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Sexual Abuse in Sport: The Problem No One Wants To Talk About

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On July 12, UNICEF's Innocenti Research Center in Florence, Italy released an important report on violence against children in sport in industrialized countries, including the United States.

The report found a troubling lack of awareness of and education on child protection issues among youth sports coaches, parents, and other stakeholders. To combat the problem it recommends improvements in data collection and knowledge generation about violence to children in sport, development of structures and systems for eliminating and preventing such violence (including promotion of ethical guidelines and codes of conduct), and education, awareness-raising and training.

Yet the UNICEF report received absolutely no media attention in this country. Nada. Zippo. Zilch. Zero.

Which begs the inevitable question: Why not?

It can't be because children playing sports in this country are immune from violence, because they are not. It's just that the violence either isn't reported or makes it in to the local or national news only in the most egregious cases. The sad fact is that youth athletes are victims of violence in its myriad forms every day: forced to participate in physically injurious or sexually degrading initiation rituals (e.g. hazing), required to run extra laps in 90 degree heat for being late to practice, allowed to return to the playing field too soon after a concussion, sexually assaulted by coaches (as alleged in a new lawsuit by a former elite swimmer that was the subject of a long article in USA Today), psychologically degraded or humiliated based on gender, body shape or performance, or required to follow nutrition and weight loss regimes that lead to eating disorders such as anexoria or other health problems.

The lack of media attention can't be because youth sports organizations, whether they be at the national, regional or local level, are doing all they can to protect children against such violence. As the UNICEF study reports, while some other countries (most notably, the United Kingdom) have enacted child protection programs in sport, they are virtually non-existent in the United States.

Scott Blackmun, C.E.O. of the U.S. Olympic Committee, admitted to USA Today that it was only as a result of the recent lawsuits against USA Swimming and club-level coaches (at least five are pending), that officials somehow finally became "sensitized ... to the fact that they may have issues in their own sport that they didn't know about or didn't think about in the past."

Come on, Scott! The fact of the matter is  that the problem of sexual abuse of athletes in this country has existed in the shadows but largely swept under the rug for decades.

It is "beyond shocking," said the lawyer for 28-year old Jancy Thompson, the plaintiff in a lawsuit alleging abuse by her former coach at a Northern California swim club over a five-year period beginning when she was fifteen, that USA Swimming did not have better protection, reporting or response procedures in place before now.

"It's mind boggling to me," said Robert Allard. "The more I look into this, the more appalled I am that little, if anything, has been done to protect children."  Critics claim that even child-protection policies which have been adopted - such as the one passed by USA Swimming's board in 2004 - have not been fully implemented.

I couldn't agree more.

Children first, athletes second

A major part of the problem, in my view, is that instead of defining youth athletes in a way appropriate to their needs - as children first and athletes second - organized youth sports in the United States and other industrialized countries all too often treat children with exceptional athletic potential as adults, with potentially serious adverse consequences to their physical and emotional health.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child - which only the United States and Somalia have failed to ratify - spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere should enjoy, among them the right to survival, to develop to the fullest, and to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation. The UNICEF report views the Convention as providing "the overarching framework that can guide those who provide and supervise sport for children."

While some Olympic sports organization have started to take action, it is up to each sport organization to putting safeguards in place, when what is needed is a coordinated, national effort to stop the abuse.

The recommendations of the UNICEF study deserve serious consideration. The report should be required reading for every member of every board of directors of every national youth sports organization in this country. Unless and until all the stakeholders in youth sports - coaches, parents, administrators, athletic directors, and the athletes themselves - recognize that violence and abuse in sports is a problem, it will continue to be yesterday's news.