Tuesday, November 15, 2011
As the recent scandal at Penn State evolves, it reminds us sadly that sports unfortunately have an ugly side. That the scandal involves youth football players makes it even sadder. And it points out the importance of people in positions of power understanding their moral obligation to protect our children. While details are still being revealed, the main point is that an adult offering youth football training and experience to boys from troubled and impoverished backgrounds allegedly abused several of those boys. When it was discovered, and the "when" is still being established fully, it was simply dismissed and the door closed without doing a thing to inform the police, child welfare, and especially the parents. These children must feel so betrayed, and the after-effects will resonate in their lives for decades.
While it's an uncomfortable topic, it's also an unfortunate reality in youth sports. Predators gravitate to activities that offer lots of kids who look up to them and parents who trust them. So we all need to have some vigilance without panicking and without overprotecting. We can take three important steps to help reduce the likelihood of our children being put in a dangerous or compromising situation. Working in tandem with our clubs and our state associations, we can help ensure the safety of our children.
The first step is to confirm how your local association vets coaches and referees. You want to be comfortable that the environment your child is participating in is safe and has proper protocol in place. A primary driver in the vetting process is a background check. These checks do work. I had been involved in the process several years ago, and I was surprised at how often a basic background check revealed histories that required further investigation. In all, every year we would screen hundreds of volunteers and professionals, and occasionally we would have to inform clubs of persons that the state association could not license to work with youth players. The purpose of these checks is to reassure parents that any questionable adult has been identified and blocked from working with our children.
The second step involves doing your research. Make sure that your club follows through on these background checks and the information they receive. It can be difficult to tell a mom or dad who has given hours of volunteer time to the club that they have been identified as an at-risk adult. But clubs need to be diligent while being discrete. The protection of the children in the club has to take precedence over the protection of a friend of the club president. While not every potential risk can be identified, it's very important that those who are get removed from working with kids. Clubs must also make it clear that they will not tolerate any abusive behavior from anyone, including but not limited to verbal, physical, bullying and sexual acts. They should issue a code of conduct for parents, coaches, and administrators that make the limits clear as well as the consequences for crossing the line. I'm sure we've all witnessed our share of sideline abuse from overeager parents who feel that belittling players will somehow make them work harder. We've also experienced that coach whose idea of motivation is to scream obscenities and demeaning comments. While not as egregious as the alleged actions at Penn State, such behavior can still have a lasting and serious impact on our kids. So be sure that your club takes this conduct seriously and has provisions in place to deal with it. Even older teenagers can be negatively impacted by being debased. So don't tolerate a board's attitude that the kids need to toughen up. You pay the club good money to teach your kids soccer not to lower their self-esteem.
Finally, we need to support our children through education, intervention, and love. Be sure that they know they can tell you anything and that you will listen. That also means educating our children without alarming them on situations which can arise. There are several good organizations and websites with information you can use. Parents.com, for example, regularly addresses this issue. There's a book called "The Right Touch" for very young children. But the main thing is to let children know that they should never accept a gift or a ride from any person (friend or stranger) unless they get your permission first. While the evil threat of some roving sex offender haunts us, the more real threat is what allegedly happened at Penn State. A person in authority who has control over children and the trust of the parents uses that authority and trust to commit harm. Teach kids what boundaries they have the right to maintain, and if those boundaries are ever crossed, they need to tell you immediately.
Once you are aware of a concern, you need to act. If the problem is a parent on the sidelines or a coach who seems to have it out for your child, then find a time to talk to the offender calmly. If your intervention doesn't do the trick, then approach the club board with your concern. If that falls on deaf ears, then it's probably time to switch clubs. No prestige is worth your child's self-image. If the problem involves physical or sexual aspects with strong proof, then you need to inform the police and child welfare. Let the professionals sort it out. They know how to discretely investigate and what questions to ask. The Penn State situation hopefully shows the deep pain, harm, and repercussions to which covering it up can lead. The child victims come foremost, but there are adults who must face harsh consequences for ignoring the seriousness of the crimes and protecting a friend instead of doing the right thing. Their judgment was clouded by loyalty to the accused, which we parents should never tolerate.
When all is said and done, the most important support you can offer is your love. Children who have the confidence that their parents will stand behind them and who have the tools to recognize inappropriate or damaging behaviors will not so easily fall prey. And if they should, your immediate unqualified love will go a long ways to healing them and mitigating the effects. Most of our children will thankfully never face as horrible a fate as the boys in the alleged Penn State situation. For most of our children they will need to deal with verbal abuse. Despite the "sticks and stones" adage, words do hurt, so verbal abuse needs to be treated as seriously as any other kind of abuse on our children. Words will sting less if a child's self-esteem is high and experts tell us that children who feel secure in the love of their parents have higher self-esteem. So keep those hugs and kisses coming on a regular basis and listen carefully to what our children are telling us. We shouldn't approach every situation with suspicion, or worse, alarm, but we can be savvy. Keep your eyes and ears open along with your open arms.