Millions of Americans tuned in for March Madness last month—a time-honored tradition that celebrates the talents of impressive college athletes in the “Big Dance” of the men’s and women’s NCAA tournament. But what you didn’t see on screen or courtside was the sexual misconduct that many of these young athletes have endured at the hands of their coaches and team leadership.
The uniquely competitive and insular nature of competitive sports has allowed serial predators to operate in the shadows for far too long, putting all athletes at an especially high risk of being targeted by predator coaches. According to USA Swimming training documents, some experts suggest that perhaps as many as 20% of children in competitive sports are at risk of abuse or exploitation. That’s an unacceptably high risk. Athletes deserve the adults in the room to protect them, not to turn the other cheek in the pursuit of money, medals, and glory.
And it’s not just the cases of infamous abusers like Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar that demand our action and attention. From Greg Stephen, an AAU basketball coach who was sentenced to 180 years for sexually exploiting hundreds of boys, to Syracuse basketball coach Bernie Fine who was fired after 34 years at the university following allegations that he sexually assaulted several young men, and Greg Marshall, a former high school varsity basketball coach at Valley Christian Schools in California, who was charged on 26 counts of abuse and sentenced to over six years.
Sadly, these stories are common, and while the legal system serves one form of justice for survivors of abuse, there are thousands of unheard voices from those who have been affected. The good news is there are steps we can take today to prevent abuse tomorrow and make basketball—and all sports—a safer place for all.
This starts with establishing a set of common-sense child protection policies across sports programs. Formal screening procedures for the buildings athletes stay at for overnight trips, ensuring adequate staff-to-child ratios, and prohibiting staff from providing one-on-one transportation or bunking in close quarters with athletes are shockingly rare.
When sexual abuse does occur in athletic organizations, staff and administrators should be required to report the abuse directly to civil authorities. When reporting is put on the backburner in favor of internal processes, years can pass without action, leaving more and more children vulnerable.
But there’s only so much we can do without legal changes. Fine’s years of abuse were only brought to light after New York State’s Child Victims Act temporarily suspended the statute of limitations for sexual abuse claims, allowing a victim the opportunity to come forward.
Our state and federal lawmakers should follow New York’s lead and open up reporting windows for childhood victims of sexual abuse. Otherwise, victims will be forced to stay silent, leaving predators unexposed and free to target children for years.
It can be easy to forget that young athletes who display extraordinary skills are still children and need to be protected as such. As we look back and celebrate sensational underdogs and overtime thrillers , young athletes deserve our collective full-court press on abuse in sport. It’s far past time for the adults—including all of us—to call for legal reforms and ensure adequate protections for our young athletes. We have a moral obligation to do nothing less.
For more information on how we can protect our young athletes, please join us for the Game Over Commission Webinar on April 13, 2022 at 5:00 PM. The webinar will bring together experts in the field to discuss the legal and institutional policy recommendations from the groundbreaking “Game Over Commission to Protect Youth Athletes” released earlier this year.