Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

Posts Tagged ‘molestation

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.

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

With so many creepy coaches, how do you molester-proof your child?

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I don’t make a habit of highlighting every sex-related arrest involving a youth coach, mostly because it would be too depressing, and because I would have to quit full-time work to have time to track them all. Just in the last few days, there have been arrests involving a guidance counselor and basketball coach in Lassiter, Ga., a girls’ high school coach in Indianapolis, an ex-girls’ soccer coach in Wright Township, Pa., a basketball coach in Ashland, Miss., and in what local police called the most gruesome case they had ever seen, a 53-year-old tween-age girls’ softball coach in Taylor, Mich., who allegedly had naked pictures of girls all over his bedroom wall, with head shots of his fiancee’s 15- and 12-year-old daughters superimposed. (The fiancee hadn’t seen the room because she was in prison for armed robbery.)

For all the hoops leagues make coaches jump through — justifiably — to make sure known child predators don’t get close to coaching your kid, it’s clear the problem is this: you don’t know your kid’s coach is a creep until an arrest has been made. (I should say alleged creep, what with this case in Texas where a teacher and coach is trying to get his school board to pay his legal fees after he was acquitted of groping a teenage girl in the library.)

Even a sweeping plan in Great Britain, which makes everyone working with children pay to get in a national not-a-child-molester database, fails because it can’t catch people who are targeting young children, but who themselves have not yet been caught. (It’s been pointed out that the school employee whose murder of two girls inspired the British law was not on any child predator list.)

So as a parent, what are you supposed to do? Other than lock your children in your house?

My best, knows-enough-to-be-dangerous guess comes in the form of a list below. This is gleaned from reading over law enforcement sites, child protection sites, my Catholic church Virtus training, and my own past experience as a journalists covering cops and courts:

1. Don’t assume your child could never be a victim. This does not mean be paranoid and assume every coach is a child rapist. But it does mean taking some basic precautions that ensure their chances of being a victim are reduced.

2. Background checks aren’t always effective, but at least they’re some sort of minimum. If your league doesn’t do them, look for another league.

3. Don’t assume a child molester looks or sounds creepy, or that someone who sounds creepy is automatically targeting your child. The numbers show that those convicted of sex crimes against children pretty much hew to demographics on race, education and religion in general. That’s the danger — that the creepy coach lurks among us in the most banal of existences.

4. Make sure your child’s league has policies that prevent any adult from being alone with a child or children at any time. Heck, even my church requires an adult chaperon when the children’s bell choir rehearses, and there’s one adult leader with 15 kids. The more-than-one-adult-in-the-room rule does two things: minimizes the chances an adult could put a child in a compromising situation, and minimizes the chance that anyone could falsely accuse anyone of anything.

5. Get to know your coach a little bit. Talk to him or her after practice. Email or call from time to time. This is a good idea in general as a way to build a relationship with the coach, and a good coach will appreciate it. Be friendly. If the coach is a potential child predator, he or she will at least get the message that you’re watching. Not that it would prevent everything, but the classic molester MO is to groom victims who have little or no parental involvement, or come from troubled homes.

6. Don’t tell your kid, “Do whatever the coach says.” Children, even teenagers, are literal. You might unwittingly be setting up your child for disaster if you make the coach into an all-powerful authority figure.

7. Talk to your kids about what happened at practice. You don’t need to be at every practice — that just makes everybody, your child included, unnecessarily nervous. But get some details on what happened. You should let your child know you’re watching.

8. Make it clear to your child that you’re willing to listen to them. This isn’t something that’s just about fending off creepy coaches. If you make a habit of listening to your child — not interrupting with a lecture, but listening — your child might come to you if there’s a problem. Also, by listening, you’ll know enough to hear the alarm bells ringing in your head if something just feels wrong with your child or the team situation.

Actually, a lot of these rules have more to do with everyday parenting than they do with sports alone.

Despite the sheer number of coaches that get popped for sex crimes, it’s safe to say that in the vast, vast, vast majority of cases, your child will be coached by someone who, if he or she says has a team of good-looking kids, is talking about their athletic ability. I’m not going to offer my tips as foolproof, because you never know what can happen, and all it takes is one bad coach to ruin lives. But if you keep your antenna up and stay involved, at least there’s demonstrated evidence that any dangerous coach will keep his hands to himself when your child is around.

Oh, by the way: as a coach, I would not be offended if you did any and all these things with me. I would probably thank you for being such a good parent.