
The most common explanation I hear from our elected leaders on Capital Hill is that the rights of the child are already adequately protected under state and federal law.
In fact, we do have many laws. However, few specifically protect children involved in sports; fewer still penalize those that violate its provisions. (For example, as Laura Long of Concussion Connection pointed out in a recent article about attempts to strengthen Oklahoma's concussion law, only Pennsylvania's version of the Lystedt Law penalizes coaches who violate its provisions by failing to remove a an athlete suspected of having a concussion from play or returning the player to play without the required written permission)
The CRC is conducting some very important business this week, including an assessment of India's progress in enforcing its child rights policies. Notably, India's delegation is led by its Secretary of Woman and Child Development Ministry, Shankar Agarwal, and includes representatives from the ministries of Woman and Child Development, Labour, Health, Human Resource Development and External Affairs. Not surprisingly, it is women who are leading the charge.
As a woman and mother fighting to keep kids safe playing sports for the past twenty-five years, first as a mother, coach, administrator, and youth sports activist, then as the Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM, and now as the Executive Director of our new non-profit, MomsTEAM Institute, I am redoubling my efforts to publicize the importance of CRC ratification by the United States Senate, and to get laws enacted at the state level to specifically protect children at play from abuse, not just physical abuse, but emotional, psychological and sexual, and injury. Such an effort will require involving, not just mothers with kids in sports - who have been the guardians of children at play since the dawn of time - but fathers, as well.
But new child protection laws aren't the only way to help improve youth sports safety. Another is through voluntary safety programs. Over the past six months MomsTEAM Institute has been developing a new youth sports safety program called SmartTeamsTM, with the motto, "Play Smart To Be Safe." Modeled after and building on the foundation laid by our PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer," which featured a concussion risk management program we call The Six Pillars,TM SmartTeams will incorporate best youth sports health and safety practices developed by MTI in collaboration with a team of world-class experts we have assembled to serve on our Board of Advisors. We will be testing the SmartTeam approach in a number of pilot programs around the country this fall, with a goal of rolling the program out nationally in the fall of 2015.
Unlike organizations such as the National Football League, the National Athletic Trainers' Association, Pop Warner, USA Football, and the NCAA, MomsTEAM and I are fighting, not to save football or put an athletic trainer on the sideline of every high school football game, or stem the decline in participation in youth football (although we think that all of those goals are laudable and we support them), but to provide every sports parent in America with practical, objective, and well-researched information about youth sports safety that they can use to make their own decisions about whether and when to allow their child to participate in contact or collision sports. That is why I made "The Smartest Team," and that's the goal of the "SmartTEAM" program. Our hope is that the free market will help make youth sports safer, with parents choosing to register their children for programs that are SmartTeam certified over ones that aren't because the certification will, as the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, demonstrate the program's commitment to their child's safety as its number one priority.
As we get closer to the fall sports season and our first annual SmartTeams: Play Smart To Be Safe summit in Boston at which the formal announcement of the SmartTeam pilot programs will be made, I will have more to report. But, in the meantime, I invite you to click here to learn more about what the UN Convention On the Rights of the Child covers in the context of sports, and what you, as parents, can do to improve the youth sports experience and make it safer.
*October 9, 2015 update: With the ratification of the Convention by South Sudan and, most recently, Somalia, the UNCRC has now been ratified by 196 countries, making it the most widely ratified human rights convention in the world. In an October 2, 2015 statement, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon welcomed Somalia's ratification and encouraged the U.S. to "join the global movement and help the world reach the objective of universal ratification."
Brooke de Lench is Founding Executive Director of MomsTEAM Institute, Inc., Director of Smart Teams Play Safe, Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins), and Producer/Director/Creator of the PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer." Brooke is also a founding member of the UN International Safeguards of Children in Sports coalition.