Are Parents Who Allow Young Athletes To Play Contact or Collision Sports Guilty of Child Abuse?

As long-time visitors to MomsTeam or readers of my blog and 2006 book, Home Team Advantage, know, I have always taken a somewhat expansive view of what constitutes child abuse in the context of sports. 

Among other things, I have long advocated for adoption by the United States of the protections against abuse contained in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child [Update: as of December 11, 2015, the U.S. was the only country in the world that has not signed the convention] and believe that a parent or coach who knowingly allows a child to continue to play while injured, or recklessly exposes a child to an unreasonable risk of sports injury, is engaging in child abuse.

So, when I was asked in a recent radio interview, whether I viewed parents who allow their children - particularly elementary school age-children  - to participate in collision sports as committing child abuse, I had to stop for a moment to think.  

On the one hand, there appears to be a growing body of research suggesting that playing contact or collision sports for a long period of time likely has, at least for some unknown percentage of athletes, serious adverse health consequences, not just from concussions but from the cumulative effect of sub-concussive blows to the head, blows which athletes in youth football, lacrosse, and, until recently, hockey, suffer on an almost constant basis in both games and practices.  Such evidence. while far from conclusive, has raised alarm bells among some in the youth sports community and prompted at least one leading concussion expert, Dr. Robert Cantu, MomsTeam's concussion expert emeritus, to recently recommend that kids not play such sports until middle or high school, at least under current rules.

On the other hand, while I personally think Dr. Cantu's recommendation is worthy of serious consideration, I don't believe parents who allow their kids to start or continue to play collision sports before middle school are engaging in child abuse.

Here's why:

  • All sports, whether collision, contact, individual or team, involves a certain amount of risk. Risk of injury is inherent to sport, and sport cannot be made completely risk free any more than riding around on a bike or running around on a playground can be made injury-proof.1  Kids can't live in a bubble, nor should they.
  • That doesn't mean risk can't and shouldn't be minimized wherever possible.  It should.  One of my principal missions, from even before MomsTeam was launched in 2000, has been to minimize the risk of injury in youth sports through training and education of sports parents, coaches and administrators, advocating for rule changes, and by urging the use of safer equipment.
  • While there is a level of risk at which a parent could be deemed guilty of child abuse - say, for instance, by allowing their child to return to the playing field knowing that they are still experiencing concussion symptoms, and thus recklessly exposing them to the risk of a further delay in concussion recovery, long-term brain injury, or even death from second impact syndrome - unless their recklessness is really that extreme, I believe the degree of risk they are willing to have their child take on is really up to them, such that exposing them to that risk is not, in my view, child abuse.

 

Knowledge is power

In the end, it all comes back to education: In the ideal world, a parent's decision about whether to allow a child to start playing or continue playing collision sports before high school under current rules of play (which are evolving in the direction of safety, fortunately, as seen, for instance, in USA Hockey's ban on body checking at the Pee Wee hockey level and below, and limits on full-contact practices instituted at every level of football, from Pop Warner, to high school, college, and the NFL), will be a conscious one; a decision in which the risks of participating in a particular sport - provided it is based on the most up-to-date information about those risks and a consideration of other risk factors that might come into play for their child, such as pre-existing learning disabilities (e.g. ADHD), chronic health conditions (e.g., a history of history of multiple concussions or seizures, history of migraines), or a reckless and overly aggressive style of play - are balanced against the  benefits to the child of participating.

Ultimately, our kids have to rely on their parents to make sure they are doing everything they can to minimize injuries by knowing the risks, and by making sure that, if and when they do suffer a sports injury, such as concussion, they receive appropriate treatment. More than that, I think, we cannot expect.  


Brooke de Lench is Executive Director of MomsTEAM Youth Sports Safety Institute, Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, producer/director of the PBS documentary, The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer, and author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins)  

1. The Centers for Disease Control's study on traumatic brain injuries in youth and high school sports and recreational activities agrees.  "Risk for TBI," it says, "is inherent to physical activity and can occur during any activity at any age."   Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Nonfatal Traumatic Brain Injuries Related to Sports and Recreation Activities Among Persons Aged ≤ 19 Years -- United States, 2001-2009; 2011; 60(39):1337-1342 (http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6039a1.htm?s_cid=mm6039a1_e&s...)(accessed October 7, 2011).  Interestingly, riding a bike and playground were number one and number three on the list of activities resulting in emergency room visits for traumatic brain injury overall (8.1% and 7.9% respectively), second and third among males under age 19 (16.5%, 7.8%), second and first among girls (11.8%, 14.2%), and number one and two for boys and girls aged 9 or younger.   

MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety, Inc. is a registered 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization which relies on donations from readers like you. Help us continue to provide the best in youth sports safety and parenting information by making a donation today.  

 

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Chronic Under-Reporting Of Concussion: Is Changing The Culture A Realistic Solution?

 

If your child plays a contact or collision sport, whether at the youth, middle school or high school level, odds are that at some point in their athletic career they will suffer a concussion. How well they recover depends a lot on how quickly their concussion is identified so they can be removed from practice or game action. 

A lot of student-athletes - a declining percentage, fortunately - don't appreciate precisely when they have suffered a concussion. There are a lot of reasons:

  • the symptoms may not appear right away (as one recent study of college athletes  (1) found, 23% of diagnosed concussions were delayed, on average, 17 hours, and another 27% had unspecified onset (1,2), or  
  • they don't know the symptoms, or
  • they are not functioning at their cognitive baselines and do not recognize they have suffered an injury (2) or 
  • because they don't appreciate that concussions, however mild, are traumatic brain injuries (3,4,5), or 
  • because they still believe that a  loss of consciousness (LOC) is required for a concussion (again, the message that a concussion doesn't require LOC, and that, in fact, the vast majority of concussions - 90-95% of all concussions in high school sports - do not involve LOC, seems to be sinking in). (6)

Code of silence

Unfortunately, the problem is that, even for athletes who realize that they have suffered a concussion, there is still a very good chance (more than 50% in one oft-cited 2004 study (4) but probably much higher) they won't self-report symptoms to sideline personnel, much less voluntarily remove themselves from the game.  

Why?

For a variety of reasons, it seems, but mostly, I think, because the very culture of the contact or collision sport they are playing, and their own self-concept as invincible, strong adolescents, encourages them to remain silent:

  • to avoid jeopardizing their spot in the starting lineup or letting their teammates down; (3)
  • to avoid being seen as weak or cowardly by their coach or teammates, or even their parents; (3)
  • to demonstrate to the coach and their teammates that they can "take a hit like a man,"
  • to show that they can be as tough as their professional heroes;
  • because they fear they will be held out of play; (7
  • because they want to win the game at all costs; orThe Smartest Team
  • because they believe that the glory of individual and team success, the promise of a college scholarship, or the lure of a lucrative professional career, is somehow worth the risk of lifetime impairment from continuing to play with concussion symptoms.

That all of these forces conspire to prompt kids to be reluctant, indeed, unwilling to self-report concussion symptoms was driven home to me during the filming of MomsTEAM's PBS documentary, The Smartest Team.  Nearly every football player I interviewed for the film freely admitted that they would not self-report concussion symptoms.  Here is just a sampling of what they told me:

  • "If I can get up and walk away from it, yeah, I'll probably keep playing."
  • "You see some dots and they go away ... so you just keep playing through it. It's my senior year."
  • "As long as I can still see and keep my balance, as long as I'm not feelin dizzy, head injuries are all right."

I have been hearing and reading a lot lately about how we need to "change the culture" of football and encourage honest self-reporting by athletes of concussion.  It is seems clear from the research that if players don't tell anyone that they or a teammate are experiencing concussion symptoms and continue to play, they are increasing the chances their recovery will take longer, and, worse, expose them to increased risk of an even more serious brain injury, or, in very rare circumstances, catastrophic injury or even death from second impact syndrome.

Several years ago, HBO's Real Sports did a segment on high school sports concussions featuring the tragic story of Ryne Dougherty, a Montclair, New Jersey football player who died in 2008, likely from second impact syndrome, when he suffered a blow to the head when he returned to play, despite having confided to teammates that he was still experiencing headaches from an earlier concussion.

As needless as Ryan's death was, even more shocking was that his teammates, when asked if, knowing what they knew now about the dangers of playing with concussion symptoms, they would still hide their concussion symptoms in order to play, they still all answered without equivocation, "Yes."

Indeed, an ESPN poll of players, coaches, parents and athletic trainers in 23 states (8) found that players  - the ones whose brains are being rattled and who are putting themselves at risk of adverse long-term health consequences from concussions - are still the group least concerned about concussions. (Again, it's not surprising: teenagers all think they are invincible, which leads them to engage in a lot of risky behaviors)

When asked whether, if a star player got a concussion, they would rather lose the state title game as he sat out than win it because he chose to play with a concussion, more than half (54.1%) of the 300 players in the ESPN survey said they would play the star compared to 9% of athletic trainers, 6.1% of parents, and 2.1% of coaches. A majority of players (55.4%) also felt that a headache - far and away the the number one reported symptom of concussion - shouldn't disqualify them from returning to the same game.

The survey results were consistent with my anecdotal experience in talking to players for The Smartest Team.  Typical was what one player told me: "There was a time that I've gotten a concussion. I didn't think much of it, you know, just a headache, move on with it, keep playing. ... Got hit pretty hard, helmet to helmet, couldn't see, saw stars everywhere, just went back on the field, started playing again. Didn't, didn't need to tell anyone. I mean it's not like I was laying down, couldn't get up or anything. But I thought I was fine."   (He wasn't, of course, and should have told someone and removed himself, or been removed, from the game)

Yes, it is critically important that all athletes playing a contact or collision sport (including not only football, hockey and lacrosse, but soccer, basketball, cheer, and baseball), understand the symptoms of a concussion (things they feel) and appreciate the range of damaging health consequences they can suffer if they don't report them and keep playing, from making another concussion much more likely to long-term cognitive (concentration, memory, reasoning) and emotional difficulties (e.g. depression) to, in rare instances, catastrophic injury or death (e.g. second impact syndrome).  We should do everything we can to encourage honest self-reporting.  

We also need to encourage reporting by players about concussion symptoms being experienced by their teammates (One of the things I stressed at the players meeting back in June 2012 before the season began was the need for a "buddy system.")  My experience in Oklahoma gave me some reason to be cautiously optimistic that, by educating players and parents, and by enlisting the help of coaches, we can increase the number of athletes who are willing to self-report and use the buddy system.  

One of the players on the Oklahoma team we followed in the fall of 2012 appears in the documentary telling me that he had a friend on the line who seemed really "out of it" at practice one day.  When he told the coach, his teammate "got really mad."  But he was undeterred, because he "knew it was going to help [his teammate] in the long run." Another player told me that, "As far as the buddy system goes, I know that we need to keep each other's backs, like me and Matt have each other's backs as far as like, if I get a concussion or he had gotten a concussion, then you know, make sure he's OK. If he's out of it, you know, can't answer simple questions, go alert the coaches."

But while I saw some progress in terms of self-reporting and use of the buddy system during my time in Oklahoma, I don't think we can count on changing overnight a deeply entrenched culture as a panacea in solving the chronic problem of under-reporting.

In fact, the evidence continues to be that athletes are resistant to such culture change, despite increased education.  Two studies [reported after this blog originally appeared] (13,14)  by researchers at Cincinnati Children's Hospital (2) of 120 high school football players, 30 of whom had suffered a concussion,  found that, while three-quarters had received concussion education, and 9 out of 10 recognized the risk of serious injury if they returned to play too quickly:

  • an astounding 91 percent felt that it was okay for an athlete to play with a concussion
  • 75 percent said they would play through any injury to win a game
  • 53 percent said they would "always or sometimes continue to play with a headache sustained from an injury,"
  • Only 54 percent would "always or sometimes report symptoms of a concussion to their coach," and
  • Only 4 in 10 would tell their coach immediately if they had concussion symptoms. 
Were the athletes with more concussion education more likely to self-report? Sadly, no. Researchers found that athletes with higher concussion knowledge scores were not significantly more likely to have a better attitude about self-reporting than those with lower concussion knowledge scores.

Are impact sensors the solution? 

One possible way around the problem: to avoid relying on athletes themselves, game officials and/or sideline observers to call for a concussion assessment, but to instead employ real-time monitoring of head impact exposure (e.g. number, severity, location, and cumulative impact) at all levels of football, and other helmeted and non-helmeted contact and collision sports where practical, to allow for early recognition and management of brain injury. (9,11,12)  

"The identification of a potentially injurious impact or series of impacts via real-time monitoring of head impact exposure in athletes may [not only] facilitate the early recognition and management of brain injury in helmeted sports," argues Richard M. Greenwald, PhD of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, lead author of an editorial in the March 2012 Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine (9) but "permit early intervention, potentially in advance of an injury, rather than simply as a management tool post injury."

Benefits of real-time hit monitoring  

While monitoring will not eliminate brain injuries altogether, the benefits of early identification and prevention of further injury are numerous:

  • Sideline personnel will benefit from objective data that might inform their medical decisions; [9,11,12]
  • Parents will benefit from reduced reliance on honest self-reporting of concussion symptoms by athletes and of the observational skills of sideline management in spotting signs of concussion;
  • Teams will benefit by having healthy, unimpaired athletes on the field more often; and
  • The student-athlete and professional athlete will benefit the most from reduced exposure to potentially injurious blows and from the "conundrum of having to self-report an injury that they may not recognize as being potentially injurious or dangerous in the moment of competition."  

As co-founder of Simbex, LLC, the Lebanon, New Hampshire company that makes the HITS (Head Impact Telemetry System) - a peer-reviewed, scientifically-validated technology used by researchers in biomechanical studies to measure head impacts on the playing field - Greenwald knows a thing or two about the technology of head impact exposure monitoring.  That his company might benefit from the widespread monitoring he and his colleagues at Simbex propose in the editorial, however, does not make their recommendation any less important. 

Writing about head impact sensors in the March 2013 issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine (11) Jeffrey S. Kutcher, MD, of the Department of Neurology and Michigan Neurosport at the University of Michigan, observes that the "development of easily deployable sport equipment-based accelerometer systems ... provide[s] two unique and potentially useful, clinical opportunities:

The first is the ability to monitor impacts during the course of an athletic event for the purpose of screening for potential injury. Although many researchers have analyzed impact counts and characteristics across a variety of settings in the hopes of establishing force 'thresholds' for injury, no such threshold has been discovered.  As efforts to improve impact-monitoring accuracy continue, however, so will the search for the 'concussion threshold.'  At the same time, there may be a separate, but similar role for the real-time tracking of impact forces.  Although an on-board accelerometer system may not be able to accurately predict injury, it may have utility as a screening device by alerting sideline personnel of an impact that has occurred above a predetermined magnitude that triggers either observation or clinical evaluation of an athlete.  Although there are currently no published studies to support the use of impact sensor systems in this manner, and a 'concussion threshold' is unknown, the potential clinical utility should be carefully considered.

The second potential clinical benefit of impact monitoring systems stems not from the idea of monitoring impacts for the presence of an acute injury-generating hit, but from the potential advantage of acruately cataloguing the number of hits and post-impact head acceleration being experienced by an athlete over time.  Some have suggested that the idea of a 'hit count' that is kept for athletes over the course of a game, practice, week, month, season or career.  This concept is fairly new and, as yet does not have published data to suggest that any particular level or number of hits has significant clinical meaning for any particular sport or position.  Nonetheless, individual athletes may feel there is a benefit to having an estimate of forces their brain experiences over time. 

Head impact monitoring systems 

The day when monitoring of head impact exposure in football and other helmeted sports becomes commonplace may be closer at hand than one might think, as a number of helmet sensor products are already on, or about to come on, the market designed to capture the kind of data that not only Greenwald and his colleagues, but other concussion experts say is needed as a way around the underreporting/under-identification problem.

Watch this space. 

October 24, 2015 update: While the number of impact sensor products on the market or in development has grown exponentially since I wrote this blog back in February 2013, my direct, first-hand experience working with a host of sensor manufacturers and teams at both the high school, and for the past two years, at the youth football level, leads me to believe that, cost, reliability, specificity and sensitivity hurdles have pushed the day when widespread use of impact sensors as what one sensor company CEO called another "tool" in the concussion toolbox, or "another set of eyes" for an athletic trainer on the sports sideline to help him or her spot athletes who should be checked out for possible concussion, can be realistically achieved.  

While MomsTEAM and I continue to see sensors as holding out the promise of a technological solution to chronic under-reporting (which preliminary data collected during the 2014 season and presented to the American Academy of Pediatrics' 2015 Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. suggests has not gotten better over the past ten years), our primary focus in the coming months and years to develop, under a NCAA-Department of Defense "Mind Matters Challenge" grant, a multi-media program designed to change the culture of sports from one of resistance to one of safety, and fight chronic under-reporting by working with coaches, athletic trainers, parents, and players to create an environment in which athletes feel safe in honestly self-reporting concussion symptoms.


1.  Duhaime A, Beckwith J, Maerlender A, McAllister T, Crisco J, Duma S, et. al. Spectrum of acute clinical characteristics of diagnosed concussions in college athletes wearing instrumented helmets. J Neurosurg. 2012; 117(6):1092-1099 (epub ahead of print October 2, 2012. DOI: 10.3171/2012.8.JNS112298).

2.  Ellenborgen R. Sports and Concussion. J. Neurosurg. 2012;117:1089-191.

3. McGrath N. Supporting the Student-Athlete's Return to the Classroom After a Sport-Related Concussion. J Ath. Tr. 2010:45(5):492-498.

4. McCrea M, Hammeke T, Olsen G, Leo P, Guskiewicz K. Unreported concussion in high school football players - Implications for prevention. Clin J Sport Med 2004;14:13-17.

5. Tomei KL, Doe C, Prestigiacomo CJ, Gandhi CD. Comparative analysis of state-level concussion legislation and review of current practices in concussion. Neurosurg Focus 2012; 33 (6):E11 (published online ahead of print)(accessed December 10, 2012).

6. Meehan W, d'Hemecourt P, Comstock D, High School Concussions in the 2008-2009 Academic Year: Mechanism, Symptoms, and Management. Am. J. Sports. Med. 2010; 38(12): 2405-2409 (accessed December 2, 2010 at http://ajs.sagepub.com/content/38/12/2405.abstract?etoc)

7. Echlin PS, Skopelja EN, Worsley R et al. A prospective study of physician-observed concussion during a varsity university ice hockey season: incidence and neuropsychological changes. Part 2 of 4. Neurosurg Focus 2012;33(6):E2. 

8. "Concussion Confidential"ESPN The Magazine (http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/news/story?id=5925876)(accessed December 21, 2010).

9. Greenwald R, Chu J, Beckwith J, Crisco J.  A Proposed Method to Reduce Underreporting of Brain Injury in Sports.  Clin J Sport Med2012; 22(2):83-85.

10. Kaut KP, DePompei R, Kerr J. Congeni J. Reports of head injury and symptom knowledge among college athletes: implications for assessment and educational intervention.  Clin J Sport Med 2003;13:213-221. 

11. Kutcher J, McCrory, Davis G, et al.  What evidence exists for new strategies or technologies in the diagnosis of sports concussion and assessment of recovery?  Br J Sports Med 2013;47:299-303. 

12. Broglio SP, Eckner JT, Surma T, Kutcher JS. Post-Concussion Cognitive Declines and Symptomatology Are Not Related To Concussion Biomechanics in High School Football Players.  J Neurotrauma 2011;28:1-8. 

13. Anderson B, Pomerantz W, Mann J, Gittelman M. "I Can't Miss the Big Game": High School (HS) Football Players' Knowledge and Attitudes about Concussions. Paper presented at the Annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies, Washington, D.C. May 6, 2013.

14. Wall Street Journal (2013). Study Raises Concerns That Teen Athletes Continue to Play with Concussion Symptoms (http://online.wsj.com/article/PR-CO-20130506-904595.html)(accessed May 7, 2013)  

Note: this blog was updated on May 9, 2013 to reflect the new Cincinnati Children's Hospital study and to include information about impact sensors as a technological end-around the problem of chronic under-reporting.

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17th Annual Mother's Day Wish List

It's Mothers Day once again. Time for spring sports, warmer weather, longer days, planting gardens, and, of course, watching kids play sports. Each year for the past seventeen years, MomsTEAM has published my Mother's Day Wish list. As you will see, many of the wishes on this year's list will look very familiar to long-time visitors. 

More moms: I wish that ... instead of being a "No-Mom's Land" in which a mother's only job is to chauffeur the kids to and from practices, support their kids from the bleachers, and run concession stands, youth sports could be a place where as many mothers as fathers are invited to be coaches, administrators, and members of boards of directors of youth sports organizations locally and nationally. This has

 been on my wish list forever.  My anecdotal experience over the years is that youth  sports organizations with equal or close to equal numbers of women and men in leadership roles actually provide a safer youth sports experience to our kids in just about every aspect: physically, sexually, psychologically and emotionally. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that, if we are making progress in this area, it is painfully slow.  The fact is that men pretty much continue to run the show.

Mom with a team of kids

Redefine competition: I wish that ... instead of defining competition solely in terms of winning and losing, youth sports could also reflect a mother's belief that, while competition is healthy and necessary, a successful competition is one where all players do their best and respect their teammates, opponents, and the rules.  This used to be almost universally true in sports for kids in elementary school, but now? Not so much. To say that it is a disturbing trend that needs to be not just stopped but reversed is an understatement.   

Sports for all: I wish that ... when a mother signed a child up to play sports, she knew that her child would be given a chance to continue playing right through high school, regardless of ability, not excluded by a youth sports system designed to cater to the elite few. Again, if anything, things on this front are getting worse, not better, with more and more intense competition for roster spots for elite or travel teams at ever earlier ages. 

Stop the abuse: I wish that ... youth sports were a place that provided the kind of nurturing, caring, and inclusive environment mothers know intuitively their children need to grow into confident, competent, empathetic, and emotionally and psychologically healthy adults, instead of a place where physical, emotional and even sexual abuse of children is too often viewed as the price children have to pay in order to play.  

Listen to moms: I wish that ... mothers could feel safe in challenging the status quo by registering their concerns about safety issues, an abusive coach, an unfair team selection process, the lack of women leaders, or the unhealthy overemphasis on competition, aggressiveness and winning instead of being afraid that, if they speak up, their children will be ostracized.

Restore balance: I wish that ... more mothers felt empowered to just say no, to reject the all too common belief that more (more teams, more practices, more intense and competitive games) and earlier (travel teams at age seven) are better, and instead to trust their intuition that, when it comes to youth sports, less is more.

I wish that ... so many mothers didn't get sucked into the crazy vortex of competitive youth sports, where survival virtually requires that they become overly focused on and invested in their children's athletic success, and were able to find a healthy balance between sports and family life.

Again, I'm not sure things are getting any better on the sports/family balance front, but we'll keep on trying to help parents keep sports in a proper perspective. 

Better injury prevention: I wish that ... youth sports organizations did more to reduce the risk of catastrophic injury or death so that fewer mothers have to spend Mother's Day remembering a child who died because proper safety precautions such as anchoring soccer goal posts, strictly adhering to concussion return-to-play guidelines, and having an automatic external defibrillator at every game and practice, were not taken. Some signs of progress, but the overuse injury epidemic seems to be getting worse, not better.

Doing more

For the past 17 years, MomsTEAM has been providing sports parents, coaches, athletic trainers, and all youth sports stakeholders comprehensive and practical advice on how to make youth sports safer, saner, less stressful and more inclusive. But there is more, much more, we can and must do to improve youth sports safety.

To that end, we have been working with some of the top experts in sports injury prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, as well as experts in nutrition, heat illness and hydration, strength and conditioning, and coaching, and with leading academic institutions around the country, to develop a comprehensive set of best practices for youth sports programs called SmartTeams.  We piloted the SmartTeam program in the fall of 2014 with eight communities, and in 2015 returned for a second year to one of the eight (Grand Prairie, TX), and hope to roll out the full program in the fall/winter of 2017-2018.

Instead of highlighting all the problems that youth sports faces in the 21st century, our goal will be to celebrate programs, like the high school football program in Newcastle, Oklahoma featured in our PBS documentary, The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer, that are not just talking the talk, but walking the walk, by adopting best safety, nutrition, hydration, and organizational best practices.  Our goal is to provide sports parents with something akin to an "Angie's List" for youth sports; a way to know, when they register their child, that the program to which they are entrusting their child is one in which safety never takes a back seat to winning.

Two final wishes 

Which leads me to make two, new, wishes:

The first is that you share this blog, and spread the word about MomsTEAM, with all of the mothers in your life, because it will only be as a team of moms (and dads) that we can make the wishes we all have as safety-conscious parents come true.

And the second is that, if you believe that MomsTEAM has helped you as sports parent, if you have found the information and advice we have been providing free of charge these past 17  years useful, you consider making a donation in any amount, large or small, to The MomsTEAM Institute, the non-profit organization we established in 2013 to run MomsTEAM.com and the Smart Team program.  Your donations will not just allow us to continue to act as an independent, trusted source of objective information and advice on youth sports, but to do much more to keep our kids safe playing sports, so that next year, on Mother's Day, I can hopefully say that some of the wishes in my annual list have come true!

Thanks to all of you for supporting MomsTEAM, and remember this Mother's Day, as you watch your child play soccer, baseball, lacrosse, tennis, softball, or whatever sport they are playing this spring, that they need to Play Smart To Be Safe. 

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17th Annual Mother's Day Wish List from Brooke de Lench

It's Mothers Day once again. Time for spring sports, warmer weather, longer days, planting gardens, and, of course, watching kids play sports. Each year for the past seventeen years, MomsTEAM has published my Mother's Day Wish list. As you will see, many of the wishes on this year's list will look very familiar to long-time visitors. But a couple are brand spanking new:

More moms: I wish that ... instead of being a "No-Mom's Land" in which a mother's only job is to chauffeur the kids to and from practices, support their kids from the bleachers, and run concession stands, youth sports could be a place where as many mothers as fathers are invited to be coaches, administrators, and members of boards of directors of youth sports organizations locally and nationally. This has been on my wish list forever.  My anecdotal experience over the years is that youth  sports organizations with equal or close to equal numbers of women and men in leadership roles actually provide a safer youth sports experience to our kids in just about every aspect: physically, sexually, psychologically and emotionally. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that, if we are making progress in this area, it is painfully slow.  The fact is that men pretty much continue to run the show.

Mom with a team of kids

Redefine competition: I wish that ... instead of defining competition solely in terms of winning and losing, youth sports could also reflect a mother's belief that, while competition is healthy and necessary, a successful competition is one where all players do their best and respect their teammates, opponents, and the rules.  This used to be almost universally true in sports for kids in elementary school, but now? Not so much. To say that it is a disturbing trend that needs to be not just stopped but reversed is an understatement.   

Sports for all: I wish that ... when a mother signed a child up to play sports, she knew that her child would be given a chance to continue playing right through high school, regardless of ability, not excluded by a youth sports system designed to cater to the elite few. Again, if anything, things on this front are getting worse, not better, with more and more intense competition for roster spots for elite or travel teams at ever earlier ages. 

Stop the abuse: I wish that ... youth sports were a place that provided the kind of nurturing, caring, and inclusive environment mothers know intuitively their children need to grow into confident, competent, empathetic, and emotionally and psychologically healthy adults, instead of a place where physical, emotional and even sexual abuse of children is too often viewed as the price children have to pay in order to play.  

Listen to moms: I wish that ... mothers could feel safe in challenging the status quo by registering their concerns about safety issues, an abusive coach, an unfair team selection process, the lack of women leaders, or the unhealthy overemphasis on competition, aggressiveness and winning instead of being afraid that, if they speak up, their children will be ostracized.

Restore balance: I wish that ... more mothers felt empowered to just say no, to reject the all too common belief that more (more teams, more practices, more intense and competitive games) and earlier (travel teams at age seven) are better, and instead to trust their intuition that, when it comes to youth sports, less is more.

I wish that ... so many mothers didn't get sucked into the crazy vortex of competitive youth sports, where survival virtually requires that they become overly focused on and invested in their children's athletic success, and were able to find a healthy balance between sports and family life.

Again, I'm not sure things are getting any better on the sports/family balance front, but we'll keep on trying to help parents keep sports in a proper perspective. 

Better injury prevention: I wish that ... youth sports organizations did more to reduce the risk of catastrophic injury or death so that fewer mothers have to spend Mother's Day remembering a child who died because proper safety precautions such as anchoring soccer goal posts, strictly adhering to concussion return-to-play guidelines, and having an automatic external defibrillator at every game and practice, were not taken. Some signs of progress, but the overuse injury epidemic seems to be getting worse, not better.

Doing more

For the past 17 years, MomsTEAM has been providing sports parents, coaches, athletic trainers, and all youth sports stakeholders comprehensive and practical advice on how to make youth sports safer, saner, less stressful and more inclusive. But there is more, much more, we can and must do to improve youth sports safety.

To that end, we have been working with some of the top experts in sports injury prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, as well as experts in nutrition, heat illness and hydration, strength and conditioning, and coaching, and with leading academic institutions around the country, to develop a comprehensive set of best practices for youth sports programs called SmartTeams.  We piloted the SmartTeam program in the fall of 2014 with eight communities, and in 2015 returned for a second year to one of the eight (Grand Prairie, TX), and hope to roll out the full program in the fall/winter of 2017-2018.

Instead of highlighting all the problems that youth sports faces in the 21st century, our goal will be to celebrate programs, like the high school football program in Newcastle, Oklahoma featured in our PBS documentary, The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer, that are not just talking the talk, but walking the walk, by adopting best safety, nutrition, hydration, and organizational best practices.  Our goal is to provide sports parents with something akin to an "Angie's List" for youth sports; a way to know, when they register their child, that the program to which they are entrusting their child is one in which safety never takes a back seat to winning.

Two final wishes 

Which leads me to make two, new, wishes:

The first is that you share this blog, and spread the word about MomsTEAM, with all of the mothers in your life, because it will only be as a team of moms (and dads) that we can make the wishes we all have as safety-conscious parents come true.

And the second is that, if you believe that MomsTEAM has helped you as sports parent, if you have found the information and advice we have been providing free of charge these past 14 plus years useful, you consider making a donation in any amount, large or small, to The MomsTEAM Institute, the non-profit organization we established in 2013 to run MomsTEAM.com and the Smart Team program.  Your donations will not just allow us to continue to act as an independent, trusted source of objective information and advice on youth sports, but to do much more to keep our kids safe playing sports, so that next year, on Mother's Day, I can hopefully say that some of the wishes in my annual list have come true!

Thanks to all of you for supporting MomsTEAM, and remember this Mother's Day, as you watch your child play soccer, baseball, lacrosse, tennis, softball, or whatever sport they are playing this spring, that they need to Play Smart To Be Safe. 

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Let's 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 seventeen 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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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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