Coaching the coaches

Abuse case heightens awareness in youth leagues

(Cliff Jette photo illustration/The Gazette)
(Cliff Jette photo illustration/The Gazette)

A child sexual abuse scandal has brought a measure of gravity to the traditionally carefree world of youth sports.

Last fall’s arrest of former Penn State University assistant coach Jerry Sandusky on child sexual abuse charges has caused youth sports leagues, many of which are kicking into high gear with spring’s arrival, to revisit their policies on keeping kids safe.

“We talked about it a lot,” said Gary Braksiek, vice president of football operations for the Metro Youth Football Association in Cedar Rapids.

The league already interviewed and did background checks on potential coaches and had coaches meetings to go over “do’s and don’ts.”

New this year to the nearly 90-team spring flag football league, coaches have been told that two of them need to wait with the last child after practice or a game. If a kid needs a ride home, two coaches are to take him.

That’s to protect the child but also to avoid even the appearance of a coach acting inappropriately, said Brian Burrell, vice president of public relations and fundraising for the league.

Sandusky is accused of abusing boys he met through a children’s charity he founded and also while he was a volunteer high school football coach after retiring from Penn State. He also ran football camps for kids.

It’s that association with sports that has caused youth leagues to re-evaluate child abuse prevention policies. It’s a topic that previously didn’t get much attention, said Jim Thompson, founder and CEO of the California-based Positive Coaching Alliance.

“I don’t think it was on most people’s radar screens at all before that, so no question it’s getting more scrutiny,” he said.

Still, several Eastern Iowa league administrators, coaches and parents either would not discuss the subject or did not return messages for this story.

Background checks and some basic rules, such as an adult not being alone with a child, are employed by some area leagues

National experts like Thompson and Irene van der Zande, co-founder and executive director of Kidpower, a California-based organization that promotes child safety, say youth leagues need to do more.

The two organizations held webinars in January aimed at child abuse prevention in youth sports. They also developed a policy they hope will serve as a model for leagues to implement.

It says that in addition to interviews and background checks of potential coaches and volunteers, abuse prevention should be reviewed with people working with kids and parents, define situations and behaviors that should be prohibited and has guidelines for reporting child sexual abuse.

About 40 million kids participate in sports each year. There’s no good estimate on the rate of abuse among those children, but Thompson said parents absolutely should take the issue seriously, noting that even a small percentage of 40 million is a large number.

Van der Zande talks about the “illusion of safety” and said adults should not blindly trust whoever is supervising children. She said parents and kids need to do three things: know detailed information about who’s overseeing kids, teach children not to keep secrets and teach kids “people safety” skills.

While this isn’t happening on a large scale now, van der Zande thinks the Sandusky case has increased awareness.

Shane Kron, who helps run Iowa City Boys Baseball, which has about 400 6-to-12-year-old ballplayers, said sound policies can protect not only kids from harm but also adults from false accusations.

He gave an example from his job as a Coralville police officer on how things have changed. When visiting schools kids often want hugs from him, but he said that’s no longer appropriate.

“You have to be cognizant of that kind of atmosphere,” he said.

Even the quintessential celebratory move in sports, a slap on the rear end, is now taboo in many youth sports leagues.

Greg Woller, CEO and executive director of the Y in Washington, Iowa, said his organization, previously known as the YMCA, has long put an emphasis on child safety. It has training videos for coaches and rules against being behind closed doors with children and on appropriate touching.

At the Y, and the Metro Youth Football Association, pats on the butt by coaches are off limits.“It probably was acceptable 20 years ago, but now it’s something you definitely wouldn’t do,” Woller said.

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