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

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The alleged sexual abuse of boys by a longtime coach at Penn State* has focused media attention once again on the issue.  For the parents of the alleged victims, of course, their worst nightmares have come true. But what could have been done to prevent it? And is the culture of male sports itself at least partially to blame?

The sad fact, as noted in an article by Michael Hartill, a lecturer in the Department of Sport and Physical Activity at Edge Hill University, Ormskirk, Lancashire, England who has studied sexual abuse of boys in sports extensively, is that "the largely unregulated world of children's sport has typically been slow to address the issue of sexual abuse of youth athletes." 

And, while ways to prevent abuse have been the subject of articles on the MomsTeam since our very founding more than ten years ago, there is reason to be concerned that, as the scandal at Penn State fades from the headlines and the media spotlight is shined elsewhere, the kind of practical steps we have long urged won't be taken to minimize the chances that it will reoccur.

As Professor Hartill argues in a new article for MomsTeam, one of the reasons boys in sports may be particularly vulnerable to sexual predators may lie in the very culture of male sports, indeed that the  "‘homosexual' nature of the encounter between man and boy, coupled with a homophobic environment [of sports]" may be "central to the silence that permits abuse to continue."  That culture shows few signs of changing any time soon.

Until the code of silence that makes it possible, in part, for sexual abuse of girls and boys in sports to occur is broken, and until sports' national governing bodies and local sports clubs take abuse more seriously than they have in the past (despite some recent steps, I don't believe enough is being done, even now), it is, I believe, up to sports parents themselves to be pro-active if they don't want to live the nightmare the parents in not-so-Happy Valley have been living with, in some cases, for a decade or more.  How? By doing the following:

  • Demanding that their child's program conduct annual background checks for all  adults involved in a youth sports program, not just paid staff but volunteers, with no grandfathering and no exemptions;
  • Insisting on institution of a two-adult rule for away games and tournaments (especially overnight trips);
  • Knowing the warning signs of sexual abuse;
  • Establishing appropriate sexual and physical boundaries at a pre-season meeting attended by parents and coaches; and by
  • Educating their children about the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touching, and teaching them how to protect themselves against sexual predators.

Sexual abuse in sports is a problem that is not going to go away, anymore than sexual predators are always going to be a problem in the larger society.  But being pro-active can help. Parents owe their children and the teammates of their children no less.

* Update: On June 22, 2012, Sandusky was convicted of 45 of 48 counts of sexual abuse.