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Youth Sports Organizations: Six Ways To Increase Accountability, Transparency

Self-regulation doesn't always work

Tempting targets

A former Casper, Wyoming youth baseball official accused of writing $6,600 worth of checks to himself from the organization's bank account pleads guilty to embezzlement.

The former president of a youth baseball league in Tewksbury, Massachusetts town is indicted for allegedly stealing over $400,000 from the league. That same day, newspapers in Idaho reported on a youth baseball official pleading guilty to embezzling money from the organization while newspapers in Ohio were reporting on a woman found guilty of duping local businesses out of donations to a Pee Wee football club. 100 bills

A man is charged with embezzling $16,000 from Michigan youth baseball program even though a background check disclosed one of the two convictions,

Stories of youth sport embezzlement appear in the media on a regular basis. Youth sports organization embezzlers do not discriminate: Football, baseball, cheerleading clubs have all been victimized. In fact, Massachusetts holds the dubious distinction of being the first to give the phrase "soccer mom" a connotation beyond the political context when, back in 1987, a newspaper reported that a Ludlow man had stolen $7,000 from the treasury of a "soccer moms booster club" headed by his wife.

Self-regulation not the answer

In case you haven't noticed, youth sports have become big business, bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees every year. Most youth sports organizations are run like small - and, in some cases, not-so-small -businesses, with officers, boards of directors, bylaws and annual meetings. Yet most operate with virtually no oversight beyond their volunteer boards of directors, and their often lax financial controls make them easy and tempting targets for thieves. 

As a result, there is an appalling lack of accountability in youth sports. While the worst offenders seem to be the unregulated so-called "travel" ball programs (which, one commentator recently analogized to the Wild West,with "relatively no laws and no sheriffs"), even local youth sports organizations affiliated with national organizations are not as accountable to the parents and children they supposedly serve as they should be.

As Paolo David writes in his book, Human Rights in Sports:A Critical Review of Children's Rights in Competitive Sports, "Sports organizations have an obligation to protect the rights of young athletes, especially when one of their employees acts unlawfully. They cannot escape their responsibilities by failing to prevent violations or refusing to act upon them. But in practice, due to the tradition of self-policing, paternalism, a fierce resistance to independent criticism and a refusal to accept that sport is not always ‘pure' and free from society's problems, the principles of accountability and scrutiny are still inadequately respected by the sporting world, or at best looked upon with suspicion."

So, how can youth sports organizations be more accountable to their"customers" (you and your children)?  Here are six ways:

1. Identify decision makers.  In order to hold those who run the show accountable for the "product" they produce, challenge the way they do business, and identify problem organizations, begin by finding out about the structure of the organization, says Barbara Jones, an attorney who specializes in business and corporate law.

  • Does the group operate as a profit or not-for-profit business?
  • Does it have a governing body?
  • Who is accountable or responsible for the decisions made or actions taken?
  • Is it a corporation or a partnership? By going to the website of your state's Secretary of State you can obtain annual reports of profit and not-for-profit corporations, both those incorporated in your state and "foreign" corporations (those registered to do business in your state but incorporated elsewhere) as well as the names of officers and directors. Not-for-profits are also required to register with the state's Attorney General, typically in a division relating to charities, and to file annual reports on their finances and fundraising activities. An organization that hasn't kept current with its annual filings is a red flag that it may be taking short-cuts in other areas, such as player safety, having in place the appropriate insurance in case of negligence etc. 

2. Parent input.  At the local level most youth sports organizations are run like small - and, in some cases, not-so-small - businesses, with officers, boards of directors, bylaws and annual meetings. Yet most operate with virtually no oversight beyond their volunteer boards of directors.

Push for the formation of a Parent Advisory Group (PAC) consisting of representative parents with children currently playing in the program to provide the Board of Directors with feedback (both negative and positive) from other parents; the input helps to insure that its decisions are reflective of, and responsive to, a broad cross-section of the youth sports community. Run for a seat on the board. Attend meetings.

3. Open meetings.  Ask that the mission statement of a youth sports program, its bylaws and the names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of board members and other officers be publicly available, and that the time and place of board meetings be advertised and open to any parent or concerned individual to attend (even if only to observe). All coaches, including the middle school and high school coaches in that sport, should be encouraged to attend at least one meeting a year.

4. Term limits.  Like our political leaders, directors, administrators and coaches who become entrenched in a program for years on end tend to put the "blinders" on and may become too comfortable with the status quo. New blood can keep a program fresh and strong. Longtime board members can be given "emeritus" or "ex officio" status.

5. Financial accountability.  An investigation by the Toronto Star into complaints by parents wanting to know where millions of dollars in player fees were going forced minor hockey clubs in Canada to implement public financial disclosure measures.  Public financial disclosure is one way to avoid embezzlement of funds in youth sports organizations. By partnering with credible, well-established online youth sports registration companies, leagues and teams who have a way to track where their money is going.

6. Benchmarking. The first step in implementing a public health approach to violence and abuse prevention in youth sports is surveillance: creating a consistent, comparable, and accurate data system that can track the performance of youth sports organizations, their progress in eliminating abuse and towards full inclusion and how they compare against each other.

A particularly effective benchmarking tool is the Just Play Behavior Management Program designed by Elaine Raakman, a single Canadian mother of two sports-active children. Game officials are asked to complete a report card after every game rating the overall behavior of the coaches, players and spectators of each team on a 5-point scale (1=very good to 5=very poor) and the official's own personal satisfaction level within the context of the game. The report cards help identify and quantify the variables that contribute to problem behavior within the team sport environment and determine other common elements that might contribute to problem behavior.

Have the courage to speak up!

Most parents in this country want a youth sports system that serves the interests of children. They represent a vast silent majority who just need the courage to stand upand band together to fight those who want to preserve a status quo serving the interests of adults. Perhaps the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association said it best: "Carrying the torch for less pressure and more perspective in youth programs may not be a popular position. Those who demand more games, more wins, more trophies, more travel and more of everything can talk the loudest and sound convincing. It's up to all of us to have the courage to be just as passionate on the side of balance."

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