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Child Sexual Abuse: The Dark Underbelly Of Youth Sports Culture

Longtime sports administrator says we can do more, but asks whether we are up to the task?

I write articles for MomsTeam about the worst things that have happened in youth sports, what I call "bad acts." What was the worst thing to happen in the last six months of 2011?  No doubt it was the Penn State sexual abuse scandal.  While it’s been all over the news, here's a recap in case you somehow missed it.

John Sandusky, a prominent former Penn State assistant football coach who was still affiliated with Penn State and its football program, used his position to allegedly gain access to underage boys and sexually abuse them.  Penn State’s legendary, and now late, head football coach, Joe Paterno, received some information about Sandusky’s alleged acts, and arguably complied with state law by reporting to his superiors.  However, he failed the moral test by failing to notify the local police and taking active steps to ensure that the acts were investigated when it became clear that the University officials he’d reported to had (a) done nothing; and/or (b) had not informed him that they’d taken some action after he reported to them.  Simply put, Paterno stuck his head in the sand.

The Penn State scandal didn’t technically occur in youth sports (Sandusky wasn't actually coaching the boys he allegedly abused at the time; they were just using Penn State facilities).  Yet, it is one of the rare occasions that sex abuse by coaches, which is a major problem in youth sports, got the type of national publicity that makes a problem penetrate the public consciousness.

Sex abuse in coaching tends to generate primarily local and regional publicity.  This is mostly because the local youth or high school coach isn't well enough known in the rest of the country (although, on occasion, a local coach accused of abuse has been nationally prominent, like Russell Otis at Dominguez High School in Compton, California).  The limited national exposure most instances of sex abuse get works against broad, cultural penetration.  People may become aware of the problem on an intellectual level, but tend to underestimate its scope, and usually don't form the deep, visceral, emotional connection to the problem that comes from relentless, consistent and widespread national exposure.

Not hitting home

The same thing happens, unfortunately, when it comes to violence in youth sports.  People somehow seem shocked to discover that sports officials are frequently attacked, and that a whole lot of youth athlete and spectators engage in a whole lot of bad acts (which is one reason I write articles for MomsTeam highlighting the worst of the worst every six months).  Again, people understand that the problem exists on an intellectual level; the violence just doesn't hit home - so to speak - and, as result, they don't get a feel for the scope of the problem, or worrying that it really could happen in their child’s game.

We’ve actually done a fine job laying the foundation to combat sex abuse in youth and high school sports.  Throughout the country, people at local and regional levels have passed law requiring that coaches' fingerprints be checked and that criminal background checks  be performed.  We have also seen numerous other local and regional programs to combat the problem.   Some organizations even run quiet, informal searches of on-line lists of child sexual abusers (these have to be quiet as they may not comply with employment law requirements in most states). 

More needs to be done

But we need to build on that foundation if we are really to begin combatting the problem in a meaningful and comprehensive way.  The abusers are often one step ahead of us.  Often, they simply move from town to town, and job to job, much like the abusive Catholic priests were allowed to do.  Because they have not been convicted, fingerprint checks don't stop them.  If you don't use the FBI database, a criminal name check won't catch them if they committed their crime in states other than yours.  If you don't have follow up service, you won't catch post-fingerprint check arrests.

Ultimately, organizations are going to have to expand background checks beyond fingerprinting and checking names against databases.  We know that coaches can move from place to place, so why not call past employers, and league officials?  Many places don't do this.  Also, we tend to focus on our own region.  This makes it harder to mobilize.  There may be three million reports of abuse per year,  but it's a big country.  Only so many will come from your region, and of those the odds are low that a local coach will be involved right where you are.  Our intense regional and local focus has made it difficult to mobilize resources.  Hence, while there are a lot of groups that monitor child abuse, it is fair to say that there is no child abuse equivalent of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.   The paradigm shift in the national consciousness we need still hasn't happened.

The Penn State scandal gives us a rare opportunity to shine - and continue to shine - a national spotlight on what is generally covered regionally and soon fades from the front page to the back page to not being covered at all.  The intense media focus on Sandusky and Paterno actually obscures the fact that this is a very common problem in youth sports.  Indeed, much of the focus on Sandusky and Paterno turned a child abuse focus into a story about a monster in the midst of a noble athletic program (Sandusky), and a heroic man who had the misfortune to confront a demon he wasn't properly prepared to confront (Paterno).   We didn't get a national wave of follow up front page stories on local youth coaches who abused athletes or coaches who didn't report child sexual, physical or emotional abuse to their local police or child protective agencies.  We didn't even get a wave of victim stories, which is a common tool for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (probably because they are, after all, the parents of the victims). Of course, in all fairness, we did get victim stories in the media reports on former Syracuse coach Bernie Fine, the basketball equivalent to the Sandusky case.  However, those stories often focused on unsavory acts that these once-innocent children either had committed or were committing as adults. 

Flying under the radar

One thing is certain about child abuse in sports: the problem is so pervasive that shining a national light on it should be easy.  And some people are doing just that.  In addition to MomsTeam's longstanding efforts to educate parents on the dangers of child abuse in youth sports, most recently of boys, there are other websites which publicize instances of abuse, including www.badjocks.com, where Bob Reno provides a monthly recap of abuse cases. 

Needless to say, Reno is not hurting for content: coaches, parents, and students engage in a lot of abusive behavior. In the past few months for instance, Reno has reported on a high school coach who allegedly gave his team the password to a porn site to create team camaraderie, a coach who allegedly pulled a gun on a parent after a game (not child abuse, but still pretty unsavory), and a youth cheer coach who stands accused of running a prostitution ring in her spare time.

Badjocks.com reports on people who don’t seem to be too swift.  One might be inclined to dismiss them as aberrations, but they are aberrations who are working with our youth.  Reno’s tone, in my view, seems a bit self-indulgent; he’s a bit too smart, and not quite angry enough.  I’d compare him to Chris Hansen on the To Catch A Predator television show.  When you read Reno or watch Hansen, you’re intellectually aware that the subjects are repulsive.  However, the combination of being exposed to so many sex offenders and Reno and Hansen’s commentary leads to your moral outrage being displaced by bafflement – and even ridicule - at the utter stupidity of the subjects.  In short, Hansen and Reno may be, in a strange way, too effective:  We don't get worked up into a froth about their subjects the way we can about a serious man who failed to focus the way he should have on an abused child like Paterno, or a man who simply fooled everybody, like Sandusky.

Unfortunately, the sports world is filled with very serious people who abuse our youth; repulsive, but not stupid.  Sometimes, these serious people hold extremely lofty positions and coach highly prominent youth athletes.  They are no more the subject of ridicule than one’s own local coach.  Yet, they went bad.  Prominent or an obscure local, an abuser is an abuser and he or she will abuse.  Until the Sandusky incident, abusive coaches basically flew under the national radar unless someone held them up to public scrutiny and contempt.

Here are some more examples of individuals who abused our youth.  You may not have heard of these people, but they directly hit youth sports in a big way.  They received some media coverage.  It's safe to say that people who follow the business and legal side of sports know of them.  However, these incidents didn't penetrate the national consciousness.

First, there’s Ivan Pravilov.  Who’s he?  Well, Ivan is the former head coach of the Ukranian U18 and U20 hockey national teams.  He’s an internationally prominent youth coach who has coached several NHL players.

Ivan’s players are tough guys, right?  Well, maybe so, but Ivan had access to them when they were young boys.  They weren’t so tough then.  Maxim Starchenko is one of Ivan’s former players.  He played his college hockey in the US, and recently published a book alleging that Pravilov sexually abused his players.  Well, Maxim didn’t make it to the NHL so some might think his accusations are nothing more than sour grapes.  Maybe, so, but we now know that Ivan was arrested in January, 2012 for allegedly fondling a 14-year-old hockey player in Philadelphia.

If you think Ivan’s case is unique, think again.  Prominent Canadian youth coach Graham James was convicted in December, 2011 of abusing youth hockey players.  Two of his victims went on to have lengthy NHL careers.  One of them, Theo Fleury, was prominent enough to be recognizable to the casual hockey fan.

Second, there is the sex abuse scandal in USA Swimming.  There’s no single bad guy here.  There are, instead, a whole lot of bad guys.  So many that one writer compared USA Swimming to the Catholic church.  The USA Swimming scandal broke in 2010.  By the time authorities got to the bottom of it, 36 coaches were banned by USA Swimming.  Among the acts allegedly committed by these youth coaches were filming high school girls as they showered, and sexually molesting young swimmers. Girl swimming butterfly

Chuck Wielgus, the head of USA Swimming, was quoted as saying, “It's not nearly as serious in USA Swimming as it might be in the rest of society. I don't want to be the one to sit here and say 36 is not too many, one is too many, but this is not just a problem that's isolated to one sport.”  Heck, it does sounds kind of like the Catholic Church, doesn't it?  What's he saying? That it isn't so bad because it's widespread and not just swimming coaches are sexual predators?  Come on! 

The scarier part, though, is that, just as in the hockey case, a bunch of coaches who had regular access to kids, took them on road trips (probably unchaperoned; remember, one of the easiest ways to prevent abuse is to adopt the two-adult rule), and spent many hours with them were abusers.  Nobody suspected because these were serious coaches who were viewed as pillars of the community, highly successful, and highly respected.

Ultimately, the Penn State case has done us the favor of shining light on a problem.  To be fair, MomsTeam and Bob Reno are parts of the media, and the hockey and swimming cases have certainly been reported and talked about on this website as elsewhere.  However, we still haven't reached the point where the amount of reporting over time has burned the problem into the public consciousness.  This may be good in that it doesn't make us paranoid about all coaches; on the other hand, it may be bad in that it creates an atmosphere where these acts can occur again more easily.  Worse, too many people have short memories and will end up being shocked when the next abuse scandal hits. 

The scandal at Penn State has given us a chance to take further steps in combating this problem.  The big question is whether we as a sports society are up to the task.

Posted January 24, 2012, REVIEWED  and Updated April 10, 2017