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.
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