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U.S. Failure To Ratify UN Convention on Rights of the Child Is Embarrassing and Unacceptable

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Ten days ago, as I was flying 30,000 feet above Jonesboro, Arkansas on my way back to Boston  from Dallas, I read about a statement issued by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon praising the ratification by the Government of Somalia of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Noting that 196 countries had ratified the Convention, making it the most widely-ratified human rights convention in history, the Secretary-General went on to encourage the United States, as the only holdout, "to join the global movement and help the world reach the objective of universal ratification."

The Convention spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere should enjoy, among them the right to survival, to develop to the fullest, and to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation. While its most obvious application is in combating such abhorrent practices as the 'recruitment' of child soldiers and the sexual slavery of teenage girls, and in protecting the rights of the thousands of children fleeing to Europe to escape war-torn Middle Eastern nations, the Convention also provides, in the words of a 2010 Unicef report, "the overarching framework that can guide those who provide and supervise sport for children," with application to such abusive practices as forcing children to train excessively and to engage in unhealthy and illegal behavior, such as the use of performance-enhancing drugs (Articles 3, 6, 19 and 24), ensuring that a child's right to an education is not overshadowed by considerations concerning a sporting career (Articles 3 and 28), and the economic exploitation of child athletes (Article 32).

UN Convention On The Rights of The Child 

As someone who has been advocating for ratification That I was reading the Secretary-General's statement after having just wound up four days of intensive work with a league of 1,200 youth football players and cheerleaders to implement the International Safeguards as part of my organization's SmartTeam program, and during National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, made me feel that much worse.  


There has been a strong focus in recent years in this country on concussion safety in youth sports, much of it media-driven (all 50 states and the District of Columbia now have concussion safety laws).

Brooke with kids from Grand Prairie in SmarTeams program

Sadly, no similar, sustained effort has been made in this country to enact laws to protect children playing sports from abuse -- whether it be physical, emotional, psychological or sexual -- at the hands of coaches, parents and other athletes.

When reports, such as the 2010 Unicef study on violence and abuse in sports, are issued finding a troubling lack of awareness of and education on child protection issues among youth sports coaches, parents and other stakeholders, they receive absolutely no media attention in this country.

Why not?

It can't be because children playing sports in this country are immune from abuse, because they are not. The sad fact is that youth athletes are victims of violence and abuse in their myriad forms every day. Young athletes across the country are still forced to participate in physically injurious or sexually degrading hazing rituals; they're required to run punishment laps in 102 degree heat for being late to practice; and allowed, or often encouraged, to play hurt or return to the playing field too soon after a concussion.

Too many are victims of bullying, not just by other players but by coaches; sexually assaulted by their coaches; psychologically degraded or humiliated based on their gender, sexual orientation, body shape or performance; or required or encouraged to follow nutrition and weight loss regimens that lead to eating disorders and the abuse of appearance- and performance-enhancing drugs such as anabolic-androgenic steroids.

The kinds of abuse we see in youth sports would not be tolerated in the classroom or in the workplace. Yet there are no laws that specifically address such abuse in the context of sports, and no sustained lobbying efforts to enact such protections.

The lack of media attention and legislative action also can't be because youth sports organizations, whether they be at the national, regional or local level, are doing all they can to protect children against such violence and abuse. As the 2010 UNICEF study reports, while some other countries (most notably, the United Kingdom) have enacted child protection programs in sport, they are virtually non-existent in the United States.

A major part of the problem is that instead of defining youth athletes in a way appropriate to their needs -- as children first and athletes second -- organized youth sports in the United States and other industrialized countries all too often treat children as miniature adults, with potentially serious adverse consequences to their physical and emotional health. More and more parents seem to accept abuse as the inevitable price their children must pay to succeed in our winner-take-all-society.

Child abuse is the most preventable youth sport injury. Physical, emotional and sexual abuse should not be the price children have to pay to play competitive sports. The status quo should and must be changed. The United States should ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Laws against child abuse should be strengthened in every state to protect against abuse, not just at home, but on the playing field, courts, diamonds and rinks of America. It is time for the abuse to stop. We owe the children of America nothing less.

Brooke de Lench is Founding Executive Director of MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety, Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, producer of The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer (PBS), and author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins). You can follow Brooke on Twitter @brookedelench and email her at delench@momsteam.com