Sexual Exploitation in Sports

Sexual Exploitation in Sports

Sexual exploitation in sports is not substantially different from sexual exploitation by an educator. However, because of the unique relationship between athletes and coaches, some additional issues need to be addressed.

Millions of children in the United States participate in school or community-based sports programs. Some of the many benefits to these children are learning responsibility, increased self-confidence, positive self-image, learning teamwork, and learning good sportsmanship. Although generally a positive experience, some young athletes risk being sexually abused by their coaches. Reports of coaches being charged with abuse, exploitation, and rape are becoming more and more common.

When parents enroll their child in athletic programs, they expect their child will be respected and the coach will be a positive influence on their child. In most cases this is true, however, it is no longer prudent to make this assumption without taking some steps to ensure the safety and well-being of the child. Many schools and most recreation programs are having a difficult time finding people willing to coach. Consequently, most states have exceptions in their teaching certification programs that allow schools to employ non-educators as coaches. In most cases these people have had no training in professional ethics or child development.

A small percentage of coaches go into coaching because it provides them with access to children for the purpose of exploiting them. A former coach, now incarcerated, reports “the easiest way to get a teaching job is to say you are willing to coach. Initially I was asked to coach sports that I knew nothing about, but I did it because it gave me access to children.” This person said the abuse “often happened before games and after games. I made arrangements to pick one boy up before the others and dropped him off last so that I was able to be alone with him.” This coach worked hard to gain the trust of parents: “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs and the parents knew this, they thought ‘this individual is ok with my child.’”  Another incarcerated coach said, “I also groomed the parents by letting them see me with their children—how well I treated them—but it was a mask to get them to trust me, so that I would have access to their child

 “The child molester has found a home in the world of youth sports, where as a coach he can gain the trust and loyalty of kids—and then prey on them” (Nack & Yaeger, 1999[). This contention is supported by reports of hundreds of incidents of coaches sexually abusing their players. For example, a Little League coach who is now serving an 84-year sentence reports that he misses sex with his preferred partners—his players. He pleaded guilty to 39 counts of lewd acts with children, four boys and a girl, that occurred while he was a coach. He is described as “articulate, cool and composed”. He estimates that he “has molested a couple of hundred children between the ages of 11 and 14, whom he first met through his work in Little League”. He granted an interview to Sports Illustrated with the hope that, “[he] can say something that will make sense to parents” He feels that he should remain in prison because “I have a predisposition to want to be around, and am sexually aroused by, young boys. I can’t be where I have access to boys”

Amazingly, during the time he was molesting these children he was on probation for an earlier molestation offense in a nearby town. None of the parents knew that he had undergone more than five years of treatment in two state mental hospitals for child molesting. At the sentencing hearing, one 13-year-old victim told him, “You made my life a wreck.” A father said, “You’re worse than a murderer. A thief steals what can be replaced. A murderer kills his victim one time. What you have done to these children is going to last the rest of their lives”

Nack and Yaeger (1999) report “[a] computer-database search of recent newspaper stories reveals more than 30 cases just in the last 18 months of coaches in the U.S. who have been arrested or convicted of sexually abusing children” This is “despite the fact that child sex-abuse victims, for reasons ranging from shame and embarrassment to love or fear of their molesters, rarely report the crime. For every child who reports being molested at least 10 more keep their secrets unrevealed” Nack and Yaeger (1999) believe there are “indications that after decades of being ignored, minimized or hidden away, the molestation of players by their coaches is no longer the sporting culture’s dirty little secret” They note that Steven Bisbing, a clinical and forensic psychologist who studies sexual abuse of children by authority figures reports sexual abuse by coaches “occurs with enough regularity across the country, at all levels [of society], that it should be viewed as a public health problem” Although some child molesters are married, most are not. “The majority are white males who have average to high IQs and extremely good verbal and interpersonal skills. . . . The majority also claim they were molested as children (though only a small percentage of victims become molesters)”

Coaches who sexually exploit children seduce them the same way that adult men and women seduce each other. They flirt with them, buy them gifts, show them personal attention, laugh at their jokes, and generally let them know that they are special. As they seduce the child, they evaluate the child’s vulnerabilities. The determined molester is cunning and patient and takes whatever time is necessary to break down the child’s inhibitions. This process sometimes takes weeks or even months.

Coaches who molest athletes face serious consequences. For example, in a Wisconsin case, a high school football coach faced up to 90 years in prison after being charged with sexually assaulting a child under the age of 16. The child told investigators that the coach coerced her into performing a sex act and threatened to kill her if she told anyone (Chronis, 2002).

Coaches who molest children generally have more than one victim. For example, while investigating a basketball coach who allegedly molested two 13-year-old boys and a 15-year-old girl, detectives encountered two other alleged victims. The two boys said their coach repeatedly touched their genitals through their clothes. One boy told police that the coach kissed him on the lips and that he sometimes touched himself in front of the child. The girl said she was in his car when the coach pulled into a park and pushed his finger inside her genitals. The abuse of the boys allegedly occurred in the coach’s car, at his home, and during basketball practice (Gilot, 2002).

Former coaches who are now serving prison sentences report that they had molested 30 to 70 children before they were discovered. Some indicate that they went into coaching because it “gave them opportunities to be around children.” Most of these former coaches report that they never threatened the youngsters or coerced them. “I just told them that this was a secret between us guys, no one else needs to know.  When asked how he selected his victims, one incarcerated former coach said, “Some boys would just flat out say ‘no—don’t do that!’ I would stop. The others never said to stop, so I continued with them

Athletes Are Reluctant to Report

By the time an athlete is molested, the youngster often views the molester as a friend and is reluctant to get him or her into trouble. Because the stigma of homosexuality is very strong, boys often do not report their abuse. Some athletes are afraid their parents will be disappointed in them. One victim said, “I didn’t want people finding out what was happening. . . . I didn’t know what to say. . . . He was my coach! . . . I was embarrassed about it. . . . I’m still embarrassed about it.” The molester is most vulnerable to detection when he or she breaks off the relationship. It is then that the child begins to realize that he or she has been used.

The sad truth is that sports provide the perfect opportunity for adults to sexually exploit children. Coaches are placed on a pedestal by parents and children. They work closely with youngsters, often away from other adults. In some cases they travel out of town together, often staying overnight. Parents have assumed that their child will be protected because there are other children around. Clearly this is not a guarantee. Some experts estimate that a molester will molest 120 times before he or she is caught.

Organizationsl Liability for Coaches

School district liability for the actions of coaches is the same as it would be for any other school employee. The key is whether the school administration took reasonable precautions in hiring and supervising the coach, and whether it took prompt and appropriate action as soon as allegations came to its attention. For example, the mother of a girl who had sex with a former coach sued her youngster’s school district, contending the school should have known the coach had a history of sex with minors. The teacher and former track coach was convicted of one count of first-degree statutory rape, four counts of statutory sexual offense and five counts of taking indecent liberties with a minor, and is serving a prison sentence of between 36 and 45 years. The lawsuit alleged school officials failed to report the teacher’s behavior to authorities “even though they knew or should have known that his actions were criminal” (“Woman suing school,” 2002).

What can Parents do to Protect Their Young Athletes?

School administrators must educate parents regarding strategies to protect their children. Parents should be told that they cannot assume that just because the coach is popular, he or she is ethical. Parents must be encouraged to talk with their children. If parents are suspicious they should investigate. School districts should make it clear that parents are welcome to visit before, during, or after practice. Practices should not be closed to parents.

Most children will talk if adults will listen. One coach convicted of child abuse said, “I did not assault children that I thought communicated too well with their parents.” Parents should be encouraged to talk with their children about appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Children should be taught what sexual harassment and abuse are. Children should be told to tell their parents if there is any inappropriate touching, serving of alcohol or drugs, or showing pornographic material.

Parents and school districts must make it clear that they are paying attention. They must send the message that they are going to look for molesters, find them, and report them. All coaches should be required to submit to a background check and fingerprinting, and should be asked to read and sign a code of ethical conduct. Most importantly, the organizing agency should encourage open feedback before and after the season. They should have each participant and each parent complete an anonymous evaluation of the program, specifically seeking information about any inappropriate conduct by players or coaches.

What Should Coaches do to Protect Themselves?

Athletic programs are faced with a very real dilemma. On the one hand, they need more competent, caring adults who are willing to give their time to the development of youngsters. On the other hand, many coaches are leaving coaching because they fear that they will be falsely accused of some type of inappropriate behavior.

Short of leaving the profession, what can a person do to reduce the likelihood of a false accusation of abuse? It would be naive to believe that there are no false charges. Consequently, coaches must not only behave appropriately, they must behave in a way that cannot be misconstrued. Coaches who meet with athletes behind closed doors create a situation where there are no witnesses to confirm what took place. Unless there is some type of medical or weather emergency, coaches should not drive athletes to or from games or practices. When traveling with a team, the coach should not be alone in a room with an athlete. Coaches should have uniform selections made by a committee that includes parents, in order to guard against the selection of low-cut revealing tops or revealing shorts. The issue of conducting closed practices can be argued from both sides. On the one hand, many ethical coaches believe that a closed practice prevents overbearing, verbally abusive parents from interfering with the coaching process. On the other hand, having closed practices may expose the coach to allegations of misconduct. If a child alleges that a coach behaved inappropriately, and there are no witnesses to what happened, it may come down to a jury’s opinion of what happened.

Sexual Exploitation in Schools: How to Spot it and Stop it, Robert J. Shoop, Corwin Press, 2004, Excerpted and used with  permission.

For more on Dr. Robert Schoop click here

You are here: Home Blog Research Sexual Exploitation in Sports
Every athlete deserves a safe and positive sports environment. SPEAK UP if the way you are being treated feels wrong. 
If you need advice in sorting through a situation or concern. SAFE4ATHLETES is here to help.

Safe4Athletes: PO Box 650, Santa Monica, CA 90406 - Tax ID-46-2290559