Sexual Abuse By Coaches: How To Stop it Before it Starts
Sports is supposed to be the sacred place. When we bring our children to sporting events, we think we’re signing them up for exercise, friendship and all the other positive life experiences that should come from kicking, throwing, punting, jumping, passing and team building. We want to trust the men and women who oversee our children in what should be sacrosanct moments — but as National Teamer Cindy Gordon’s story of being sexually groomed and abused by her youth coach showed us, all too often we can’t.
“If Cindy’s story helps one person, one child, one family, then it was worth it,” said her long-time friend and teammate, Amy Allmann Griffin. “My guess is her story will help a lot of people, because there a lot of people who need it, too many women who already lived through what Cindy has endured — due to a lack of knowledge of the risks.”
The responses from Cindy's revelation continue to bear that out. She reported being overwhelmed by the number of women who reached out to her, many of them saying in essence, “Me, too.” I also heard from some of these women, yet I did receive one anonymous on-line comment about how my selection of current headlines, plucked from a selection of the nation’s newspapers, was “sensationalistic.” One organization told me off the record that the issue of sexual abuse of players by coaches was “one-in-a-million,” and not something they had ever heard about in their own club. I’m still waiting for a call back from that club’s president for an on-the-record quote.
I’m sensitive to painting all coaches, especially male coaches, with the same tainted brush of doubt. My eyes tell me that the vast majority of coaches have nothing but the best of intentions; they are out there to help the girls and young women get better at their sport. Often they are fathers of daughters. I know my daughter’s first coach was unhappy with the quality of coaching and lack of resources his own daughter and her teammates were receiving relative to the boys, so he started coaching girls himself to level the playing field. I desperately want to believe — and do believe — that his intentions are pure.
As uncomfortable as it may make us, however, Amy and so many others believe it’s imperative that parents approach the coaching relationship with inherent trepidation. “There are a lot of guys coaching in the in the women’s game and you do have to wonder why they’re there,” said Amy, a long-time National Team goaltender and current coach and senior administrator with the Girls Academy, one of the premiere youth leagues in America. “Is it because they couldn’t survive in the men’s game? Is it because they are hoping girls will fawn all over them? Or is it for all the right reasons, they value the talents and potential the girls and women possess?”
Amy said she played for many excellent male coaches throughout her life, yet inappropriate sexual behavior among coaches was rampant. “Girls didn’t say anything back then because we thought, ‘Oh, I guess this is what guys do.’ We shouldn’t complain because everyone’s doing it. You think, ‘I can’t go to a different team, because it’s happening on that team, too.’” Amy and Cindy Gordon’s National Team teammate, Emily Pickering Harner, agreed in a social media post congratulating Cindy for her courage: “It was just such an era where ‘pedophile, abuse and predator’ were not terms that we even use to contemplate.”
Amy said Girls Academy coaches now receive training about the issue of sexual abuse and maintaining proper boundaries between coaches and players. She agreed it might be a good idea to consider making this training mandatory for players and parents as well, something that another sexual abuse victim said she would like to see instituted at the highest levels at U.S. Soccer. “I guarantee if I had been told to look out for that kind of behavior from my coach, my life would have turned out differently,” said Amy Carnell, who revealed she had been molested by her youth soccer coach in Washington state. “That was a prime motivator for me to step forward last year and say, ‘Hey, look, this happened to me — and I want to help stop this from happening to others. But we need to do more.”
Both of these women and others helped us draw up a blueprint for parents to follow when trying to keep their children as safe as possible. Here’s the advice:
SET STRICT PROTOCOLS — Clubs, teams and leagues need rules that govern coach-player contact, and then steps must be taken to ensure adherence. “For example, for each team there needs to be two to three designated watchdog parents who are trained to specifically be looking out for signs of grooming, or sexual abuse,” said Amy Carnell.
ANNUAL TRAINING — Part of the orientation for each team each year needs to include age-appropriate information the issue of sexual abuse, including brochures and videos for parents and guardians to follow when talking to their children.
If YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING — Parents and anyone else in the sports community need to speak up when even the slightest suspicion arises. Signs of sexual grooming include excessive attention to a single player or unusual gifts to one player, but not others.
AVOID ONE-ON-ONE SITUATIONS — Any situations that put a player and coach physically alone and out of view of others should be banned, including car rides home. Any necessary soccer-related individual meetings between players and coaches should be help in public spaces, such as hotel lobbies, team buses, or offices with the door open and, preferably, someone else in the room.
AVOID DIRECT COMMUNICATION — When coaches need to communicate with players about practice or game times, it should be conducted in group settings such as team-wide texts or emails, or ZOOM calls. Parents should avoid commenting on appropriate soccer issues such as playing time or positions on the field — but otherwise monitor all communications between the players and coaches to be certain no inappropriate lines are crossed.
National Sexual Assault hotline: 1-800-656-4673
United Soccer Coaches course: https://unitedsoccercoaches.org/education/sexual-violence-the-facts/
The official policy of U.S. Youth Soccer: https://tnunitedsc.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/1221/2018/11/USYS-Code-of-Conduct-2.pdf
U.S. Center for SafeSport: https://uscenterforsafesport.org/