When allegations of sex abuse at Syracuse followed so closely behind the scandal at Penn State, many couldn't help but wonder: How often is this kind of horror taking place?
The answer may be difficult to accept.
Sports, traditionally perceived as an escape from the ugliness of the real world, is an ideal breeding ground for child molesters. Last year, ESPN reported on coaches certified by USA Swimming who molested kids for more than 30 years. In the mid-1990s, Canada was devastated when junior hockey coach Graham James pleaded guilty to 350 counts of sexual assault involving two young players. And in 2004, Colorado girls basketball coach Rick Lopez hanged himself in jail after being accused of molesting three players on his nationally prominent travel team.
Not much quantified research has been done on this subject because it is difficult for victims to talk about their experiences. However, a 1995 study by sociology professor Sandra Kirby of the University of Winnipeg found that 22.8 percent of respondents in a Canadian sample had sexual intercourse with a coach or other person in position of authority within their sport. That study is 16 years old, but the problems that plagued sports then haven't changed. And while the Penn State and Syracuse scandals do not involve child athletes, all children involved in sports can be vulnerable -- no matter how talented they are on the field.
Sports is usually a safe haven, since parents pay so much attention to what their kids do on the field. But familiarity can also be a danger, not a protection. In how many other settings are children encouraged to spend hours of afternoon and weekend time with an adult outside the home?
"Although there are a few cases where strangers accost a child and abuse occurs," says domestic violence expert Lisa Smith of Brooklyn Law School, "it is much more common for adults known to the child and, most importantly, trusted by the child to be the perpetrators. Sports provide an opportunity for contact and the building of trust, so the environment for abuse exists."
Parents closely vet babysitters, even putting cameras in their homes, but background checks are rarely done on coaches -- especially coaches hired by respected schools or recommended by other parents. And if a coach takes a special interest in an athlete, that's almost always taken as a good sign rather than as a potential red flag. If parents hears that their son or daughter has rare talent that needs nurturing through one-on-one mentoring, that often translates to big dreams of stardom and scholarships. And if the child loves being on the team and around the coach or authority figure, the parent often feels better, not worse, about extra time outside the home. That can include travel.
"Isn't that why you choose a certain coach?" says Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Sports and Society at Northeastern University. "The thinking is, this coach is better for the child development of your kid. Whether it's at camp at age 10 or college at age 18, these coaches become huge in the development of youth. Everyone's thinking this is the best place for my kid."
This is not to lay the blame on parents. The perpetrators are the villains. But because the overwhelming majority of coaches are wonderful leaders, it's hard for parents to consider a coach as a person who can destroy a child's life. In fact, the coach is often seen as a mature antidote to the influence of other children parents don't trust. After all, the very definition of a coach is "a person who instructs." The word implies education and betterment. The predator uses his title as a way to set a trap.
And once an introduction is made, the unspoken agreement is that the child will follow instructions. How is the coach supposed to do his or her job without the willing participation of the child? Kids who disobey are reprimanded and sometimes cast aside. Kids who follow every order are favored and rewarded. In nearly all cases, that arrangement produces success. But sometimes, it results in a child's ruin.
Sports make children especially vulnerable because training involves specific use of the body. Coaches are supposed to teach kids how to stand, move, and react. That lowers a physical boundary that can stay in place when the lessons are in something like clarinet or chess. And, as we've tragically seen in the Sandusky case, sports require changing clothes, states of undress and showering.
Another lesson we've learned this month: While loyalty to the coach is exploited, loyalty of the coach is a carefully cultivated weapon. Predators work hard to sidle up to the true authority figures -- parents and administrators -- to gain their trust. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and Penn State coach Joe Paterno can certainly be blamed for doing nothing to stop alleged abuse, but their assistants remained fiercely loyal to them over decades of service, and that helped give them the courtesy of a blind eye. Fine and Sandusky must have worked long hours to make sure their bosses saw no evil and heard no evil. And at the youth level, pedophiles are extra deferential to parents to ensure they will not grow suspicious. Then, when the child sees the positive relationship between the coach and the parent, he or she becomes more afraid to question the coach.
These scandals erupted when the sports world was least expecting it, and they happened at places where we least expected it. But that's sadly appropriate for sex abuse cases, as it's never the shadowy stranger in the shady place who does the most damage. It's the trusted coach from the school or AAU team everybody seems to know.
"This is happening at institutions like Penn State and Syracuse," says Lebowitz. "If we're not preventing it there, where are we preventing it?"
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