This is an important story. It tells the story of a young girl and how she wound up a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of her gymnastics coach.
The reason this is important is that it’s become clear we have a problem with sexual abuse in sports, and her story, or some version of it, is being repeated by hundreds of men in the UK about their soccer coaches, gymnasts and swimmers in the US, hockey players in Canada, and I’m sure many more places that we simply haven’t peeled back the lid on yet.
The reality is that sports has become a way out of poverty for some, a way to fame for others, and a way for kids of all talent levels to “fit in” with their team. Being successful in Olympic and professional sports requires recognizing talent early and developing it. Sometimes the difference between getting a college scholarship and having to struggle through college is the coaching a kid gets at 13-14 years old.
I’m not here to claim that is a bad thing.
I will, however, point out that this is an arena that was always bound to attract pedophiles, and clearly, we did not do enough to stay aware of that fact.
Let’s look at the reality:
- Parents love to hear that their kids are talented.
- Kids love to hear that they are special, and have a talent.
- Proper coaching and practice takes time, time that parents don’t have to spend away from work, and other responsibilities.
- Coaching high-level talent will, therefore, involve spending a lot of time with young kids.
- Being a respected coach is a great way to lower the defenses of parents and families. You can, in fact, groom the entire family to trust you.
Given that reality, we should not be surprised that a fair number of pedophiles saw an opportunity in youth sports. The fact that we are now finding out that the problem is larger than anyone could have imagined is not a result of something surprising happening here, but rather it’s a combination of three things that I think we, as a society, have overlooked.
- We assumed various authorities were providing oversight of the programs and coaches. It has become clear now though, that oversight was lax, at best, and possibly criminally negligent at worst. We’re continuing to learn about repeat offenders, allowed to keep coaching while under investigation. We’re learning about playing time being taken away from kids who failed to comply with a coaches advances, without nary a raised eyebrow by the teams, and we’re learning about parents who ignored the signs from their kids because of their own aspirations.
- We also assumed that kids who are athletic, and successful at sports, would not make for good targets. They’re not the misfit, low self-esteem types that we think of when we think of kids who would fall victim to grooming. We underestimated how much pressure these kids are under, and how that pressure corresponds into self-doubt. What better way to soothe that doubt than a caring, sympathetic coach there to tell you that you are successful?
- We’ve underestimated the enemy. Pedophiles are not sad-looking middle-aged men in trench coats. They absolutely can be the dashing former athlete who coaches the local kids. They can be male and female. They can be well-respected members of the community.
Youth sports can provide a great environment for kids. They can learn teamwork, they can be part of the group. They can see their own talents develop in tangible ways that help develop healthy self-esteem. But, in any situation where children are interacting with adults, there needs to be proper oversight. Being able to work with kids and shape their lives as a coach is a tremendous opportunity to do good in your community, and in the lives of these kids. But, there are those who would subvert that for their own, selfish, desires. We should never lose sight of that possibility, and we should provide enough oversight that those who would take advantage of children would give serious pause to doing so. That oversight should come from governing boards, schools, parents, the media, and anyone who can provide it.
We are now learning of the devastating effects that our lack of oversight has created. Let’s help those whom we have failed in whatever ways we can, and let’s not repeat the same mistakes with the next generation of children. No one can claim that we don’t know better now.