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Youth Sports League Sexual Abuse
Youth sports leagues are great places for children to be a part of a team, a community, and to develop their social and athletic skills. Child athletes should always feel that their sports league is a safe environment. The stark reality, though, is that child sexual abuse at the hands of coaches and other adults in youth sports league organizations is prevalent.
Coaches, older athletes, and other team administrators take advantage of the trusting positions they are in and sexually abuse the young players that they are put in charge of.
Recent events, including the exposure of the sexual abuse at the hands of Dr. Larry Nassar at Michigan State, the USA Gymnastics cover-ups, and the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal at Penn State, have brought to light the existence of this environment for child abuse.
How common is sexual assault in youth organized sports?
Emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and sexual molestation occur in all types of sports. This issue is not isolated to one particular sport or solely affects just males or females. Studies show that between 40% to 50% of all athletes have experienced some form of abuse – ranging from mild harassment to severe abuse that has led to serious emotional and physical injuries.
Other research studies indicate that between 2% to 8% of all athletes experience some form of sexual abuse in sports. It is crucial to recognize that child abuse, including sexual, emotional, and physical, can happen to any child, regardless of socio-economic background, race, geographic location, or religion.
Sexual assault cases involving organized youth sports
The US Olympics sexual abuse tragedy and the Penn State sex abuse travesty and subsequent convictions demonstrate two examples of sexual misconduct involving youth sports leagues. Some other lesser-known examples demonstrate how prevalent sex abuse in youth sports programs is and how it can happen in any area, no matter how famous the institution or sports league is. These sexual abuse cases include:
- In Nyack, New York, a Christian college formerly employed a softball coach that was subsequently charged with 94 counts of harassment and allegations of forcibly touching his players in 2015. By the time he was arraigned, more former softball players had filed claims against him.
- In 2016, Herman Law brought a civil lawsuit against the Florida Youth Soccer Association on behalf of a teenage boy who alleged his assistant coach, William Burton, had sexually molested and abused him.
- In 2010, a television news investigation revealed the sex abuse happening in the USA Swimming organization. Coach Andy King received a 40-year prison sentence after authorities found a pattern of sexual abuse that spanned over three decades all along the West Coast, involving more than a dozen female victims. USA Swimming also found another coach who installed a camera in the young women’s locker room to watch them shower. The institution banned more than 100 coaches for life from working with USA Swimming-affiliated clubs. More recently, former swimmers are filing cases against USA Swimming, stating that they failed to protect them from the coaches that were sexually abusing them.
These coaches were meant to take care of the kids and put in place safety measures to prevent the abuse of young people. Unfortunately, these predators used their greater responsibility and unsupervised access to inflict horrifying pain through sexual activities on these young athletes. Vulnerable children should not have to experience these cruel acts while in youth organizations. If someone abused you while you were on a youth sports team, you should contact an experienced attorney to receive legal advice and potentially take legal action.
What are signs of childhood sexual assault in youth sports?
Many signs can indicate that a young athlete is being abused in their youth sports league. These red flags include:
- Missing practices
- No longer wanting to attend practices
- Fearful of being alone with specific individuals
- Loss of interest
- Performing significantly below their abilities.
Other physical warning signs of child sexual abuse include:
- Sexually transmitted diseases or infections
- Signs of genital area trauma
- Unexplained bleeding
- Unexplained bruising
- Blood on the child’s clothing, sheets, or underwear.
Some additional behavioral signs are:
- Excessive talking about sexual topics or excessive knowledge about sexual issues
- Keeping secrets
- Not as talkative as usual
- Regressive behaviors (such as thumb sucking or bedwetting)
- Overly compliant behavior
- Isolating oneself
- Changes in eating habits
- Changes in sleeping habits
- Changes in mood or personality
- Decrease in confidence
- Loss of self-esteem
- Excessive worrying or fearfulness
- Self-harming behaviors
While this is a non-exhaustive list, it is vital to be able to recognize if sexual abuse is happening so that the abuse can be stopped. When looking for signs, the most important thing is keeping an eye out for sudden changes in a child’s behavior.
What are the risk factors of abuse in children participating in sports?
Similar to any other environment where children gather, sexual predators use youth sports leagues as an opportunity to seek out their prey. Parents trust sports leagues and the adults in sports leagues to take care of their children. However, some coaches and other adult figures use their power to “groom” children to comply with sexual abuse. Grooming behavior includes:
- Giving preferential treatment to children
- Slowly building a relationship with children to build their trust
- Manipulating the child to trust them
- Giving children gifts.
The grooming process is purposefully manipulative to hide the predator’s ulterior motives. The risk factor specifically involved in youth sports leagues is when the child is alone with the predator in one-on-one contact, such as individual training sessions and private lessons.
Further, travel teams and locker rooms create high-risk environments for sexual abuse. They further perpetuate the isolation of children away from their parents or other adult staff that could protect the child. Other risk factors include:
- The power imbalance between coaches and athletes
- Autocratic authority systems
- Close personal contact between athletes and coaches
- Sharing rooms on away trips
- Intense competition between athletes
- Collective silence on sexuality matters.
The rise of technology also creates an increased risk for young athletes, as sexual abuse can be committed in non-contact forms as well. Adults can easily contact a young athlete through social media, texting, and other electronic forms of communication. Examples of non-contact sexual abuse include:
- Sending explicit messages to a child (“sexting”)
- Forcing a child to view or send pornographic images or videos
- Masturbating in front of a child
- Exposing oneself to a child
- Threatening a child
- Harassing a child.
Are my kids safe from abuse in sports?
No matter where a child is, in any youth organization or institution, there are some risks. However, that does not mean that all youth sports leagues are dangerous to children. Parents and other adults can take preventative measures to help ensure that their children are safe.
How do I protect my kids from sexual abuse and molestation in youth sports?
The first step in protecting children from grooming and sexual abuse in sports is by having an open dialogue with children early on. Encourage children to feel comfortable speaking with the adults in their lives, especially about complex information. Find the time to ask your child general questions, and be sure to play a proactive, attentive role in your child’s life. It is crucial that your child trusts you and feels that he or she can open up to you, even in uncomfortable, awkward, or confusing situations.
Always be sure to research any organization that your child participates in and any coaches that will be coaching your child. The organization itself should be running background checks on these coaches. However, parents can also do their own research.
Parents can ask open-ended questions to their children if they are concerned about something. Open-ended questions are framed in a way that does not assume an answer, such as:
- How are things going with you?
- Do you want to talk?
- Is there anything you’d like to share with me?
- Is there anything that may be confusing to you that we can try to make sense of together?
Always remember never to blame the child for coming forward about sexual abuse.
Organizations themselves can take many preventative steps to ensure the adults that are part of a league are not a threat to the children. Some of these preventive measures include:
- Thorough vetting and screening. Organizations must run criminal and general background checks on all employees, staff members, and volunteers.
- Training and awareness policies. Parents, employees, staff members, and volunteers must go through training programs to understand the warning signs of sexual abuse, steps they can take to prevent sexual abuse, and how they can report sexual abuse.
- Setting boundaries. Organizations must set clear boundaries on what is appropriate and what is inappropriate in an organizational setting. The organizations should require at least two adults in every “one-on-one” training session or some other type of supervisory procedure. Further, on overnight trips, there must be extensive supervision. No coaches should be allowed alone in hotel rooms with athletes.
- Clear reporting guidelines. Young athletes and parents must have a clear way of reporting the abuse. This will ensure that the abuser is exposed and make it easier for athletes to come forward. The guidelines similar to the Little League Baseball organization published are a good example of creating clear reporting procedures. This source provides great information, including mandatory reporting requirements, setting up reporting hotlines, and a thorough explanation of child sexual abuse.
These steps are crucial for any youth organization to be able to prevent child sexual abuse.
How do I help a child who has been sexually abused?
As a parent, guardian, or caregiver, it may be challenging to come to terms with the fact that someone has sexually abused your child. You may feel confused about how to help them. However, with the support of their loved ones, many children do go on to live normal, happy, healthy, and prosperous lives.
The first thing you should do is tell your child that you love them no matter what and that the abuse was not their fault. Many children blame themselves, so it is critical that you emphasize that they have no fault in the abuse.
Next, you can seek help for your child through therapy or other experts in childhood trauma. You and your child can seek counseling to help cope with the trauma. These sessions may include family therapy, group therapy, or individual therapy.
It could be beneficial to contact an experienced sexual abuse attorney to learn about your rights or your child’s rights. You may be entitled to compensation to help pay for the costs and expenses that will help you or your child in the healing process.
What if the predator is a parent or spectator?
No matter who the abuser is, you should be aware of how you can report the abuse. Each sports league should have guidelines on how you can report abuse, including who to report to and where to report.
Further, you should make a report to law enforcement. There are many children’s advocacy centers and experienced law firms that can help you throughout the entire process and assist you in reporting abusers to local law enforcement.
Why do youth sports organizations hide child sexual abuse?
While children may hide experiencing sexual abuse for many reasons, including being traumatized or fearful for what would happen if they report, the organizations themselves have no excuse for covering up abuse. Yet, time and time again, people in leadership positions in youth sports leagues know about the abuser and fail to do anything about it. These cover-ups are not unique to sports leagues. They’ve happened in the Roman Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, and schools.
These organizations cover up the abuse to protect their own reputations. Further, frequently the abusers are a significant part of the organization, bringing in income or influence. The organizations place the abuser’s high value to the organization over the safety of the children.
What is the Safe Sport Act?
Congress enacted the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017 (Safe Sport Act). The Act designates the US Center for SafeSport as the independent, national safe sport organization. The organization has the exclusive authority to respond and act on allegations of sexual abuse and/or sexual misconduct within the US Olympic and Paralympic Movement. The Center has discretionary jurisdiction over each case.
The Act is meant to prevent the sexual abuse of children and amateur athletes by enacting reporting requirements to law enforcement authorities.
Can the youth sports organization be responsible for the abuse?
Yes. The passage of the Safe Sport Act allows victims to hold sports organizations liable for the sexual abuse at the hands of their employees in civil cases. In most civil cases, if you can prove that the organization was negligent in hiring the employee or failing to protect the child, they can be held liable.
Organizations have a duty of care to athletes. If an organization fails to uphold that duty, thus breaching that duty, they can be held responsible for any injuries or damages resulting to the child, even if the abuse was by an individual coach.
In criminal charges, however, the abusers themselves will be held accountable. Victims can only hold the organization responsible in criminal cases in very rare instances.
What should I do if I was abused while in a youth sports league?
The first thing to do if someone abused you while you were in a youth sports league is to recognize that it was not your fault and that you are not alone. You can seek help through therapy and other treatments. If you experienced abuse while in a youth sports league, you may be entitled to compensation to help pay for those medical expenses. You should contact an experienced child sexual abuse lawyer to understand your rights and determine the best way to proceed.
When do I have to file a claim by?
The statutes of limitations, meaning the deadlines for when you have to file a claim, vary on a state-by-state basis. However, many states are changing their legislation to allow victims of sexual abuse to file a claim, even if the abuse happened years ago.
It is crucial to contact a knowledgeable sex abuse attorney to understand when you have to file a claim by and whether you may be entitled to compensation. Contact Herman Law now for a free consultation on whether or not you have a claim.