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United Nations identifies new violent hot spot: youth sports

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Judging by the report put out by UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre (it’s based in Florence, hence what would otherwise seem like a comical Italian name), you should expect to see the blue-helmeted forces of the United Nations keeping the peace at your kid’s next ballgame.

The center (I’m spelling it the American way, damnit) took the time for its usual work of researching the most desperate regions of the world to check out the most desperate parents and coaches in the world — those involved with youth sports in so-called advanced nations. Its report, released in mid-July, is reassuring only in that the United States isn’t the only nation where everyone goes overboard about kids’ athletics.

From the report, titled “Protecting Children from Violence in Sport,” just in case you wondered what the researchers’ conclusion would be:

During recent years, however, it has become evident that sport is not always a safe space for children, and that the same types of violence and abuse sometimes found in families and communities can also occur in sport and play programmes. Child athletes are rarely consulted about their sporting experiences, and awareness of and education on child protection issues among sport teachers, coaches and other stakeholders is too often lacking.  Overall, appropriate structures and policies need to be developed for preventing, reporting and responding appropriately to violence in children’s sport.

The report is chock-a-block with examples from all over the world regarding abuse of children in the name of sport, and that’s without bringing up the name of a single gymnastics coach or tennis dad.

By the way, the United Nations does not define violence against children in sports (yes, the United Nations passed a resolution to define violence against children in sports) as merely physical, sexual  or mental abuse from a coach or parent, or overtraining a kid to the point he gets Tommy John surgery for his bar mitzvah. The definition includes hazing, peer pressure from teammates to drink or do drugs, the use of performance-enhancing substances, and — in what is sure to arouse the ire of Dave Cisar — sex as a prerequisite to participation.

This passage about organized sports being a political process, rather than a physical one, will get a hey-yeah from anyone whose obviously talented child was cut in favor of the coach’s spazz son:

Street play and other forms of adult-free recreation may be the only situations in which children have autonomy over their sport (although even then, they are often being closely observed by parents or othercaregivers). In contrast, children in organized, competitive sport usually lack authority; they are excluded from decision-making and may have their voices silenced by coaches, assertive parents or caregivers, or by senior athletes. In these instances, participation in sport is therefore a physical but not a political right. As a consequence, children are rarely allowedto shape their own competitive sporting experiences and may be subjected to violence if they fail to comply with the wishes of sport authority figures. This exclusion from the right to participation as defined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child leaves children vulnerable to types of violence that range from bullying to sexual abuse and commercial trafficking.

So if your child gets cut, make sure to cite the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child in your argument to the coach. It’s your ace in the hole.

By the way, if you’re like me — and thank whatever god you worship if you’re not — you did a stop on “commercial trafficking.” You mean, like how strip clubs get their dancers from Eastern Europe? Well, maybe not a large extent, though you can argue the system that rewards street agents to deliver under-18 baseball players in Latin America to Major League Baseball teams is child trafficking of a form. Heck, you could extend the definition to Clark Francis’ Hoop Scoop rating fourth-graders for the pleasure of college coaches, given how far the United Nations extends its definitions of violence against children.

Trafficking in the context of sport involves the sale of child athletes, usually across national boundaries and for profit. This has been described as a new form of child slavery that leaves players in a precarious legal position. There are known cases of trafficking in baseball and football, but finding systematic data on the practice is a challenge. Unofficial, and therefore unregulated, football training centres test young players, who are then recruited or discarded. These players may become involved in illegal migration or be traded from club to club. Research for this report found very few references to trafficking of children in sport; most references concerned children working as camel jockeys.

The Innocenti Research Centre, like any UN peacekeeper, doesn’t have a magic bullet that can end all the violence. The conclusions of its report talk about having more research into exactly how many children in sports are affected bv violence, and what kind; more training and awareness programs by sports organizations; turning over anyone who commits criminal violence against a child to authorities rather than handling it internally (ahem, USA Swimming); and otherwise making it clear to all involved that violence is something you have to worry about.

This report focused only on the industrialized world — not the places where, since the turn of the millennium, the United Nations has launched sports-based programs to help impoverished children in war-torn lands. After all, like most of the rest of us, while the report saw problems in youth sports, it acknowledges it can have great benefits, and that many children enjoy them. The United Nations’ goal, it appears, is to ensure that blood diamonds exist only inside a youth sports complex.

Written by rkcookjr

July 17, 2010 at 4:01 pm

USA Swimming getting lessons in how not to molest children

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USA Swimming, apparently not able to figure out itself how not to have coaches abuse children, is partnering with the Child Welfare League of America to teach it. Here is USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus, explaining in a joint June 21 news release how this uncomfortable marriage came to be.

“As a youth sports organization, we recognized the importance of obtaining concentrated input from independent experts in the field of child welfare.  After meeting with the CWLA and reviewing the long and distinguished history of the organization, we are confident that we have the best people helping us with our ongoing efforts to serve our membership.”

If Wielgus hadn’t been so stinking clueless and dismissive about problems with swim coaches in ways that would make Pope Benedict blanch, I wouldn’t be so quick to say that this move has please-don’t-sue-me written all over it. Hey, I’ve sat through how-not-to-molest-children training required to coach a Catholic school team, training developed by the church’s liability insurer, so I know a please-don’t-sue-me-move when I see it.

Of course, there are multiple lawsuits already against USA Swimming for various sexual misconduct alleged against coaches, cases that have inspired ex-Olympians such as Diana Nyad and Deena Deardurff Schmidt to step forward to say they were victims, too.

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An attorney in one of the lawsuits dismissed USA Swimming’s announcement, telling The Associated Press that the Child Welfare League of America is a lobbying organization, not one that knows anything about developing youth sports protection guidelines. The league would argue otherwise, but that’s besides the point. After rushing out a seven-point action plan following a devastating report by ABC’s “20/20″ on the grabby-hands problem, USA Swimming is hiding behind a brand-name organization so that the next time someone sues, it can say, see, we tried to do something about it. We can’t stop everyone, you know.

Also, USA Swimming’s move would reek a little more of sincerity if it hadn’t, since the “20/20″ report, removed coaches critical of its policies from high-profile assignments. Geez, even the Catholic Church lets priests critical of its conduct (or lack thereof) keep their parishes.

Swim coaches drowning in child sexual abuse cases

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Pope Benedict XVI is sending a thank-you note (probably in Latin) to Colorado Springs, Colo., thanking USA Swimming for proving Catholics’ point that the Church isn’t the only one who has a problem with their touched-by-the-hand-of-God authority figures using their hands to touch the wrong people.

USA Swimming is mired in revelations that it had to ban at least 36 coaches because of sexual misconduct — and, in that, it didn’t come close to doing enough to rid the nation’s pools of creeps and pedophiles.

The latest such accusation comes in a lawsuit, filed in Independence, Mo., by a 21-year-old Kansas swimmer against the national swimming governing body, a Kansas City swim coach and her old coaches, saying they did nothing when an assistant coach made sexual advances to her, sexually harassed her, and eventually made “sexually inappropriate contact.” The lawsuit says that USA Swimming’s background check system is inadequate and that the organization has turned a “blind eye” to such issues. In fact, the lawsuit says that USA Swimming was informed of the coach’s conduct, but did nothing.

Naturally, USA Swimming denies the charges, the third time recently that a Kansas City-area swim coach has gotten accused of sexually inappropriate conduct. (The first two are serving prison time.)

The lawsuit, filed April 19, comes only a few days after former champion swimmer Diana Nyad said she had been molested by her youth swim coach, following Deena Deerdruff Schmidt in making a similar allegations.

Pretty soon, swim coaches and priests are going to be spoken of in the same breath — a fetid, stale breath.

Written by rkcookjr

April 20, 2010 at 12:47 am

USA Swimming proves that the Catholic Church isn't the only one with kid problems

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Recently my 12-year-old son asked my 66-year-old mother what the differences were between life as a kid now, and life as a kid in the 1950s, when she grew up in the same small town, Gladstone, Mich., as towel-throwing Michigan Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak (actually, she worked in his family’s diner, where Bart, nine years her junior, was by my mom’s telling a snot and a serial attention-seeker. Go figure!)

Anyway, my mom responded that, beyond the obvious differences wrought by technology, the biggest difference is that kids then didn’t have to worry about dangers like children have to now. However, I quickly corrected her. “You mean, kids didn’t KNOW what the dangers were then.”

I said that because I knew the story she had told me, which she repeated once I corrected her, about how her father warned her never to go to a deer camp with her friends and their fathers. That’s because once they got there, the dads took advantage of the remote location, and the knowledge no one would ever believe their daughters’ wild tales if they had the guts to tell them, to go on a molestation orgy.

I’ve thought about that story as USA Swimming, the national governing body of, obviously, swimming in the United States, comes under increasing criticism over how it handled, or didn’t handle, coaches who were alleged to have molested their charges.

The comparisons with the Catholic Church are easy and appropriate, because in each case people put in a position of trust were abusing that as they abused children, and because the lead authorities willfully ignored, covered up or otherwise did not take what now would be considered minimal appropriate action to ensure the abusers were removed and prosecuted.

Dribs and drabs of this information have come out, particularly with the trial and conviction of San Jose, Calif.-based coach Andrew King, who apparently has been molesting his swimmers for most of his 40 years as a coach, but who didn’t get caught until he was arrested in April 2009 on suspicion of molesting a 14-year-old girl. When the girl’s family sued — saying that USA Swimming and other authorities should have known about King’s conduct and ignored complaints about other coaches — 1972 Olympic gold medal swimmer Deena Dearduff Schmidt said she was molested by her coach as a preteen, a coach who is a Hall of Famer. (The coach’s name was not identified.)

The lawsuit also says that USA Swimming didn’t institute any sort of background screening for coaches until 2006, and even then barely put any teeth in its policy.

In a report that aired on ABC’s “20/20″ on April 9, USA Swimming chief executive officer Chuck Weilgus appeared like a deer in headlights trying to explain the 36 coaches who had been banned by his organization for misconduct, and why the organization hadn’t done more.

In the “20/20″ report, an Indiana-based coach named Ken Stopkotte said the problem of creepy swimming coaches has been a problem in his 27 years of working. Interesting he says that, considering that he once replaced a coach who left because of allegations he condoned hazing on his swim team.

USA Swimming has the chance to look clueless again on May 2, when ESPN airs its “Outside the Lines” report on its own investigation into the malfeasance of swimming coaches.

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USA Swimming’s problem, like the Catholic Church’s, is its unwillingness to admit that its representatives were responsible for such heinous acts, and its unwillingness to come down hard on those people. The problem is not unique to those organizations. As in this story about a famed New York high school basketball coach indicted on sexual crimes, there are plenty of authority figures from plenty of places who did plenty of horrible things over plenty of years to plenty of youth. Maybe in the 1950s my mother didn’t actively worry about the bad things adult authorities could do — but they were doing them.

The difference now, presumably, is that it’s much easier for parents and others to imagine that happening — and that they’re less apt to accept the lame explanations they once received, and the demands of silence placed upon their children. Until organizations, sports and otherwise, figure that out, they’re going to spend a lot of time on TV going “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba” as they struggle to answer questions about their lack of oversight in the past, present and future.

It’s not just my grandfather warning about the dangers of deer camp anymore.

Written by rkcookjr

April 12, 2010 at 12:39 am

Child-molesting coaches and naked swimming: don't tell me about the good old days

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Practice just started for the fifth- and sixth-grade coed basketball team I’m coaching, and I’m fortunate enough to have as assistants two parents who have served as head and assistant coaches in the same league. I said they still needed to fill out the form so the Alsip (Ill.) Park District could check if they’re child molesters, and they nodded their heads. They know the drill.

If you’ve read my headline grabs lately, you might think: why do organizations bother to do this? There’s the gymnastics coach in Florida, the football coach in Washington and the softball coach in Oklahoma among a stream of arrests of youth sports authority figures arrested for sex crimes against the very children they are supposed to be training. It’s enough to make you wonder if, in America, we should be like Great Britain, making everyone pay to be on a Not A Sex Offender List in order to work with children. Heck, some of the vile search terms people use to get to this site makes you want to pour bleach on the Internet.

However, not that it necessarily will make you feel any better, your child is far, far, far, far, far, far, far safer on a sports team than he or should be with the past. That’s because even a cursory look at the local police files and an awareness that child perverts might want to be, you know, around children is well ahead of what like was like when, say, my 39-year-old self was playing first base in the North Muskegon, Mich., Little League in the early 1980s. At least now, an allegation can lead to arrest, and some of the weirder stuff that was pulled without anyone batting an eyelash is no longer looked at as normal.

Former NHL Stanley Cup hoister Theoron Fleury recently reminded us of this when he said in his recent book that he was a molestation victim of junior hockey coach Graham James, who has already served time regarding his conduct toward former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy and other children he coached. And we got another reminder with the continuing saga of the late Philip Foglietta and the trail of destruction he left in a long career as football coach at Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn, N.Y.

On Oct. 26, seven alumni filed a lawsuit against the school, saying it knew that Foglietta abused “dozens, if not hundreds of boys” during his tenure from 1966-91, and condoned his behavior because he was a successful football coach and raised a substantial amount of money for the private school. A 2005 lawsuit filed by an alumnus was dismissed because the victim did not file it within five years of turning 18. By suing based on a conspiracy, there are no statute of limitations issues.

If you read the victim testimonials on the site of the White Tower Healing Foundation, dedicated to serving the children Foglietta abused — and I would recommend a strong stomach if you do — you can see the coach was the classic molester. He picked out kids from troubled homes, or who were in a precarious situation with the school, or had self-esteem issues, or all those. He started with little touches here and there before graduating to more rank abuse. He sent the message — even if he didn’t have to say it — that any child who accused him of doing wrong would never be believed.

In short, it’s the sort of conduct that has the Catholic church and its members in knots, the classic tale of how an authority figure abused his power and influence to abuse children, destroying young lives in the process.

Why aren’t I hedging and saying that Foglietta was an alleged molester, given he was never convicted of a crime? Because the school in 2002 sent a letter to alumni acknowledging that “a former faculty member/coach” had likely molested children at the school. Also, because Foglietta died the year before that letter was written. The evidence is overwhelming against Foglietta, and there’s also no libeling the dead, you know.

According to the White Tower Healing Foundation, the school got its first complaint against Foglietta in 1972 — so it took 30 years for Poly Prep to cop to what was going on.

But, hey, who in 1972 would believe something like that? Especially in a time when a lot of schools made their kids take swimming lessons in the nude?

Mark Brown of the Chicago Sun-Times for two days, Oct. 27 and Oct. 28, has mined columns about this weird, weird practice, well-known, at least in Chicago, to anyone over the age of 50. At some schools, the boys had to strip naked to swim up until the early 1980s. Sheesh, it’s traumatic enough for most boys to have to change in front of each in the lockerroom. Who the hell thought having every single boy naked for an hour in a cold pool was a great idea?

Brown explains why people thought that was a great idea:

[Chicago radio host Garry] Meier said he and his classmates were given the explanation that school officials didn’t want them clogging up the pool with sand from their bathing trunks. As someone who didn’t frequent the beach, Meier found that to be one of many explanations he’s heard through the years that don’t hold water.

At Thornton High School in south suburban Harvey, former athletic director Ed Fredette said it was just a matter of not wanting to deal with the logistics and expense of providing clean swimsuits to every boy.

“It was a total embarrassment. It really was for years,” Fredette said, meaning for all concerned, not just the swimmers. Fredette said he finally got the school to provide boys with swimsuits, which had been the practice all along for girls.

Still, he said he never heard a complaint at the time from students or parents.

“You think we could do that today? No way, Dick Tracy,” said Fredette, now 73 and living in Alabama.

So while there are still plenty of coaches who get in trouble for abusing children, it’s not nearly as bad and strange as it was in the good old days. I think I see you all nodding your heads. You know the drill.

Written by rkcookjr

October 28, 2009 at 9:41 pm

In Theoron Fleury, the Graham James sexual abuse story lives on

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When NHL player Sheldon Kennedy in 1996 came forward to say he was sexually abused by his Canadian junior hockey coach, Graham James, there was speculation that at least one other professional player had been victimized. When James in 1997 was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for his crimes, he was convicted for abusing Kennedy and “one unnamed junior hockey player.”

With his new book, retired 16-year veteran Theoron Fleury confirms that player was him.

From Maclean’s:

Retired hockey star Theoren Fleury has at long last confirmed that he was sexually abused by his junior coach, Graham James, a trauma he says drove him to alcohol, drugs and promiscuity throughout his otherwise impressive 16-year NHL career. “The direct result of my being abused was that I became a f—ing raging, alcoholic lunatic,” he writes in Playing with Fire, an autobiography to be released this week, and provided in advance to Maclean’s. “[James] destroyed my belief system. The most influential adult in my life at the time was telling me that what I thought was wrong was right.

“I no longer had faith in myself or my own judgment. And when you come down to it, that’s all a person has. Once it’s gone, how do you get it back?”

It is an account the hockey world has long waited to hear, as Fleury’s career had been one of the most spectacularly troubled in NHL history. For years, the spark-plug forward has stone-walled questions about his time with James, even as his violent outbursts on the ice and binges off it pointed to something terrible in his past. Until the book, former Boston Bruin Sheldon Kennedy had been the only player to go public about being abused by James. He was hailed as a hero for coming forward, and said at the time one other NHL player had been abused. He did not name the player, and while speculation quickly enveloped Fleury, it died off when it became clear the player had no intention of addressing the issue.

In his book, however, Fleury lifts the lid on the entire harrowing tale, beginning when the Manitoba coach recruited him at 13 from his minor hockey team in Russell, Man., to play junior in Winnipeg. “Graham was on me once or twice a week for the next two years,” Fleury writes of the assaults, whose memories remain vivid to him. “An absolute nightmare, every day of my life.” James required him to sleep two nights a week at the coach’s house, rather than with the woman with whom he’d been billetted. He tried to fight off the coach at first, wrapping himself in blankets each night and pretending to sleep as James attempted to masturbate him and give him oral sex. But the fear of James’s advances left him sleepless, and exhaustion broke him down, he writes; so too did James’s frequent warnings that, without his coach’s support, he stood little chance of playing professional hockey.

Like Kennedy, Fleury was a young boy from a troubled home who was completely tossed into the whirlwind life of junior hockey without any parental figure back home to guide him. And like Kennedy, that abuse sent Fleury down a road of alcohol and drug abuse. Fleury went from toast of the town as the fiery little guy who lead Calgary to its only Stanley Cup title in 1988 to burning through $50 million in drugs, strippers and whores by the time he retired.

Since Kennedy’s public accusation of James, Canadian junior hockey coaches’ image has become the equivalent of the American Catholic priest — an all-powerful figure, particularly for troubled boys, who used that power to commit unspeakable acts that finally could be unspoken no more. Like the good Catholic priest, the good Canadian junior hockey coach is unfairly under more suspicion because of sins committed by others. No matter, though. The lesson, as always, is that no parent can blindly turn their child over to another adult authority with the message that you do what that person says — and we won’t believe a bad word you say.

After all, James hasn’t been the only case where a Canadian junior hockey coach has gone to trial over sexual crimes. In November 2008, an Ontario court acquitted former junior coach and player agent David Frost of sexual exploitation of minors, but the stories told of Frost-led sexcapades involving players led the judge in the case to call such goings-on at the junior level “a dark and very unhealthy side of hockey.”

Hopefully the book and the admission will set Fleury pack on the right path. As Kennedy could tell him, given some of his own slip-ups between 1996 and now, it won’t be easy.

By the way, what of James? He hasn’t commented on Fleury’s accusation. Last anyone heard, aAfter prison he left Canada for Europe — where he coached youth hockey. The Calgary Sun reports that James is now believed to be living outside of Montreal. It also said that after his conviction, James told the paper, when it asked if there were any more victims, that he “loved many people.”

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