In the wild, adult animals instinctually try to shield and protect their young from predators.
Human beings, however, add an element of thought and contemplation to most situations. The human wolf will infiltrate into the company of parents to gain their confidence, all with the secret agenda of gaining unsupervised access to children.
“That’s a fabulous way to put it,” said Susan B. Sorenson, a professor of social policy and executive director of The Ortner Center on Violence & Abuse in Relationships at the University of Pennsylvania. “We’ve seen the process occur whether it’s been through churches, schools or through sports. The trusted adult, not just by the kids but by the parents and the family, and the community can end up taking advantage of kids. That becomes devastating for the kids as well as the families.”
Abuse of athletes by coaches has again exploded into the American conscience. Last week it was announced Michigan State settled lawsuits filed by the victims of Larry Nassar, the disgraced sports doctor who worked for the university, after more than 300 women accused him of sexual abuse. In January, more than 150 of those women — including several Olympic-medal winning gymnasts — testified in a hearing. He was sentenced to, essentially, life in prison.
Last month, CHILD USA, a think tank at Penn focused on child abuse and neglect, held a day-long symposium called “Athletes and Abuse.” It brought together leading experts, officials, policymakers and athletes for an open forum to examine abuse across the spectrum of sports at all ages.
“We’ve learned a lot about child abuse through the last decade, and one of the more recent arenas we’ve been looking at has been in sports,” Sorenson said. “We’ve seen that there is a lifespan that can start in tee-ball and expand as high as the NFL.”
Dan Baum, chief strategy officer and executive director of the Redwoods Group Foundation, does not like the word grooming, which is often used to describe how child abusers lure their victims.
“It’s manipulation,” Baum said. “We’re talking about the way adult predators build relationships with kids and trusting relations with the caring adults around those children to create access and opportunities for the abuse to occur.”
Studies have shown that 90 percent of children who are abused know their abuser.
Baum said that a coach who is an abuser might first highlight the talents of a young athlete, show that athlete favoritism and give the athlete extra practice time after the normal session has ended. It plays on the ego of the child and the adult guardian. Who doesn’t want their kid to succeed?
This coach recognizes that the child has a special talent and wants to help the child maximize that ability. Perhaps that individual will get a college scholarship or even become a professional athlete.
Baum said there are warning signs that should be looked for that might expose a nefarious goal.
“How is that extra attention advocated?” he said. “Is it in the privacy of a coach’s home or in public with other adults present? There is a huge difference.
“Is the coach the only one allowed to have interaction with this particular athlete? I think there are different ways to analyze the behavior so it should be thought about. If it is behavior that makes us feel uncomfortable or doesn’t seem right, that thought is often correct.”
Through his work as president and CEO of the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, Steve Salem says his organization has developed safety guidelines that all organizations that involve work with children should adopt as a preventative tool against child abuse. It includes background checks for all coaches.
He says that sometimes the people in those organizations, including parents, become their own worst enemies.
“The kind of responses we get is, ‘We know there is a problem, but we don’t have a problem,’ ” Salem said. “It can become so disappointing. They’re in denial.”
He said he understands how it can happen.
“Most of the coaches and kids live within a few miles of each other,” Salem said, relating to his experience as a youth coach in Damascus, Md. “A coach’s children are players with other kids; many are siblings or lifelong friends. Coaches are the employers of other coaches.
“You’re in a situation where a background check is for family, friends, and bosses. The whole town loves the coach. How dare you tell us we should do a background check.”
Patty Dailey Lewis, executive director of the Beau Biden Foundation for the Protection of Children, said the abuser counts on these types of social relationships to remain in hiding in plain sight for years, even decades.
“The problem I see from my 34 years of working [child-abuse] cases, working with victims, working with schools, working with coaches, is that people don’t want to talk about it,” said Lewis, a former Deputy Attorney General and director of the Family Division of the Delaware Department of Justice. “We need to make people understand that child sexual abuse is not limited to dark alleys and parks at night. It is not just handing out policies. We tell people they should report things, but we haven’t told them what to look for.”
NFL Network chief correspondent Andrea Kremer, a Philadelphia native and Penn graduate, was invited as a keynote speaker and also reported on the symposium for HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.
“One area that none of the panelists talked about was the journalist and the role we should play,” Kremer said. “Consider that [the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State] was exposed by a young journalist in upstate Pennsylvania. Nassar was broken by the Indianapolis Star.
“Journalists are important in this not only to bring it to the forefront but to also make sure that people see that it is OK to talk about this.
“Journalism could be as culpable as anyone else in turning a blind eye to this, but no more to use that phrase. This is something that is too incredibly important.”