Coaching & the Sexual Abuse of Children: Penn State Scandal

The allegations of sex abuse of children by assistant coaches at Penn State University and at Syracuse University are a harsh reminder to parents of the need not only for background checks but of vigilance when their child is playing sports and when their child is spending any amount of time alone with a coach. Perhaps this sounds overly protective; some might argue that such a stance could bring into question relationships of trust and safety among parents and coaches. But as more victims of former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and of former assistant Syracuse basketball coach Bernie Fine come forward, the question arises: How were so many abused for so long?

While the original charges against Sandusky were abhorrent — a grand jury in Philadelphis has charged him with 40 counts of sexually abusing eight boys over 15 years — the mind reels at hearing the additional charges brought against him: Just last week, Sandusky was again arrested after two more individuals brought charges against him. He spent the night in jail, until he was released on $250,000 bail paid by his wife; he now faces more than 50 counts of sexual abuse.

Fine has been charged with sexually abusing three children, two of whom were were ball boys for the Syracuse basketball team. A third, Zachary Tomaselli, has not only accused Fine of sexually abusing him, but himself faces charges of sexually abusing an underage boy. Children who have been abused are themselves more likely to become criminal offenders as adults. According to one expert, 40 percent of sex abusers were sexually abused themselves.

The Macho Culture of Sports

Sexual abuse happens more to girls than to boys:

In the most recent study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center in 2009, involving 1,175 children ages 14 to 17, 9 percent of girls reported unwanted sexual contact by an adult in their childhood; 1 percent of boys did.

The macho culture of sports makes it even more likely than an individual who has been abused will not speak up about it. It is very possible that even more have been abused than actually report it. They are hesitant, afraid and ashamed to speak up, in no small part because they fear that no one will believe them and that they will be harshly judged for casting doubt on someone who — like Sandusky and Fine — has been publicly revered.

Chris Gavagan, a filmmaker who is making a documentary on sexual abuse in sports called “Coached Into Silence,” based largely on abuse he said he endured from a youth hockey coach starting when he was 14, is among those who believe the problems for boys in sports are much larger than suspected. Not only does it happen more than people want to think, he said, but the culture of sports works against a child trying to report it.

“Sexually abused boys are going to be the most silent group,” Gavagan said, adding that the allegations involving Sandusky, if true, fit a familiar pattern.

“With the whole macho atmosphere of sports, it seems to be the perfect storm of circumstances,” he said. “There’s the culture of personality that keep these guys the kings of their little kingdoms, the sense of hero worship. The kinds of things Sandusky was offering those boys is every boy’s dream — trips to bowl games, going down on the field. It allows these things to go on for a long time. And when you don’t tell someone the first time it happens, you already feel complicit.”

As someone who was physically abused by a male relative once said to me, what guy wants to speak publicly about getting beat up?

The revelation of the alleged abuse by Sandusky has led to calls for stronger laws to protect children against abuse in Pennsylvania. We also need to consider more legal protections regarding abuse for children in sports and athletic programs; about required background checks and rules such as that which the Boy Scouts of America (after a number of well-publicized cases of abuse) now have, that children can never be alone with only one adult.

Assessing Sandusky’s defiant interviews with Bob Costas on NBC and with the New York Times, a man who pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a minor while he was a youth baseball coach, and who served prison time for it in 1983, says:

… [the] interviews suggested that Sandusky did not understand the harm abuse can do to children. “I did try to send information about Dr. Berlin’s program to his attorney, but you have to recognize you have a problem before you can get help,” the man said. [Dr. Fred Berlin is the director of the Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit at Johns Hopkins University; the man interviewed is 66 years old, lives in the Baltimore area, is a registered sex offender and wishes to remain anonymous.]

Of course no parent wishes to cast doubts about someone like an athletic coach who is in a position to help a child in something seemingly so positive, sports. But the global child sex abuse scandal by Roman Catholic priests has alerted nonprofits to the serious liabilities they face, should any one connected to them be accused, and be found to have committed, abuse — and also to the life-long devastating effects on those who suffered abuse as children.

Previous Care2 Coverage

Man Abused 100 Times By Former Penn State Coach Sandusky

More Potential Victims of Abuse at Penn State

Penn State Students Riot Over JoePa’s Firing

Penn State Sex Scandal: Tougher Laws About Child Abuse


Photo by mkd

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Janine H.
Janine H.3 years ago

Always when i hear about terrible things it makes me sad, and i cannot understand how someone could do something terrible - bully, hurt, rape or kill a person or animal. When i was a child this also happened to me... and surviving this is more terrible than not (parents and other may think different, but a victim?), living with all this pain... living with guilty feelings... full with hate for the own self... having one wish, not to wake up at the following day anymore...
No one can understand, because most people cannot imagine this, cannot imagine how much it change. Some of them think, that this would not be so terrible, because all would make some sexual experiences, and so it would not matter if there were some without own interest or wish. This cruel and superficial society makes me sick.

I know that it is not good to wish someone who does terrible things something as a punishment. But when i hear about violent people then i think why are they so "afraid" to go to someone equal and get some hits for their selves. This is a perversion, to think being more a man when beating a woman or a girl. This men are a shame for all normal men.

"We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not yet learned the simple art of living together as brothers." (Martin Luther King)

Elisabeth P.
Past Member 3 years ago

Continued from below...

from predators, without denigrating the family structure. Not an easy task for sure.

Many teachers say they are there to teach their subject, not life skills. Fair enough, but why can't there be teachers for whom that is their subject? It has to be more beneficial on the whole. Happy students are more compliant and learn better.

Elisabeth P.
Past Member 3 years ago

If society wasn't so all fired up to turn our kids into the most academically proficient people in history there might be room in the education system to help more kids become well rounded individuals. Kids are spending more time in the education system than ever before, more families have two working parents, more families have single parents, more families are compromised in a multitude of ways than ever before.

As well meaning as most families are so many fall short of the mark in teaching kids about life. When I hear about the perils of marijuana because a 16 yo who sat in his room all day smoking cones went schizophrenic I have to wonder why his parents parents didn't pull the plug long before. It's easier to blame pot but the blame really lies with the enablers who did nothing about it till it was too late.

Considering the shortcomings of the greater world school is one place where there's an opportunity for consistent education and without life skills education becomes more irrelevant. These kids who were abused would have gained far more from education had they not faced such trauma. No doubt the trauma affected their productiveness and long term effects may yet appear.

Life skills should start in Grade 1 and be reinforced for the duration of the school years in an open forum style aimed at drawing kids out and creating camaraderie. It's not just about "teaching", it's also about giving kids support and helping them find autonomy, and this precludes risk fr

Mandi A.
Amanda Adams3 years ago

So very sad.

Norma V.
Norma Villarreal3 years ago

Sexual abuse is about domination and power. Anyone can misuse their authority and cause damage to children.

Doug D.
Doug D.3 years ago

Sports are no different than any other activity in which an adult is supervising children. What's in the news is the exception, not the norm. Unfortunately this crap will cause parents to deny their children the benefits of sports, i.e. sportsmanship, being part of a team, camaraderie, etc. By informing kids of the dangers in society and keeping a trusting, communicative relationship with your children, you can protect them. Teach the children what to report and they will be safe.

AbdulAziz A.
AbdulAziz A.3 years ago

Just like the victims need support, so do the abusers (who need to be punished and reformed) perhaps the world would become a better place to live in.

They all need to be understood ... if these abuses remain undetected or unreported then bot of the parties would commit further abuse on others.

Ruth Leavitt
Ruth Leavitt3 years ago

The background checks won't do much: abusers are rarely caught until something like this, with ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred victims on their past.
The problem is so much bigger than this, and the fix is so much more difficult than we can imagine because stopping sexual abuse isn't going to just be making sure abused children don't become abusers - it's no more common among victims than non-victims, but we're all watching the victims and that's what we see. Small wonder they take it out on others with all that expectation.
The problem is in education and our broken families and our society, and it's deeper than who we let marry and who raises children. Happy, willing homes of preferably two or more adults - related or not - might be a good place to start, and no more unwanted children being born.

Ralph D.
Ralph D.3 years ago

The culture of kids' sports, particularly football (of the American variety), is inherently abusive. Since coaches can mistreat all of the boys on the team during practice, it becomes just a matter of degree when they have a special boy whom they abuse even more. The idea that the rougher the coach is on you, the better you will become, is a myth pure and simple, and very similar to the idea that a priest can make a boy more and more blessed by God. Dispelling such convenient untruths would do much to undermine the existing acceptance of abuse.

Brenda Bracey
Brenda Bracey3 years ago

This is all too common and I personally believe that less become abusers themselves but there are still some who do. The sad thing is that predators go after the weaker ones, the pretty ones, the ones who look for affection because they have no dad, no active support group and so on. There will never be a way to stop this kind of thing because so many crimes are decriminalized and overlooked by society because sports, religion, and school teachers seem to be revered by parents and the community. I know personally of coaches who allowed their football players to take coke, heroin, crack and so on. Did I see it? No!!!!! But years later after being on the "junk" and getting clean and doing jail time, these now "men" tell it, long after the coach retired and has died. Athletes, musicians, gamers and so on are a sub-culture and as jr. high students, a sub-culture begins to form and they do not tell their parents what happens so as not to be a snitch. I raised two boys myself, now men, and they come clean after years and share what could have happened to them. There is no way to be a good parent anymore due to all the outside influences.