Tuesday, 06 December 2011 09:29

Why My Coach Got Away with Sexual Abuse

Why, one might ask, would someone willingly ignore reports of heinous, despicable sexual abuse of a child? Why did it happen at Penn State? At Syracuse University? And why does it continue to happen in gymnastics, swimming and other organized sports? Wouldn't a reasonable person assume that the moral imperative would be to act to protect the child? We've seen time and time again that this is not what happens.

All too often a sport's “reputation”, an organization or club's status, a coach's authority, is what takes precedence. In protecting the winning Penn State coach and assistant coach, keeping quiet must have almost seemed justifiable, to those on the “inside”. What if the reports weren't true? Then the nearly flawless reputation of two coaches and an iconic team would have been destroyed. And so the children were sacrificed. For a time.

Abuse in sports abounds. There are 80 permanently banned coaches in the sport of gymnastics. Recent investigative reports in the Orange County (OC) Register identify two revered coaches who have long standing histories of sexually abusing their athletes. One was actually on the USA Gymnastics banned list and found a job at a non-member gym. The owner coach ignored his history. The parents didn't know about it or simply didn't care. USA Gymnastics acted swiftly under the pressure of public exposure but why weren't there policies in place that required them to act when concerns were initially raised? Admirably, the organization has since committed to doing the utmost to protect the girls that make the sport what it is. But how can we do more to prevent these kinds of abuses from happening again across sports? How can we protect athletes to ensure that they have fulfilling, self-esteem building experiences when they participate in competitive sports?

Pediatricians and other health care workers are required by law to report any suspected abuse of children. They are punishable under the law if they fail to do so. They can lose their licenses to practice. They can lose their livelihoods. Teachers are held to a similar standard. There are no such similar standards that apply to coaches. They arguably spend more time with the kids they train than doctors or school teachers. Even if Paterno defends his actions in reporting the suspected abuse to University officials, he did not do everything within his power to protect the kids who were training under Sandusky.

The solution must be mandated guidelines regarding the treatment of young athletes by coaches. An objective third party, an arbitrator, must establish codes of conduct and procedures; this 'non-partisan' oversight committee must work with teams, coaches, clubs and the governing bodies across sports organizations to ensure adoption. It cannot be assumed that adults will feel obligated to do the right thing when faced with this particular moral dilemma. We have more than enough proof of this. They must be required to do so.

And children themselves must be educated and encouraged to speak up when there is inappropriate or abusive behavior. All too often a child in a coach/athlete relationship feels powerless.  He questions his own rights in the situation, his own take on the experience. He is threatened by the coach's power, enthralled by the coach's status, is unable to exercise mature judgment and come to his own defense. And the lingering affects of abuse will last a lifetime.  And it's not ok. A third party can intercede here as well, providing educational programs to athletes and a place to go to just ask questions and get some guidance when he feels compromised. 

The good coaches must come to the defense of their beloved sports by requiring that the “bad coaches” are held to task. And we all – all of those of us who believe in the absolute protection of the child - must insist that coaches are developers of children first, builders of champions a distant second.

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