Texas Youth Football and Cheer Program: Ten Ways It Is Walking The Talk On Safety

Participation in youth sports in general, and in youth football in particular, is on the decline in some parts of the nation.  One of the biggest factors driving the decline is a concern about injuries. 

Lots of youth sports programs say they want to improve safety, but how many are actually making the effort to implement best health and safety practices?

I can't speak for every program, but I know one that is definitely walking the talk: the youth tackle and flag football and cheer program in Grand Prairie, Texas, where I spent the first week of August in 100 degree heat (the first thing I did when I arrived was to buy a pallet of water at a local big box store!) working with a group of leading experts I invited in to help educate and train 2,500 young tackle, flag and cheer athletes, parents, coaches, and administrators in the program on ways to make football and cheer safer as part of our MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety's SmartTeamsTM | UNICEF International Safeguards of Children in Sports project. 

What are some of the ways to make youth football safer? Here are ten specific steps I encouraged the Grand Prairie program, as an independent youth football program not affiliated with USA Football or Pop Warner, to take to provide a safer and more enjoyable experience for its players:

  1. Adopt and periodically practice a comprehensive Emergency Action Plan: As I emphasized in my meetings with the Grand Prairie board, one of the most important steps it could take to protect the safety of athletes, spectators, coaches, and officials in case of a medical (serious head, neck or spine injuryheat stroke\ or weather emergency (e.g. lightningexcessive heat) was to develop, implement, and practice an emergency action plan (EAP). To emphasize the point, we ran a mock emergency drill my last day in Texas.  Because many youth sports programs, such as Grand Prairie, lack the resources of school-based programs to pay a certified athletic trainer to be at games and practices, I emphasized the need for Grand Prairie to look for volunteers such as school nurses, RN's, LPN's, EMTs, or nurse practitioners or  medical doctors (either parents with kids in the program or from the community) to help fill the gap.Brooke de Lench with Grand Prairie Texas youth football players
  2. Strongly encourage parents to make sure their child has a pre-participation physical evaluation.  In his presentation to the Grand Prairie parents, Dr. Jim McDonald, a pediatric sports medicine medical doctor at Nationwide Children's Hospital and  Ohio State, encouraged them to make sure their child had a pre-participation physical examination, including the taking of detailed cardiac and concussion histories, even though a PPE is usually not required for participation in community-based sports.  Experts agree that a PPE is the primary means of identifying athletes at risk of sports injury and initiating preventative measures.
  3. Teaches  proper tackling and limit player-to-player contact during practices. As I did in 2012 while I was working with the high school football program in Newcastle, Oklahoma during the filming of my PBS documentary, The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer, I flew in Coach Bobby Hosea, the inventor of a revolutionary heads-free tackle training system now being used at all levels of the game, to teach safe tackling to the Grand Prairie players.  To the naysayers who believe teaching kids to tackle without using their heads, or that sensible limits on full-contact practices at the youth level, can't make the game safer, a new study in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine shows that they can significantly reduce the number of concussions, not just in practices (where, in contrast to other levels of football, most concussions occur at the youth level), but also in games. 
  4. Makes sure that all helmets fit properly, and that used helmets have been properly reconditioned. An important part of my week in Grand Prairie, as was the case in 2012 in Newcastle, was a helmet fitting session in which an expert made sure that every player in the Grand Prairie youth football program started the pre-season with a properly fitted helmet and reminded coaches to check helmet fit periodically during the season.  I also made sure that all helmets were reconditioned prior to the season in accordance with the helmet manufacturers' recommendations, and also supplied thirty of the younger, smaller players with brand new, lightweight helmets to  evaluate  (citing a lack of data, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment ("Nocsae") said in June 2015 that it had no current plans to issue a separate performance standard for youth football helmets; look for a future blog on that subject).Brooke de Lench and Grand Prairie youth football players
  5. Requires safety training. Most youth sports coaches are parent volunteers with little or no safety training.  To fill that safety gap, I arranged for an instructor from the local chapter of the Red Cross to hold training sessions for Grand Prairie parents and coaches in first-aid, CPR and the use of an AED
  6. Mandates comprehensive concussion education.  As I discussed in a previous blog, state laws requiring concussion education do not always cover community- based and independent sports programs.  I encouraged parents and coaches to take the free 30-minute online CDC Heads Up Concussion training courses, which MomsTeam Institute has endorsed. As a longtime advocate for mandatory concussion education meetings before every sports season, I walked the talk by flying in from Chicago a top sports concussion neuropsychologist. Dr Elizabeth Pieroth, to talk to the Grand Prairie parents and coaches about concussions, not just knowing the signs and symptoms but the importance of creating an environment in which players feel safe in reporting concussion symptoms to increase the likelihood that they will be immediately removed from games and practices.
  7. Has adopted conservative return to play guidelines.  As required by law in every state for school-based sports, independent and community-based programs should require players to obtain written clearance by a medical professional with concussion training and expertise before returning to play.  Many experts recommend that, because their brains are still developing, younger players should be held out of play longer than older athletes, some suggesting a minimum of three weeks after a concussion before returning to sports.
  8. Regularly inspects practice and game facilities. All programs should designate a parent or coach to regularly inspect practice and game facilities to make sure they are safe, including the cleaning of locker rooms to minimize the risk of communicable diseases (such as community-acquired MRSA.  Athletes, parents, and officials should be encouraged to immediately report any unsafe conditions.
  9. Conducts detailed background checks of all volunteers and paid staff. It is every parent's nightmare that their child might be a victim of a sexual predator while participating in youth sports. Unfortunately sexual abuse of young players has occurred in youth sports leagues of all kinds, as well as with individual coaches in individual youth sports.  Performing background checks on all volunteers is a powerful tool for protecting each player in your league. This safety measure is so important it needs to be required in all youth sports leagues.
  10. Follows the International Safeguards for Children in Sport. Adopted at the Beyond Sport summit in South Africa in 2014, the Safeguards are designed to help create a safe sporting environment for children wherever they participate and at whatever level, provide a benchmark to assist youth sports organizations and sports stakeholders to make informed decisions about safety, promote best practices and challenge practices that are harmful to children, and provide clarity on safeguarding children to all involved in sport.  As the head of a pioneer organization designated by UNICEF UK to help implement the Safeguards in the U.S, I will be working with the Board of Directors of the Grand Prairie youth football and cheer program on an ongoing basis to implement the holistic and process-oriented approach to youth sport safety the Safeguards recommend. 

I firmly believe that the best way to protect our children in sports is for an independent non-profit serving the interests of all youth sports stakeholders, not any special interest or group, to develop a program, such as we are doing with SmartTeamsTM,  free to incorporate best practice recommendations from a wide variety of sources, including UNICEF, leading medical societies, and governmental agencies such as the CDC, adapted, where appropriate, for use by youth sports programs that lack the resources of school-based programs.

If more sports programs, like Grand Prairie, were to implement these kinds of safety measures, I am convinced that the safety concerns of parents would be assuaged and the decline in youth sports participation could be stemmed, even reversed.

During the next few weeks I will have more to say about youth sports best safety practices and what weare doing with SmartTeams , but, in the meantime, remember that to play safe, we need to be smart!

 


Brooke de Lench is Founding Executive Director of MomsTEAM Institute, Inc., Director of Smart Teams Play Safe, Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins), and Producer/Director/Creator of the PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer." Brooke is also a founding member of the UN International Safeguards of Children in Sports coalition.
She can be reached by email delench@MomsTeam.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @brookedelench. and email her at delench@momsteam.com

Note: This blog was first published on Huffington Post 

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U.S. Failure To Ratify UN Convention on Rights of the Child Is Embarrassing and Unacceptable

ORIGINALLY POSTED IN HUFFINGTON POST 10/9/15 

Ten days ago, as I was flying 30,000 feet above Jonesboro, Arkansas on my way back to Boston  from Dallas, I read about a statement issued by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon praising the ratification by the Government of Somalia of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Noting that 196 countries had ratified the Convention, making it the most widely-ratified human rights convention in history, the Secretary-General went on to encourage the United States, as the only holdout, "to join the global movement and help the world reach the objective of universal ratification."

The Convention spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere should enjoy, among them the right to survival, to develop to the fullest, and to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation. While its most obvious application is in combating such abhorrent practices as the 'recruitment' of child soldiers and the sexual slavery of teenage girls, and in protecting the rights of the thousands of children fleeing to Europe to escape war-torn Middle Eastern nations, the Convention also provides, in the words of a 2010 Unicef report, "the overarching framework that can guide those who provide and supervise sport for children," with application to such abusive practices as forcing children to train excessively and to engage in unhealthy and illegal behavior, such as the use of performance-enhancing drugs (Articles 3, 6, 19 and 24), ensuring that a child's right to an education is not overshadowed by considerations concerning a sporting career (Articles 3 and 28), and the economic exploitation of child athletes (Article 32).

UN Convention On The Rights of The Child 

As someone who has been advocating for ratification That I was reading the Secretary-General's statement after having just wound up four days of intensive work with a league of 1,200 youth football players and cheerleaders to implement the International Safeguards as part of my organization's SmartTeam program, and during National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, made me feel that much worse.  

 

There has been a strong focus in recent years in this country on concussion safety in youth sports, much of it media-driven (all 50 states and the District of Columbia now have concussion safety laws).

Brooke with kids from Grand Prairie in SmarTeams program

Sadly, no similar, sustained effort has been made in this country to enact laws to protect children playing sports from abuse -- whether it be physical, emotional, psychological or sexual -- at the hands of coaches, parents and other athletes.

When reports, such as the 2010 Unicef study on violence and abuse in sports, are issued finding a troubling lack of awareness of and education on child protection issues among youth sports coaches, parents and other stakeholders, they receive absolutely no media attention in this country.

Why not?

It can't be because children playing sports in this country are immune from abuse, because they are not. The sad fact is that youth athletes are victims of violence and abuse in their myriad forms every day. Young athletes across the country are still forced to participate in physically injurious or sexually degrading hazing rituals; they're required to run punishment laps in 102 degree heat for being late to practice; and allowed, or often encouraged, to play hurt or return to the playing field too soon after a concussion.

Too many are victims of bullying, not just by other players but by coaches; sexually assaulted by their coaches; psychologically degraded or humiliated based on their gender, sexual orientation, body shape or performance; or required or encouraged to follow nutrition and weight loss regimens that lead to eating disorders and the abuse of appearance- and performance-enhancing drugs such as anabolic-androgenic steroids.

The kinds of abuse we see in youth sports would not be tolerated in the classroom or in the workplace. Yet there are no laws that specifically address such abuse in the context of sports, and no sustained lobbying efforts to enact such protections.

The lack of media attention and legislative action also can't be because youth sports organizations, whether they be at the national, regional or local level, are doing all they can to protect children against such violence and abuse. As the 2010 UNICEF study reports, while some other countries (most notably, the United Kingdom) have enacted child protection programs in sport, they are virtually non-existent in the United States.

A major part of the problem is that instead of defining youth athletes in a way appropriate to their needs -- as children first and athletes second -- organized youth sports in the United States and other industrialized countries all too often treat children as miniature adults, with potentially serious adverse consequences to their physical and emotional health. More and more parents seem to accept abuse as the inevitable price their children must pay to succeed in our winner-take-all-society.

Child abuse is the most preventable youth sport injury. Physical, emotional and sexual abuse should not be the price children have to pay to play competitive sports. The status quo should and must be changed. The United States should ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Laws against child abuse should be strengthened in every state to protect against abuse, not just at home, but on the playing field, courts, diamonds and rinks of America. It is time for the abuse to stop. We owe the children of America nothing less.


Brooke de Lench is Founding Executive Director of MomsTEAM Institute, Inc., Director of Smart Teams Play Safe, Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins), and Producer/Director/Creator of the PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer." Brooke is also a founding member of the UN International Safeguards of Children in Sports coalition.

She can be reached by email delench@MomsTeam.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @brookedelench.  

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Sexual Abuse in Sport: The Problem No One Wants To Talk About

On July 12, UNICEF's Innocenti Research Center in Florence, Italy released an important report on violence against children in sport in industrialized countries, including the United States.

The report found a troubling lack of awareness of and education on child protection issues among youth sports coaches, parents, and other stakeholders. To combat the problem it recommends improvements in data collection and knowledge generation about violence to children in sport, development of structures and systems for eliminating and preventing such violence (including promotion of ethical guidelines and codes of conduct), and education, awareness-raising and training.

Yet the UNICEF report received absolutely no media attention in this country. Nada. Zippo. Zilch. Zero.

Which begs the inevitable question: Why not?

It can't be because children playing sports in this country are immune from violence, because they are not. It's just that the violence either isn't reported or makes it in to the local or national news only in the most egregious cases. The sad fact is that youth athletes are victims of violence in its myriad forms every day: forced to participate in physically injurious or sexually degrading initiation rituals (e.g. hazing), required to run extra laps in 90 degree heat for being late to practice, allowed to return to the playing field too soon after a concussion, sexually assaulted by coaches (as alleged in a new lawsuit by a former elite swimmer that was the subject of a long article in USA Today), psychologically degraded or humiliated based on gender, body shape or performance, or required to follow nutrition and weight loss regimes that lead to eating disorders such as anexoria or other health problems.

The lack of media attention can't be because youth sports organizations, whether they be at the national, regional or local level, are doing all they can to protect children against such violence. As the UNICEF study reports, while some other countries (most notably, the United Kingdom) have enacted child protection programs in sport, they are virtually non-existent in the United States.

Scott Blackmun, C.E.O. of the U.S. Olympic Committee, admitted to USA Today that it was only as a result of the recent lawsuits against USA Swimming and club-level coaches (at least five are pending), that officials somehow finally became "sensitized ... to the fact that they may have issues in their own sport that they didn't know about or didn't think about in the past."

Come on, Scott! The fact of the matter is  that the problem of sexual abuse of athletes in this country has existed in the shadows but largely swept under the rug for decades.

It is "beyond shocking," said the lawyer for 28-year old Jancy Thompson, the plaintiff in a lawsuit alleging abuse by her former coach at a Northern California swim club over a five-year period beginning when she was fifteen, that USA Swimming did not have better protection, reporting or response procedures in place before now.

"It's mind boggling to me," said Robert Allard. "The more I look into this, the more appalled I am that little, if anything, has been done to protect children."  Critics claim that even child-protection policies which have been adopted - such as the one passed by USA Swimming's board in 2004 - have not been fully implemented.

I couldn't agree more.

Children first, athletes second

A major part of the problem, in my view, is that instead of defining youth athletes in a way appropriate to their needs - as children first and athletes second - organized youth sports in the United States and other industrialized countries all too often treat children with exceptional athletic potential as adults, with potentially serious adverse consequences to their physical and emotional health.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child - which only the United States and Somalia have failed to ratify - spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere should enjoy, among them the right to survival, to develop to the fullest, and to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation. The UNICEF report views the Convention as providing "the overarching framework that can guide those who provide and supervise sport for children."

While some Olympic sports organization have started to take action, it is up to each sport organization to putting safeguards in place, when what is needed is a coordinated, national effort to stop the abuse.

The recommendations of the UNICEF study deserve serious consideration. The report should be required reading for every member of every board of directors of every national youth sports organization in this country. Unless and until all the stakeholders in youth sports - coaches, parents, administrators, athletic directors, and the athletes themselves - recognize that violence and abuse in sports is a problem, it will continue to be yesterday's news.

 

Brooke de Lench is Founding Executive Director of MomsTEAM Institute, Inc., Director of Smart Teams Play Safe, Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins), and Producer/Director/Creator of the PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer." Brooke is also a founding member of the UN International Safeguards of Children in Sports coalition.

She can be reached by email delench@MomsTeam.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @brookedelench.  


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More Than International, Federal and State Laws Needed To Keep Kids Safe Playing Sports

This week and last, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Child is meeting to review the progress made under provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. 194 nations will participate, except for three, which have yet to ratify the CRC: Somalia, South Sudan, and the United States.*Convention on Rights of the Child @ 25 poster

I have had the privilege of working with the committee on a special youth sports project, but to say that I am embarrassed and frustrated that the United States, which played an  active role in drafting the CRC and signed it in February 1995, has thus far failed to ratify the convention is an understatement.

The most common explanation I hear from our elected leaders on Capital Hill is that the rights of the child are already adequately protected under state and federal law. 

In fact, we do have many laws. However, few specifically protect children involved in sports; fewer still penalize those that violate its provisions. (For example, as Laura Long of Concussion Connection pointed out in a recent article about attempts to strengthen Oklahoma's concussion law,  only Pennsylvania's version of the Lystedt Law penalizes coaches who violate its provisions by failing to remove a an athlete suspected of having a concussion from play or returning the player to play without the required written permission)

The CRC is conducting some very important business this week, including an assessment of India's progress in enforcing its child rights policies.  Notably, India's delegation is led by its Secretary of Woman and Child Development Ministry, Shankar Agarwal, and includes representatives from the ministries of Woman and Child Development, Labour, Health, Human Resource Development and External Affairs. Not surprisingly, it is women who are leading the charge.

As a woman and mother fighting to keep kids safe playing sports for the past twenty-five years, first as a mother, coach, administrator, and youth sports activist, then as the Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM, and now as the Executive Director of our new non-profit, MomsTEAM Institute, I am redoubling my efforts to publicize the importance of CRC ratification by the United States Senate, and to get laws enacted at the state level to specifically protect children at play from abuse, not just physical abuse, but emotional, psychological and sexual, and injury.  Such an effort will require involving, not just mothers with kids in sports - who have been the guardians of children at play since the dawn of time - but fathers, as well.

But new child protection laws aren't the only way to help improve youth sports safety.  Another is through voluntary safety programs.  Over the past six months MomsTEAM Institute has been developing a new youth sports safety program called SmartTeamsTM, with the motto, "Play Smart To Be Safe."  Modeled after and building on the foundation laid by our PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer," which featured a concussion risk management program we call The Six Pillars,TM SmartTeams will incorporate best youth sports health and safety practices developed by MTI in collaboration with a team of world-class experts we have assembled to serve on our Board of Advisors.  We will be testing the SmartTeam approach in a number of pilot programs around the country this fall, with a goal of rolling the program out nationally in the fall of 2015.   

Unlike organizations such as the National Football League, the National Athletic Trainers' Association, Pop Warner, USA Football, and the NCAA, MomsTEAM and I are fighting, not to save football or put an athletic trainer on the sideline of every high school football game, or stem the decline in participation in youth football (although we think that all of those goals are laudable and we support them), but to provide every sports parent in America with practical, objective, and well-researched information about youth sports safety that they can use to make their own decisions about whether and when to allow their child to participate in contact or collision sports. That is why I made "The Smartest Team," and that's the goal of the "SmartTEAM" program. Our hope is that the free market will help make youth sports safer, with parents choosing to register their children for programs that are SmartTeam certified over ones that aren't because the certification will, as the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, demonstrate the program's commitment to their child's safety as its number one priority.

As we get closer to the fall sports season and our first annual SmartTeams: Play Smart To Be Safe summit in Boston at which the formal announcement of the SmartTeam pilot programs will be made, I will have more to report.  But, in the meantime, I invite you to click here to learn more about what the UN Convention On the Rights of the Child covers in the context of sports, and what you, as parents, can do to improve the youth sports experience and make it safer.

*October 9, 2015 update: With the ratification of the Convention by South Sudan and, most recently, Somalia, the UNCRC has now been ratified by 196 countries, making it the most widely ratified human rights convention in the world. In an October 2, 2015 statement, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon welcomed Somalia's ratification and encouraged the U.S. to "join the global movement and help the world reach the objective of universal ratification."

 


Brooke de Lench is Founding Executive Director of MomsTEAM Institute, Inc., Director of Smart Teams Play Safe, Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins), and Producer/Director/Creator of the PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer." Brooke is also a founding member of the UN International Safeguards of Children in Sports coalition.

 

She can be reached by email (delench@MomsTeam.com), and you can follow her on Twitter @brookedelench.  For Brooke's full biography, click here.

 


 

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Reducing Sexual Abuse in Youth Sports Requires A Team Effort

NOTE: This article is from an earlier  blog, yet remains important.

Earlier this spring  I had the honor of being invited to speak at the "Safe to Compete: Protecting Child Athletes from Sexual Abuse" summit in Washington, DC, sponsored by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation.  

The summit brought together over fifty of the nation's largest youth-serving and youth-sports organizations, as well as child development, youth sports and prevention experts, to discuss strategies for protecting children from sexual abuse while playing sports.

Unfortunately, like many of the speakers, much of my contact with parents on the issue of sexual abuse in sports has been after their children have been victimized, but all of us also work with school boards and national sports organizations to enact policies designed to prevent such abuse from occurring in the first place.

A crowded police blotter 

The need to redouble our prevention efforts has been driven home over the past couple of weeks, which has seen a sharp spike in reports in the media about youth sports coaches accused and convicted of, and sentenced to probation or jail for sex crimes against young athletes, from sending them inappropriate text messages and emails to sexual assault and statutory rape.  

The first was a story in the May 23, 2013 Washington Post reporting on a 7-year sentence handed down against a prominent ex-swimming coach, Rick Curl, who plead guilty in February to one count of child sexual abuse.  It is a story MomsTEAM had been following closely since last summer.

A host of stories of alleged sexual abuse by youth sports coaches soon followed in rapid succession:

  • May 30: a Sacremento-area youth basketball coach, Troy Hensley, is arrested for allegedly carrying on a 3 and 1/2 month sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl; 
  • June 4: a 30-year old Mississippi high school Spanish teacher and soccer coach, Marco Suarez, is arrested for having sex with a female student who had allegedly come to his house at an invitation he sent via text message and Facebook;
  • June 5: At least six separate incidents of alleged sexual abuse by coaches make the news:  
    • a Gastonia (NC) teacher and wrestling coach is charged with fifteen felony counts of child sex crimes spanning the five-year period from 1999 to 2004; 
    • a former Corvallis (OR) cheerleading coach, David Chatman, 38, pleads guilty  to a charge of second-degree sexual abuse for having sex at his apartment with an underage student rendered unconscious by a presciption medicine she had been taking (the worst thing about this one is that Chatman was already a registered sex offender after being convicted of touching a sleeping 16-year-old cheerleader on an airplane in 2007 while he was the head coach for an all-star cheerleading team on its way home from a competition on the East Coast);
    • A former Viera High School (FL) assistant football coach is sentenced to three years probation after pleading guilty to three misdemeanor counts of contributing to the delinquency or dependency of a minor for sending questionable text messages and emails to a female student last year.
    • A Gastonia (NC) science teacher and wrestling coach is arrested on 14 felony counts of indecent liberties, six with a student, and eight with a child, and one felony county of statutory rape of a minor 6 years of age or older which allegedly took place between May 1, 1999 and June 15, 2004.
    • A 41-year-old Orange County (FL) boxing coach, James Lyons, is arrested after a 17-year-old girl he was teaching to box said he forced her to have sex with him on four separate occasions.  The victim's mother told Orange County Sheriff's deputies that she "felt like Lyons was a father figure." The victim has been training with Lyons for four years about six times a week. She started meeting Lyons at his home to conduct video training lessons to prepare for a match this summer and that's where they had sex, the report said.
    • A Harpeth Hall (TN) middle school soccer coach, George "Rico" Laise, 46, is arrested on two counts of statutory rape by an authority figure and two counts of rape involving a victim with a mental incapacity stemming from charges that he had an unlawful sexual relationship with an underage student suffering from the results of a concussion suffered in 2012 at a tournament in Las Vegas while playing on a travel soccer team he coached. Police say the girl, who was 16 at the time, Laise began having sexual conversations her after the concussion. That March, she later told police, their sexual relationship began, which lasted through April of this year and occurred mostly at his home, while she was still suffering from the concussion; and
    • An inquest in the United Kingdom into the February death of  popular athletics coach learns that he killed himself three days after he was arrested on suspicion of engaging in sexual activity with a child.

What explains this sudden rash of news reports of sexual abuse of young athletes? Is it that our children are more willing to report such crimes, the vast majority of which go unreported? Is it that parents are getting better at identifying some of the warning signs of sexual abuse? I would like to think that both are at least partially responsible. 

One thing of which I am sure is that a number of national organizations, including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the United States Olympic Committee, are taking leadership roles in this area by implementing new programs specifically targeting sexual abuse by coaches of young athletes, the NCMEC with its Safe to Compete program, and the USOC with its Safe Sport initiative.

Sheldon Kennedy and Joe Ehrman

Former elite athletes speak up and out 

Another promising development is that more and more elite athletes are joining the fight against sexual abuse in sports.  At the summit in March I  spent time with three former elite athletes who are standing up against sexual abuse, each of whom added to my knowledge of sexual abuse and the havoc it creates.

Former NFL defensive lineman Joe Ehrmann is an inspirational dynamic speaker who only recently began publicly speaking about his abuse. He told me that after more than fifty years since he was abused, "I want to make sure this ends and that no other child has to go through the hell I went through. At my age it just doesn't make sense to keep it a secret." 

Another high profile athlete who speaks bravely about his own abuse is former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy (pictured with Ehrmann at right). Sheldon is known for his courageous decision to charge his Major Junior Hockey league coach with sexual assault for the abuse he suffered over a five year period while a teenager under his care.  As the co-founder of the Canadian group Respect Group, Inc., Kennedy's focus is on empowering people to recognize and prevent abuse, bullying and harassment in sports and schools through interactive, online certification. 

After the first day of the summit, I took a long walk with Katherine Starr, a former member of the British Olympic swimming team for the 1984 and '88 Summer Games, during which I learned just how much the sexual abuse to which she was subjected as a teenager continues to seep into everything she does in life. Little things - like when a new acquaintance innocently touches her shoulder or arm - still evoke an immediate and visceral negative reaction.  To help fellow abuse victims, Katherine has established a non-profit organization, Safe4Athletes, to advocate for a safe and positive environment for all athletes free of sexual abuse, bullying and harassment. (that's me with Katherine in the picture at right)

Katherine Starr and Brooke de Lench

I strongly encourage you as a parent to visit each of these websites to which I have linked in this blog, and consider inviting Joe, Kathleen or Sheldon to come to speak to the youth sports organizations in your community. The best way to prevent abuse is to be proactive, to become educated.  There are ways to reduce sexual abuse by coaches.  It takes commitment from every stakeholder: parents, athletes, coaches, administrators, and national organizations such as NCMEC and the USOC.  Together we can make a difference in the lives of children so that they don't end up scarred for life like Kathleen, Joe, Sheldon and the victims of the abusers in the horrible stories that have made the past few weeks so difficult.

Related articles and resources:

Some of my recent blogs on sexual abuse: 

Warning Signs of Sexual Abuse by Coach of Child

Penn State Sex Abuse Scandal: What Happens When Media Spotlight Fades?

For more prevention tips, visit Sexual Abuse Center on MomsTEAM's Health & Safety Channel.

Other resources: 

To download the NCMEC's Safe To Compete materials, click here

To join the USOC's 12-month safe sport campaign, Make the Committment: Stop Abuse in Sport, click here

To visit Katherine Starr's excellent website, Safe4Athletes.org, click here

 


Brooke de Lench is the Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, producer/director of the new high school football concussion documentary, The Smartest Team, and author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins).

 

 

 

 



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Standard-Setting By Non-Governmental Agencies for Sports Safety Equipment: Promoting Consumer or Manufacturer's Interest?

In July 2013, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment ("NOCSAE") published a press release on its website stating that football helmets equipped with add-on products that were not originally affixed to the helmet during lab testing "void[ ] ... the helmet manufacturers'] certification of compliance with the NOCSAE standard." 

In August 2013, amid growing inquiries from coaches, parents, and school boards about how third-party helmet add-ons affected helmet certification, NOCSAE clarified its July 2013 statement.  Instead of deciding that an addition to a helmet automatically rendered the manufacturers' certification void, NOCSAE said (1) it would leave up to the helmet manufacturers themselves to decide whether a particular third-party add-on affixed to the helmet, such as an impact sensor, voided its own certification of compliance with the performance safety standards set by NOCSAE with which manufacturers voluntarily certify compliance; (2) that they could decide to engage in additional certification testing of the new model and certify the new model with the add-on product, but was not required to do so; (3) that it would allow manufacturers of add-on products for football helmets to make their own certification of compliance with its standard, as long as the certification testing was done according to NOCSAE standards and the add-on manufacturer assumed potential legal liability for the helmet/add-on combination; and (4) that products not attached or incorporated in some way into the helmet, such as skull caps, headbands, mouth guards, ear buds, and other items. such as the Guardian Cap, would be exempted from coverage.

I was concerned at the time, as were others, that NOCSAE's decision had the potential to empower football helmet manufacturers to act as third-party technology gatekeepers, a power the manufacturers denied it gave them.  As MomsTEAM Senior Editor, Lindsey Barton Straus and I suggest in an article published last week in the Journal of Business & Technology Law, the move also raised possible antitrust concerns.  The fact that the Federal Trade Commission reportedly asked NOCSAE to produce documents pertaining to the certification process for third-party add-on products gave at least some credence to those concerns.

Despite the fact that the NOCSAE clarification exempted add-on products such as Guardian Cap from having to be re-tested with helmets to determine whether the addition of such add-ons caused the helmet/add-on combination to fail the safety standard set by NOCSAE,  

I agreed with the core focus being on NOCSAE and how its strategic statements in Summer 2013 created a windfall for the budding add-on industry that still exists today. This powerful statement summed it up: "In effect, NOCSAE's decision empowers helmet manufacturers to act as thirdparty technology gatekeepers."

The only recommendation that we would have as you continue your research and writing is to look a little deeper into the actual legal responsibility side of things. While we respect Mr. Sadler's opinion that the OEM helmet manufacturer could be "off the hook" if a league is using an add-on such as ours, we've heard from numerous attorneys as well as the legal departments of the universities who implement our product that a) it won't be that simple and b) legal precedence in other industries (such as automotive industry) does not support that theory. The precedence shows that the jury only sides with the OEM manufacturer if they can prove that the add-on or alteration causes the OEM product to become more dangerous, or less safe.

In addition, NOCSAE's recent statements re: Warrior and Cascade helped to establish precedence for this industry and it follows the same lines. The helmets' certifications were voided only after it was shown thru test data that they no longer met the NOCSAE standard. Establishing this as a criteria for a helmet to be decertified is a key distinction as it forces an OEM manufacturer to present test data that when they added the sensor, liner, cover, etc. to their helmet, the helmet no longer met the standard in order to be "off the hook" in a catastrophic injury lawsuit.

Just like Brain Sentry and Shockbox, we have a wealth of data that shows numerous brands and models of helmets exceeding the NOCSAE standard when equipped with a Guardian Cap. We're just waiting for data from Riddell, Schutt, etc. that shows their helmet with our Guardian Cap failing the standard to back up their statements of threatened voided certification. In the meantime, when the consumer is left to sift through these grey areas of legal nuance, helmet manufacturers that directly contact hundreds of customers and potential customers to threaten them that they'll be "more liable" is not only erroneous but also potentially illegal.

MomsTeam can play a big role here as you continue to shine a light on the truth behind all of the intricate layers that have been instituted since 1969. We urge you to continue your work and to take a deeper look into the legal responsibility side because the fact remains: add-ons are not helmets in themselves and shouldn't have to meet a standard for a helmet; add-on manufacturers simply must demonstrate that the helmet's existing certification is unaffected in order for consumers to feel comfortable implementing the product. We feel that we have done this and hope that MomsTeam will continue to be a voice for the smaller companies. Our voices are getting drowned out in the marketplace by the multimillion dollar companies.

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Fighting The "Trump Effect" In Youth Sports

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 18, 2016 ON HUFFINGTON POST. 

 

The media has been reporting extensively on what the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project has dubbed the "Trump Effect": the fear and anxiety which the President-elect's campaign rhetoric - and his policy pronouncements, especially regarding immigrants and Muslims - appears to be engendering among Latino, Hispanic, African-American, and Muslim children, immigrant children, and children of immigrants, and the bullying, intimidation, slurs, and threats which appear to be increasingly directed at them.

While bullying has a long and sordid history in American classrooms, a November 7, 2016 article in The Nation asserts that the current surge is notable in two respects, both for the similarity of its targets - Muslim students, immigrants and children of immigrants, children of color, girls, and Jews - and the language used against them, leading some educators to suggest a link to Donald Trump and the "degraded course of this election season." 

Much of the evidence that more students are being bullied, harassed, or even physically threatened or assaulted because of their immigration status, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity, is explicitly anecdotal. But the stories "leave little doubt that the [Trump] effect is real and on the upswing," argues the Nation article.

Sadly, it appears that the Trump Effect isn't just being felt in the nation's classrooms. It's also seems to be playing out in my domain of youth sports.

According to a story published on the website, OnlyNews.com, the weekend after the election, a girl's volleyball team from Archer City, TX (about 2 hours north of Dallas) was playing against a team from Fort Hancock ISD in Snyder, TX (a town on the Texas/Mexico border which happens to be 97 percent Hispanic) when students from Archer City starting chanting "Build a Wall!" and holding up Trump/Pence signs, along with large flags emblazoned with the phrase "Come and Take It!" - a reference to the Battle of Gonzales, the first military battle during the Texas Revolution with Mexico.

The Archer City Superintendent, C.D. Knobloch, subsequently apologized to the students and community of Ft. Hancock, saying that "appropriate action" was being taken to address the offensive language. Knobloch nevertheless claimed his students weren't racists, and that, but for the election, the incident "wouldn't have happened," and that "every effort would be made to ensure this doesn't happen again."

While accepting Archer City's apology, Fort Hancock Superintendent Jose Franco said that what bothered him the most was that was "no adults, no officials did anything about it while the match was going on. We come from a very competitive district where there's plenty of trash talk and that's just part of the game, having fun with it, but this is the first time it has ever crossed the line." (By the way, Fort Hancock lost the game. Whether the loss had anything to do with the intimidating racist crowd, it probably didn't help the team focus on playing their best).

Tip of the iceberg?

Unfortunately, if my experience is any guide, the Archer City/Fort Hancock story may be just the tip of a very large iceberg. Since Election Day, I have fielded an incredible number of phone calls and received countless emails from sports parents reporting incidents of discrimination and bullying against immigrants, African-Americans, Jews, and LGBT youth by teammates and coaches. Here are just some of the incidents which have been directly reported to me:

  • A coach's son allegedly informed a boy of Mexican heritage during tryouts for a middle school boy's basketball team that his father would not being selecting him for the team because he could only pick fifteen boys and didn't want to waste one of his picks on a boy who he was sure was going to be sent back to Mexico.
  • A teenage girl of African heritage was not invited to an impromptu pizza party and movie night for her age-group track team this past weekend to celebrate Trump's election.
  • An African-American boy trying out for his middle school basketball team was alleged to have been cut by the coach after he asked the players to stand in a line tallest to shortest and by race, and then excused all but one black player from participating in the actual try- out.
  • Coaches in one Southwest sports league were allegedly told that they might not be able to continue coaching if they could not provide documentation of their immigration status, and that, until such proof was furnished, their kids would not be able to play.
  • After Election Day, a transgender girl on a high school cheer squad was allegedly subjected to repeated taunts by her teammates for wearing an "I'm With Her" t-shirt, teasing the coach reportedly refused to do anything to stop.
  • A Jewish father reported that a swastika was scrawled on a locker at his child's away game.
  • An African-American boy was reportedly punched in the head by teammates on his high school football team and subjected to hate speech, while game officials and coaches allegedly looked the other way.

While I haven't been able to independently verify whether any of these incidents actually occurred, I do know that the parents who called me were genuinely anguished. They were truly heartbreaking for me to hear, especially as I have spent a great deal of my time and effort over the past 25 years, first as a youth sports coach and administrator and, for the last 16 years as a sports safety educator, fighting to keep kids safe, not just from physical injury, but from emotional, psychological, and sexual injury and abuse.

What I found most disturbing about such reports is the number that involve either discriminatory behavior by coaches or their failure to do anything to stop it. "Although plenty of coaches use affirming and encouraging coaching styles, bullying behavior such as demeaning, shaming, and name-calling remains a common aspect of coaching in sports at any level," notes Nancy Swigonski, a physician at Indiana University School of Medicine and the author of a 2014 article on bullying by coaches in the journal Pediatrics.

As evidence, she pointed to a 2011 study in the United Kingdom which found that three-quarters of the 6,000 young adults ages 18 to 22 years interviewed about their experiences in sports earlier in adolescence reported at least 1 incident of emotional harm playing sports, one third of whom identified their coach as the main source of harm, and to a 2005 study - one which I cited in my 2006 book, Home Team Advantage (Harper Collins), and in articles adapted from that book for MomsTEAM.com - finding that 45% of children reported verbal misconduct by coaches, including name-calling and insulting them during play.

Perhaps because the damage inflicted in children who are subject to bullying, or to racial, religious, homo- or transphobic, or ethnic slurs or epithets or threats while participating in youth sports is not obvious, like sexual abuse, or immediately apparent, like a physical injury, its effect is often overlooked and minimized. But the damage is no less real, and, in fact, may be much more long-lasting.

Children involved in sports often make strong connections and develop a special trusting relationship with their coaches and instructors, and if the coaches' power is abused, children can suffer severe psychological injuries that may last a lifetime. In a 2004 study of emotional abuse of elite child athletes in the United Kingdom, for instance, athletes reported that the abuse by their coaches created a climate a fear and made them feel stupid, worthless or upset, lacking in self-confidence, angry, depressed, humiliated, fearful and hurt, and left long-lasting emotional scars.

Preventing abuse: proactive adults needed

Fortunately, from working with sports programs and talking with thousands of parents and coaches from all over the United States and around the world for the past 16 years, and as the head of one of only two U.S. sports organizations participating as a founding member of global coalition of sports organizations committed to implementing the International Safeguards for Children in Sport, spearheaded by Unicef UK, I know that there are a number of steps sports programs can take right now to try to prevent the kind of bullying, teasing, and taunting against Latino, Hispanic, African-American, and Muslim athletes, immigrant children, and children of immigrants that we are seeing from occurring in the first place:

Establish written codes of conduct. After two years of work with our global partners, MomsTeam Institute/SmartTeams has issued guides for viewing on the web and for downloading and printing, for organizations working to implement the International Safeguards and for anyone supporting or governing organizations working with children, including guidelines for creating codes of conduct for staff and volunteers, children and young people, and parents and caregivers.

Be role models. Adult stakeholders must pro-actively encourage children not to bully, tease, taunt, or discriminate on the grounds of religious faith, ethnicity or race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, or mental or physical handicap. Every coach needs to make sure that every team event - whether a practice, game, competition, or a team-building gathering like a pizza party -is inclusive, and that a zero tolerance policy for abuse of any kind is strictly enforced. If children cannot look to the nation's leaders as role models, adults involved in youth sports, knowing that children learn by example, need to step in.

Pay attention: Instead of dropping their kids off for practice, parents should stick around if they can; they should encourage their kids to report inappropriate behavior by teammates or coaches - whether it is "locker room talk" demeaning of women or girls, or anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant comments or behavior - regardless of whether it is directed at a teammate or not, and made to feel safe in doing so; they should pay attention to a coach's behavior at practices and games to make sure they are not participating in or tolerating bullying, teasing or abuse of any kind.

Report bullying. Allegations of abuse or discrimination of any kind cannot go unchallenged, unrecorded, or unreported. Such behavior, whether by a coach or a team member, should be reported immediately to school or league officials.

Impose penalties for abuse. Coaches should face consequences for verbal misconduct including demeaning, name-calling, and insulting young athletes.

Establish expectations at a pre-season meeting. When I was coaching boys' soccer, I held a meeting before every season for parents and players at which I set behavioral expectations. Before every practice and game, I reminded players that they would be benched for one week if they directed any kind of abuse toward a teammate, including name calling, shaming, hazing, bullying, or taunting. By constantly reinforcing the values of good sportsmanship and respect towards teammates and opponents, I was able to mold one of my teams into one which ended the season by winning a sportsmanship trophy and becoming sportsmanship ambassadors to a soccer tournament in Scotland.

Now, perhaps more than ever, I believe that coaches, parents, and student-athletes need to actively reject hate talk, bullying, and discrimination in order to keep sports a safe place for our student-athletes and send the message that hate and intimidation simply have no place on the playing fields of our nation. 


Brooke de Lench is Executive Director of MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety, Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins), and Producer/Director/Creator of the PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer." She can be reached by email @ delench@MomsTeam.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @brookedelench. 

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"Back in the Game": A Concussion Book That Stands Out In a Crowded Field

 

Back in the Game book cover

While the pile of concussion books in my office continues to grow taller, seemingly with every passing day, one that will stay at the top of the very short pile of my favorites is Back in the Game: Why Concussion Doesn't Have To End Your Athletic Career (Oxford University Press, New York 2016) by sports neurologist Jeffrey Kutcher, M.D., and award-winning sports journalist Joanne Gerstner.

The collaboration of Ms. Gerstner, a first-rate, professional journalist with a background in reporting on sports science, and Dr. Kutcher, one of the nation's top concussion researchers and clinicians who lives, breathes and eats concussions every day for a living as the National Director of The Sports Neurology Clinic at The CORE InstituteTM in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and for whom I and my staff at MomsTEAM have enormous respect, is a match made in publishing heaven.

A straightforward, elegantly written, concise, and well-organized 215 pages, Back in the Game stands out in a crowded field, not just as a primer on concussions for a parent, coach, or athletes, but for its incisive and often pointed criticism of the way our national conversation about concussions and the long-term effects of playing contact and collision sports has been shaped - some would say warped - by a media that too often eschews fact-based reporting in favor of sensationalism and fear-mongering.

The title of the book alone tells you that Gerstner and Kutcher are not out to scare the reader, not out to make sensational, scientifically unproven, claims about the long-term effects of concussions, but that they prefer instead, like I, to live in the "land of the real." Eschewing the extremes occupied by the loudest voices in the national concussion and youth sport conversation, the ones who either deny there is a serious issue that needs to be addressed (who they characterize as the "just a knock to the head" crowd) or have become so convinced that contact sports inevitably result in lifelong disability that they are so fundamentally unsafe that they should be abolished, they opt instead for the common sense middle ground - a place where MomsTEAM and I have been all along - a magical place where it is possible to have a "more thoughtful, science-based" dialog about the role of sports in our kids' lives. (It's been a pretty lonely place to live, to be honest; glad to have some company!)

The book accomplishes what it sets out to do. I know, because, when I was done reading, it was if I had just had a long, thought-provoking conversation with Kutcher and Gerstner - perhaps while sitting in the bleachers watching a high school football game on a Friday night - during which I not only learned the essentials about the identification, treatment, and management of concussions, that a concussion doesn't have to end your child's athletic career; but, just as importantly, that you simply can't trust a lot of what you read or hear about head injuries on television, radio, or on Twitter.

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de Lench on ESPN's "Outside the Lines" Feature On NFL's Marketing To Moms and A Little Bit of The Rest Of The Story

On Sunday morning, I appeared as a guest on a ESPN's weekly program "Outside The Lines" on a segment titled "NFL: Marketing To Moms."

Besides my interview, the show featured reporter Tom Farrey talking to a group of youth football moms in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, which, despite a rich football tradition (9 state championships since 1996, including the last three), has seen youth football registrations drop by about one third since 2008; an excellent panel discussion with the head of Eden Prairie's youth football program, journalist Patrick Hruby (a consistent critic of football safety), and Maria Bailey, an expert on marketing to moms; and an interview with Tom Cove, head of the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, the trade group for sporting goods manufacturers, whose annual survey reveals that participation in football at all levels has declined five years in a row and 14% since 2007. Moms from Eden Prairie MN on ESPN Outside the Lines

Good thing I decided to beat the traffic this morning to get to the office before the sun even came up, because it took an hour just to scan and sort all the email I received in less than 24 hours after appearing on the show. Some were to offer congratulations; some wanted to introduce themselves or their products, but the lion's share were to ask questions.

But before I provide answers to the most frequently asked questions I have been asked over the past 24 hours, I first want to extend kudos to ESPN, studio host Bob Ley, and Tom Farrey for producing such a highly informative show, one that was objective, and thought provoking, and which heard from all sides of the issue (well, almost: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell declined ESPN's request for an interview) in examining how the NFL has been trying to reach football moms.

I think ESPN got it at least half right in the message it left with viewers, one which I made clear during my interview with Farrey, which was that, while the NFL is spending lots of money, time and energy trying to assure football moms that football is safe and getting safer, they aren't the ones that moms are, or I submit, should be listening to.

As the group in Eden Prairie made clear to Farrey, football moms don't want tackling lessons from the NFL; what they want is objective, well-researched information about football safety from an independent source moms can trust.

While it may have come as a surprise to some of the men who were watching yesterday morning, it's no secret to anyone who lives and breathes youth sports like I do, that, as SFIA's Cove said, moms "play a huge role in most household decisions," and are essentially the "gatekeepers of youth football."

Tom CoveI also agreed with Cove when he warned that "if mothers don't believe that there are programs that are safe, that are attuned to the needs of the child, football will suffer."  Like him, I agree that we need to educate them (are doing this everyday) to what good programs there are; coaches that have been trained, techniques that have been taught."

But what OTL only briefly touched upon in passing was that there are, right now, places on the Internet where football moms can get the information that they say they want and need in order to decide for themselves whether football is right for their child, and, if so, at what age, and for how long.

I recognize, of course, that it was hard for ESPN to not only pack into less than 20 minutes of air time a discussion of the problem of football safety that has so many moms concerned but also the solutions, but this is what had so many writing to me over the past 24 hours, so here are my answers to those FAQs (or, as the late radio news commentator, Paul Harvey used to say, "the rest of the story") :

Question: Why didn't OTL mention MomsTEAM's documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making Football Safer," which began airing on PBS stations around the country last fall and is still showing on some stations? Wouldn't that have been a way to address Tom Cove's concern that football is going to be in trouble if moms aren't educated about ways the game can be and is being safer?

Answer: I was thrilled to see ESPN give my book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers (Harper Collins) and our website MomsTEAM.com some good attention, yet my one hope was that ESPN would shine more of a spotlight on the work we have been doing over the past 14 years to educate parents about youth football safety and provide them the objective, unbiased information they say they want.

I am absolutely convinced that if more moms knew about MomsTEAM and "The Smartest Team," a lot fewer of them (44% in one recent poll) would be saying they want to see football made safer because more would know that it is being made safer, that the sport is a lot safer than it was 14 years ago, not only because we are light years ahead of where we were in 2000, when we first started reporting about concussions in youth sports, in terms of concussion identification and management and ways to minimize risk of injury, but that there are more and football programs around the country adopting comprehensive head injury risk management programs similar to the Six Pillars program featured in "The Smartest Team" which are making the sport safer.

Question: What did you mean by your opening statement in OTL that you didn't know if the NFL is telling them it is safe or not?

Answer:  First, let me say that was selected for air was just part of a much longer discussion I was having during my interview with Farrey, which came in reponse to a question about the clinics the NFL was hosting for football moms around the country.  I said I didn't know what the NFL was telling the moms because I had not been invited to attend.

Question: Where was the book signing held and will you come to talk to our group?Brooke de Lench on ESPN Outside the Lines

Answer: That clip was shot in Princeton, New Jersey after a screening of "The Smartest Team." I often speak with parents groups, and to give keynote addresses at national conferences, put on workshops and consult with school boards, but, since the documentary came out, I have focused on doing screenings with a Q/A panel after with the other experts who are featured in the film.

Question: You said during the show that your "fear is that [the NFL is] talking about the wrong topics. If they're spending a lot of time in teaching moms how to tackle, well, they're wasting their time. ... We really need to talk about the right issues, and, until you're in the trenches, you don't know what the problems are." What are the issues you want the NFL to address? You say that the NFL is "sending the wrong message. What is the correct message?

Answer: In the fall of 2012, I traveled from Boston to New York to meet with some of the top marketing and communications folks at the NFL's headquarters on Park Avene during which I suggested to them that, in my view, the best way to reach the moms was to support MomsTEAM and our experts, as the unbiased, objective and trusted source of football safety information and the acknowledged "pioneer" in concussion safety education, to reach more moms. For reasons known only to the NFL, the league declined to work with us and decided instead to try to reach the moms directly. My honest assessment of that effort, as I told Tom Farrey, is that it isn't working.

Question: When Farrey asked you, "Doesn't the NFL deserve some credit for improving the game"? your answer was "absolutely." Yet, later, you say that because "the NFL has been built on violence and collision," trying to be experts in youth sports "doesn't square with me." How so?

Answer: It doesn't square because moms are too smart and too safety-conscious to get their advice about the safety of football from a Brooke de Lench on ESPN's Outside the Linesleague that clearly has a conflict of interest when it comes to providing objective information about the safety of the game. It is hard to expect a business that generates billions of dollars in revenue from a game that involves a serious degree of risk to its participants to provide the parents of America the straight skinny about how safe it actually is.

Question: Tom Cove expressed the view that if mothers don't believe that there are programs that are safe, that are attuned to the needs of the child, football will suffer. What is MomsTEAM doing to show moms that there are programs that are, if not risk free, as safe that they reasonably can be, that employ best practices, that are attuned to the needs of children for the safest possible football experience?  (Watch short ESPN teaser video below - reload browser if it doesn't begin)

Answer: One way, of course, is by continuing to use the MomsTEAM.com platform to provide youth sports parents, whether they be in football or other sports, with unbiased, impeccably researched health and safety information and advice.

A second is by producing documentaries such as "The Smartest Team" to get the message out to the largest possible audience, to show what can happen when a sports program shows its commitment to improving safety by adopting best safety practices.

And the third way is by forming a new non-profit, MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety, which will be working collaboratively with the nation's leading sports safety experts, researchers, doctors, athletic trainers, scientists, government and non-governmental agencies and non-profits, youth sports organizations, and parents to identify best health and safety practices, and awarding programs and teams that are working to or have already implemented them such practices designation as "Smart Teams."

We are inviting all those with a stake in reversing the decline in participation in sports by the nation's youth, not just in football but other sports, who support our ongoing mission of making youth sports safer, to join us in that effort. Through your contributions of time, talent, and treasure, we believe that the Institute can achieve its ambitious goals, not only to be MomsTEAM 2.0, but through its Smart Team program, achieve nothing less than a paradigm shift in youth sports by making it, once again, a safe playground for children, not an arena where, all too often, adults more interested in winning put the safety and well-being of our children at unnecessary risk.


Brooke de Lench is Executive Director of MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety, Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports, and Producer/Director/Creator of the PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer."  She can be reached by email @ delench@MomsTeam.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @brookedelench.
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Celebrate Mother's Day By Recognizing Critical Role of Sports Moms

 

Ask the average person what special day is celebrated in May, and most will say Mother's Day. Ask sports fans who athletes most often thank when they are interviewed on television after a big win, and they are most are likely to say their moms. Now, ask someone in what month does the country celebrate National Sports Moms Month, and I bet you would be met with a lot of quizzical looks.

Fact is that there hasn't been such a month, at least one that I could find. So, in 2012, I decided to declare May to be Sports Moms Month.

Why? Because ever since I started MomsTEAM and began writing about youth sports sixteen years ago, I have made it one of my primary missions not only to recognize and celebrate the critical role that sports moms play in keeping our kids safe, in fighting to make sure they are treated fairly, and to helping sports mothers juggle the many 'hats' they don every day - as chauffeur, child psychologist, safety officer, nutritionist, or what one survey aptly put it, the "Chief Everything Officer" - but to encourage and empower mothers to take a more active role in youth sports.

Woman coach talking to T-ball players

While the sports landscape has changed dramatically over the past 40 years, with the sandlots of yesteryear replaced by multi-million dollar youth sports complexes and highly organized programs, what has not changed is the hardwired instinct of mothers to want to nurture and protect their children from harm.

But instead of continuing to serve as the primary guardians of our children at play - hanging out a city window to check on their kids playing stick-ball or kickball in the street below, or looking out into the backyard to monitor a group of ten-year old kids playing touch football - today's sports mothers are still found, far more often than not, sitting in the stands, working behind the concession counter selling snacks and raffle tickets, working as team administrators, or chauffeuring their kids to and from practice and games.

Although youth sports organizations say they want more women involved, the simple fact is that far fewer women coach youth sports than men. While the numbers vary, available research suggests that between 75% and 85% of volunteer youth sport coaches are still male, that nearly all of the team parent positions are held by women, and that very few head coaches of boys' teams (around 5% in one study) are female. The percentage of women on the boards of national sports organizations, with a few notable exceptions, is similarly paltry.

What I said ten years ago in my book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports, remains true today: "The low numbers of women coaches at the youth level [persist] despite factors that would otherwise suggest a greater number, including the greatly expanded opportunities for girls in sports, the fact that ... today's women came of age in a post-Title IX world in which many of them played sports, and that women vastly outnumber men in every other volunteer activity involving their kids (PTA, Scouts, special events at school etc.)."

Persistent gender gap

What explains this persistent gender gap? I argued in Home Team Advantage that the "absence of women coaches and administrators is a vestige of the sex-segregated sports system that existed before the passage of Title IX. The old-boy network in sports is still very much alive and well. ... Too many men still hew to the gender stereotype that males are more competent and authoritative."

In a 2009 study, researchers at the University of Southern California, led by sociologist Michael Messner, essentially agreed with what I, and no doubt many mothers, know from our own experience: that it is simply the "natural extension of gendered divisions of labor in families and workplaces, ... not simply from an accumulation of individual choices; rather, [but] produced ... and shaped by gendered language and belief systems [that] are seen by many coaches as natural extensions of gendered divisions of labor in families and workplaces."

As Messner and his USC colleagues observed, sports are framed as a "realm in which girls are empowered to exercise individual choice (rehearsing choices they will later face in straddling the demands of careers and family labor), while continuing to view boys as naturally 'hard-wired' to play sports (and ultimately, to have public careers).... In short, [youth sports] initiates kids into an adult world that has been only partially transformed by feminism, where many of the burdens of bridging and balancing work and family strains are still primarily on women's shoulders. Men coaches and 'team moms' symbolize and exemplify these tensions."

I have been arguing for years that the dearth of women coaches in youth sports is problematic because it translates into fewer role models for female athletes and fewer future coaches. The problem is compounded by the fact that female athletes, having become used to being coached by men and having only rarely been coached by women, seem to favor male coaches and perceive them as more competent and authoritative.

Not surprisingly, the USC study reported that many of the men surveyed scoffed at the thought of women coaching youth sports teams and simply assumed that it was the job of men to coach and take leadership positions and for women to work behind the scenes in a supporting role as team moms. (This is precisely what I experienced when I offered to coach a boys' soccer team).

Writing in the April 2015 online edition of the Canadian Journal for Women in Coaching, Nicole LaVoie, Associate Director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, and Sarah Leberman, a professor at the Massey University in New Zealand, echo these same themes. The "lack of gender balance in the youth coaching ranks," they say:

sends the wrong message to children and youth about power, gender, and leadership and reinforces the notion that sport is male-dominated, male-run, and male-centered. For children, who are impressionable, seeing mostly men in positions of power in a context that matters a great deal to them, does little to challenge and change the status quo. A lack of women coaches also means girls have few, if any, active female role models, therefore making it less likely that girls will view coaching as a viable and available career pathway.

Missing piece of puzzle 

I have long argued that mothers are the missing piece in the youth sports puzzle, and advocated in favor, not only of more women as coaches, but more women on the boards of youth sports organizations, from national governing bodies all the way down to the local level, even in such boy's sports as football, baseball and hockey. I continue to believe that it will only be when gender parity is achieved in positions of power in youth sports that its full potential will be realized for all our children.

It is long past the time for such change. As I wrote in Home Team Advantage:

"The ... million[s] of mothers of kids in sports represent an incredible resource. [They need] to reclaim their natural role as guardians of [their] children at play and confidently step onto the out-of-control playground of today's youth sports to assume whatever role they choose, whether it be as parent, coach, team administrator, member of the board of directors of the local youth soccer club, or community activist. ... The ... climate in sports will inevitably change for the better when more women take an active role in youth sports and roll up our sleeves to work for change. From my work deep in the trenches of youth sports, I know that there is a solution-oriented community of mothers in this country ready and eager to take a much more active role in youth sports."

So, as the nation celebrates Mother's Day this year, we should give a special thanks to all the mothers who play such a critical role in youth sports, and commit to valuing their contributions, not just for one day or one month but all year long, and to working to create a youth sports environment that is more inclusive and welcoming of women, particularly mothers, and gives them the opportunities to take leadership and coaching roles. 


Brooke de Lench is Executive Director of MomsTEAM Youth Sports Safety Institute, Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, Producer/Director of The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer, and author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins). You can follow Brooke on Twitter @brookedelench.

Originally published on Huffington Post on Friday, May 1, 2015. 

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