Safe4Athletes

Sports and Abuse: Help Kids Speak Up

BY: RACHEL STURTZ

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Colorado is helping make private sports teams and clubs safer for children. Senator Rollie Heath introduced Senate Bill 13-012 in January, which seeks to hold employees of private sports programs responsible for reporting child abuse or neglect:

The bill adds directors, coaches, assistant coaches, and athletic program personnel for private sports programs or organizations to the list of persons required to report suspected child abuse or neglect to the county or district department of social services or local law enforcement agency. 

The bill will add legal ramifications for organizations that have historically had little (or done little) in the way of protection for kids. Oftentimes, coaches are reprimanded for their misconduct and then allowed to quietly resign, moving from school to school undetected. In one prominent California case, swim club coach Andy King moved around California abusing more than a dozen girls and impregnating one before he was finally reported to police. And the problems aren't far from home, as in this case:

The most prominent name on the [USA Swimming secret] banned list is former national team director Everett Uchiyama, who quit in 2006 after being accused of having a decade-long relationship with a swimmer that began when she was 14. He never faced criminal charges and turned up less than a year later as the aquatics director at the Country Club of Colorado, only about five miles from USA Swimming's headquarters in Colorado Springs.

The bill is on the Governor's desk, waiting to be signed into law. But we also need to attack this problem on the front end. Not enough schools and clubs have clear and deliberate guidelines on how to deal with these kinds of situations when they arise or to prevent them in the first place. That begins with a thorough check of past employment.

When resignations are doled out behind closed doors, other clubs and organizations are at a disadvantage to protect themselves and their athletes. There is no national database for these kinds of predators and unless a coach was prosecuted, their criminal background check will come back clean. Some national governing bodies have made public their list of banned coaches, but they do not include those found guilty of misconduct. The priority of any club or team should be to interview former employers to find out why the coach left their former posts.

Then, the start of any season should begin with an education for both team and coach on what's appropriate and what's not. No closed-door practices. No alone time between a coach and an athlete. No rides home after a workout. No texting other than practice details or location changes. The list goes on. And when a coach crosses the line, children and teens—even elite athletes—need to already have a support system in place.

One of the many reasons athletes fail to report abuse is because the person they have to tell is usually intimately involved with the organization and has close ties to the coach. And a winning coach is a more powerful coach. Kids need to know that if they're uncomfortable telling their parents, they have someone else they can trust who will take their allegations seriously with no concern for a program's reputation. A liaison like this offers children a safe harbor while their claim is investigated. Abuse doesn't always have the advantage of corroborating evidence, and the more time an athlete has to build their story before having it officially reported is incredibly important for their emotional health and their case against the coach.

This kind of athlete-first mentality was put into practice by Olympic swimmer Katherine Starr last year when she started Safe4Athletes, a program that advocates for athlete welfare and shifts power away from coaches. As an athlete who endured sexual abuse for the entirety of her 10-year career, Starr created this program to give athletes a confidential resource to have conversations about their issues. The program helps sports organizations create policies, procedures, and education for sexual harassment, bullying, and other inappropriate behaviors at no cost to schools or clubs. It's a comprehensive program that has coaches sign a code of conduct agreement that if broken, will put their name on the site's list of banned coaches.

Safe4Athletes also helps teams and clubs designate a third-party athlete welfare advocate (a pivotol difference between this program and others), a fact finder to help with investigation, and an ethics panel made up of representatives for the coach and athlete to review the findings. They also provide legal assistance for parents and counseling for athletes. 

It's an important step to take the power out of the hands of the schools and clubs, because when dealing with serious issues like this internally, history has proven that the best interests of the school and its coach can come first. SB 13-012 is a great step towards prosecuting those who stay silent. A program like Safe4Athletes or a school's committment to designating an athlete advocate is how we'll give children a voice.

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Every athlete deserves a safe and positive sports environment. SPEAK UP if the way you are being treated feels wrong. 
If you need advice in sorting through a situation or concern. SAFE4ATHLETES is here to help.

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