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Reducing Sexual Abuse in Youth Sports Requires A Team Effort

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Earlier this spring  I had the honor of being invited to speak at the "Safe to Compete: Protecting Child Athletes from Sexual Abuse" summit in Washington, DC, sponsored by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation.  

The summit brought together over fifty of the nation's largest youth-serving and youth-sports organizations, as well as child development, youth sports and prevention experts, to discuss strategies for protecting children from sexual abuse while playing sports.

Unfortunately, like many of the speakers, much of my contact with parents on the issue of sexual abuse in sports has been after their children have been victimized, but all of us also work with school boards and national sports organizations to enact policies designed to prevent such abuse from occurring in the first place.

A crowded police blotter 

The need to redouble our prevention efforts has been driven home over the past couple of weeks, which has seen a sharp spike in reports in the media about youth sports coaches accused and convicted of, and sentenced to probation or jail for sex crimes against young athletes, from sending them inappropriate text messages and emails to sexual assault and statutory rape.  

The first was a story in the May 23, 2013 Washington Post reporting on a 7-year sentence handed down against a prominent ex-swimming coach, Rick Curl, who plead guilty in February to one count of child sexual abuse.  It is a story MomsTEAM had been following closely since last summer.

A host of stories of alleged sexual abuse by youth sports coaches soon followed in rapid succession:

  • May 30: a Sacremento-area youth basketball coach, Troy Hensley, is arrested for allegedly carrying on a 3 and 1/2 month sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl; 
  • June 4: a 30-year old Mississippi high school Spanish teacher and soccer coach, Marco Suarez, is arrested for having sex with a female student who had allegedly come to his house at an invitation he sent via text message and Facebook;
  • June 5: At least six separate incidents of alleged sexual abuse by coaches make the news:  
    • a Gastonia (NC) teacher and wrestling coach is charged with fifteen felony counts of child sex crimes spanning the five-year period from 1999 to 2004; 
    • a former Corvallis (OR) cheerleading coach, David Chatman, 38, pleads guilty  to a charge of second-degree sexual abuse for having sex at his apartment with an underage student rendered unconscious by a presciption medicine she had been taking (the worst thing about this one is that Chatman was already a registered sex offender after being convicted of touching a sleeping 16-year-old cheerleader on an airplane in 2007 while he was the head coach for an all-star cheerleading team on its way home from a competition on the East Coast);
    • A former Viera High School (FL) assistant football coach is sentenced to three years probation after pleading guilty to three misdemeanor counts of contributing to the delinquency or dependency of a minor for sending questionable text messages and emails to a female student last year.
    • A Gastonia (NC) science teacher and wrestling coach is arrested on 14 felony counts of indecent liberties, six with a student, and eight with a child, and one felony county of statutory rape of a minor 6 years of age or older which allegedly took place between May 1, 1999 and June 15, 2004.
    • A 41-year-old Orange County (FL) boxing coach, James Lyons, is arrested after a 17-year-old girl he was teaching to box said he forced her to have sex with him on four separate occasions.  The victim's mother told Orange County Sheriff's deputies that she "felt like Lyons was a father figure." The victim has been training with Lyons for four years about six times a week. She started meeting Lyons at his home to conduct video training lessons to prepare for a match this summer and that's where they had sex, the report said.
    • A Harpeth Hall (TN) middle school soccer coach, George "Rico" Laise, 46, is arrested on two counts of statutory rape by an authority figure and two counts of rape involving a victim with a mental incapacity stemming from charges that he had an unlawful sexual relationship with an underage student suffering from the results of a concussion suffered in 2012 at a tournament in Las Vegas while playing on a travel soccer team he coached. Police say the girl, who was 16 at the time, Laise began having sexual conversations her after the concussion. That March, she later told police, their sexual relationship began, which lasted through April of this year and occurred mostly at his home, while she was still suffering from the concussion; and
    • An inquest in the United Kingdom into the February death of  popular athletics coach learns that he killed himself three days after he was arrested on suspicion of engaging in sexual activity with a child.

What explains this sudden rash of news reports of sexual abuse of young athletes? Is it that our children are more willing to report such crimes, the vast majority of which go unreported? Is it that parents are getting better at identifying some of the warning signs of sexual abuse? I would like to think that both are at least partially responsible. 

One thing of which I am sure is that a number of national organizations, including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the United States Olympic Committee, are taking leadership roles in this area by implementing new programs specifically targeting sexual abuse by coaches of young athletes, the NCMEC with its Safe to Compete program, and the USOC with its Safe Sport initiative.

Sheldon Kennedy and Joe Ehrman

Former elite athletes speak up and out 

Another promising development is that more and more elite athletes are joining the fight against sexual abuse in sports.  At the summit in March I  spent time with three former elite athletes who are standing up against sexual abuse, each of whom added to my knowledge of sexual abuse and the havoc it creates.

Former NFL defensive lineman Joe Ehrmann is an inspirational dynamic speaker who only recently began publicly speaking about his abuse. He told me that after more than fifty years since he was abused, "I want to make sure this ends and that no other child has to go through the hell I went through. At my age it just doesn't make sense to keep it a secret." 

Another high profile athlete who speaks bravely about his own abuse is former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy (pictured with Ehrmann at right). Sheldon is known for his courageous decision to charge his Major Junior Hockey league coach with sexual assault for the abuse he suffered over a five year period while a teenager under his care.  As the co-founder of the Canadian group Respect Group, Inc., Kennedy's focus is on empowering people to recognize and prevent abuse, bullying and harassment in sports and schools through interactive, online certification. 

After the first day of the summit, I took a long walk with Katherine Starr, a former member of the British Olympic swimming team for the 1984 and '88 Summer Games, during which I learned just how much the sexual abuse to which she was subjected as a teenager continues to seep into everything she does in life. Little things - like when a new acquaintance innocently touches her shoulder or arm - still evoke an immediate and visceral negative reaction.  To help fellow abuse victims, Katherine has established a non-profit organization, Safe4Athletes, to advocate for a safe and positive environment for all athletes free of sexual abuse, bullying and harassment. (that's me with Katherine in the picture at right)

Katherine Starr and Brooke de Lench

I strongly encourage you as a parent to visit each of these websites to which I have linked in this blog, and consider inviting Joe, Kathleen or Sheldon to come to speak to the youth sports organizations in your community. The best way to prevent abuse is to be proactive, to become educated.  There are ways to reduce sexual abuse by coaches.  It takes commitment from every stakeholder: parents, athletes, coaches, administrators, and national organizations such as NCMEC and the USOC.  Together we can make a difference in the lives of children so that they don't end up scarred for life like Kathleen, Joe, Sheldon and the victims of the abusers in the horrible stories that have made the past few weeks so difficult.

Related articles and resources:

Some of my recent blogs on sexual abuse: 

Warning Signs of Sexual Abuse by Coach of Child

Penn State Sex Abuse Scandal: What Happens When Media Spotlight Fades?

For more prevention tips, visit Sexual Abuse Center on MomsTEAM's Health & Safety Channel.

Other resources: 

To download the NCMEC's Safe To Compete materials, click here

To join the USOC's 12-month safe sport campaign, Make the Committment: Stop Abuse in Sport, click here

To visit Katherine Starr's excellent website, Safe4Athletes.org, click here


Brooke de Lench is the Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, producer/director of the new high school football concussion documentary, The Smartest Team, and author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins).