The Dark Side of Youth Sports: COACHES SEXUALLY ABUSING CHILDREN

By Zaichkowsky, Leonard D. | USA TODAY, January 2000 | Go to article overview

The Dark Side of Youth Sports: COACHES SEXUALLY ABUSING CHILDREN


Zaichkowsky, Leonard D., USA TODAY


Society must initiate programs to educate youngsters about illicit sexual contact by adults who coach them, as well as establish a code of conduct for those who work with kids and sports.

MANY OF THOSE involved in sports believe that athletic participation has the capacity to teach youngsters positive life lessons and help establish habits of character. However, reports of sexual deviancy and abuse among professional, collegiate, and high school athletes make people pause. Particularly distressing are reports of sport leaders and coaches sexually abusing children.

It is not easy to define sexual abuse by coaches, but let us assume a continuum of sexual misconduct. At one end there are behaviors such as listening to and telling sexist jokes, where it could be argued there is low potential for harm to the recipient. Behaviors that have potential for harm include inappropriate romantic relationships with athletes, sexual harassment, and inappropriate fondling (behavior pedophiles commonly engage in). Acts that have a higher potential for harm include threats and violence as well as sexual assault. Behavior at the farthest end of the continuum that has the highest potential for victim harm is rape.

In the 1997 update of its coaching handbook, USA Hockey, the governing body of amateur hockey in America, indicated that "Sexual abuse of a minor participant occurs when an employee, volunteer or independent contractor touches a minor participant for the purpose of causing sexual arousal or gratification of either the minor participant or the employee, volunteer or independent contractor. Sexual abuse of a minor participant also occurs when a minor player touches an employee, volunteer or independent contractor for the sexual arousal or sexual gratification of either the minor participant or the employee, volunteer or independent contractor, if the touching occurs at the request or with the consent of the employee, volunteer or independent contractor." Further, "neither consent of the player to the sexual contact, mistake as to the participant's age, nor the fact that the sexual contact did not take place at a hockey function are defenses to a complaint of sexual abuse."

It is difficult to get an accurate estimate of the extent of sexual abuse in youth sports for the same reasons that it is difficult to pin down the nature and extent of sexual abuse in the population at large. One cannot rely on data obtained from legal authorities because most victims rarely report the assault to anyone, let alone the police, since they have feelings of shame, guilt, powerlessness, and despair. Compounding these feelings is the fact that, in practically all cases, they knew and trusted the perpetrator, so they feel that somehow they were to blame.

That leaves data obtained by researchers in the fields of psychology and social work. Many researchers fail to document clearly how they defined sexual abuse, so the reader does not know if it is of the type that has low or high potential for harm to the child. Second, there is the problem of methods used to collect data. Most researchers use questionnaires and/or interviews that require retrospective recall of abuse. For instance, they might ask adults whether they were ever sexually abused as a child. Although this methodology is widely used and accepted, its accuracy can be questioned due to faulty memory, denial because of guilt or shame, and, in some cases, false positive recall due to "suggestion" during the interview.

Researchers also have been criticized for using the words "sexual abuse" in their questionnaires or interviews, thus leaving it up to the subject to interpret what is meant by the term. Researchers should provide clear behavioral descriptions of experiences that enable the subject to answer either yes or no--such as "someone fondled you in a sexual way (i.e., touched your genitals or other parts of your body)."

Third, estimates from these studies have examined varied populations, with different prevalence rates between samples of college students and other community samples, by socioeconomic status, and among different countries of the world. …

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