April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month and we as sports parents, coaches, volunteers and administrators need to do everything in our power to ensure that every single youth athlete in our leagues is safe from both bullying and abuse. Unfortunately, stories of sexual abuse in youth sports are disturbingly easy to find. Just do a quick Google search for “coach sexually abuses players” and you’ll find far too many news reports about it, plenty of which never received the same national media attention as the Sandusky trial.
Most parents think that if someone were abusing their child they would find out about it immediately but statistics show that 73% of children do not tell anyone about their sexual abuse for at least one year. Here are 3 reasons a youth athlete might not admit they’ve been abused:
Because of the relationship with their abuser.
Only 7% of child sexual abuse cases involve abuse by a stranger. That means that the vast majority of the time the child knows, trusts, or even loves their abuser. It could be a family member, a friend, a neighbor, or even a sports coach. Many sexual predators use this relationship to their advantage, leveraging their position of power to keep the child quiet. We raise our children to respect adults and authority figures, which predators also use to control their victims.
They were shamed into secrecy.
Victimized children often blame themselves for sexual abuse, and that blame is encouraged by the abusers. They may tell a youth athlete it is their fault this is happening or that no one will believe them if they speak up. With enough pressure the players start to believe it’s true and the abuser gains even more control over their victims. Depending on how young the player is they might not even fully understand what is happening. Boys in particular may be ashamed to tell someone that they are being abused, especially if they feel they should be able to stop the abuse on their own.
Boundary lines were no longer clear.
Many sexual predators “groom” their victims, starting with innocuous touches like hugs and pats on the back, which are fairly typical physical interactions for most children. These interactions are not innocent; instead they make the child more comfortable with physical contact, which the abuser can then use to their advantage later. Over time abusers will use increasingly inappropriate comments and touches to cross acceptable boundary lines without the child (or anyone else for that matter) realizing what is happening.
Although it’s true that most youth sports coaches truly care about their players and would never abuse any of their players in any way, there are still a small percentage of predators out there that will use the coaching platform as a means to gain access to your children. Youth sports organizations can’t risk accidentally hiring a sexual predator as a coach or volunteer so coach and volunteer background checks should be mandatory for everything that works in your organization!