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Preventing Sexual Abuse By Youth Coaches: Criminal Background Checks Not Enough

Recent sex abuse scandals at Penn State and in USA Swimming make it clear that fingerprinting coaches isn't enough to protect athletes from being victims of sexual abuse at the hands of coaches.  Jerry Sandusky and the 36 elite youth swimming coaches caught up in the USA Swimming scandal all either passed or would have passed fingerprint tests.  So would hundreds of youth coaches who abuse their athletes.

The USA Swimming scandal is a good case in point, identifying many of the weaknesses the youth sports community has in screening coaches.  We really do rely too much on fingerprints.   The USA Swimming coaches knew this.  They weren't convicted criminals.  They just went from job to job, and city to city.   They often left one job and moved to another city when people started becoming suspicious .  When they left, the town breathed a sigh of relief, never realizing that there really was something to their suspicions.  The people in the new town didn't do good background checks.  The USA Swimming coaches basically stayed one step ahead of the posse.  Magnifying glass on a fingerprint

Checking references: more art than science

In the USA Swimming case, the youth sports community didn't do the most fundamental screen of all: nobody really checked references.  Oh sure, somebody may have called a listed reference or two, but not often.  It's almost certain that nobody went beyond checking a listed reference.

There's an art to checking references:

  • Start with listed references: The listed reference gives you a starting point.  Take advantage of that starting point by speaking to the listed reference.  You will find that not all listed references give positive reports.
  • Dig deeper.  Next, look beyond the surface.  Call people within the coach's former organization who aren't listed as references.  There's no law that stops you from calling the school principal, the school athletic director, and the head of the youth program, even if those people aren't listed as references.  Some people may be reluctant to speak with you.  Find a friend who may know somebody in the organization.  Ask them to speak to their friends in the organization.  People may be guarded with a stranger making a reference check, but they'll often tell a friend something.
  • Use the right tools.  In the youth sports community, the points of contact are sufficient that if you use the right tools, you can find out about people.  If you don't believe me, fine.  Trust a non-athletic expert.  In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Kevin Ryan, the CEO of Gilt Groupe, basically offers the same advice.  Ryan acknowledged that listed references may be hesitant to give a negative review, but he says to work around it, and "dig up people who will speak candidly.  Invariably, they're people you know personally or people you can network to find.  You can't simply rely on the names a candidate supplies."
  • Don't let formality stop you. Some organizations only want to give name, rank, and serial number.  They're afraid of lawsuits.  Still, ask them some very blunt questions.  Even ask them if they'd hire the person again.  If you can get even a minimal conversation from them, you're on the right path.  When people are hesitant but willing to speak, you can learn a lot just from the tone of their voice and they way they speak. You can tell if they're excited about the person; sometimes you can tell if they're not excited about the person.  Sometimes you can ask a formal but hesitant person if they know of anybody who worked with the person who can speak freely.  You may get a lead.  You're on your way.

Setting boundaries

The job of protecting athletes from sexual predators doesn't end when the coach is hired. Before they even start, it is important to establish rules, expectations and boundaries:

  • Driving: 
    • Licensing: Make sure that any coach/driver is properly licensed and that they meet any special requirements for your state for driving vans or buses (in some states, vans are classified as buses);
    • Logs: if your child's school or sports program requires the completion of trip logs, make sure the coach fills them out;
    • Permissions: Coaches should not transport players on personal trips without proper authorization from the school or organization and the parents.
  • Meetings: The two adult-rule should be standard and strictly enforced.  Where it's not possible, instruct your coaches to keep their doors open.
  • E-communication: People can let their guard down when communicating via e-mail, text, Twitter, or Facebook, and it can get coaches and programs into a lot of trouble.  I've heard of coaches sending youth athletes inappropriate electronic messages ranging from, "I'd like to be more than just your coach" to "Let's go out and get a bite to eat."  Try as they might, coaches who send messages like these will have a hard time convincing anyone that they meant that they'd like to be a tutor or an advisor, or that they wanted to discuss coaching issues over a burger at McDonald's.  And, quite frankly, even if the coaches could convince people of their benign intentions, the lack of discretion in sending them may be enough for an organization to not want them working with youth.
  • Different kinds of abuse. Remind coaches that in some states child abuse laws go beyond sexual abuse, and cover physical and emotional abuse.  A coach who finds out, after telling an athlete that he's a scrawny, non-masculine weakling, that the athlete was so traumatized by the comment that they had to see a psychologist, may be putting himself, and your organization, into hot water.  If the coach tells you he's "old school", remind him or her that it is better to temper some of the old-school rhetoric than to be in meeting after meeting because he or she picked the wrong kid to verbally abuse.  The Penn State scandal reminds us that it is never a bad idea for coaches to know your state's procedures for reporting physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, what the standards for reporting are, and to whom they are expected to report.  In some states, you don't need to actually witness the abuse; you just need to have a reasonable suspicion that abuse has occurred.

Supervising volunteers and assistants

All volunteers and assistants need to follow all of the rules established for coaches, and coaches need to monitor their compliance.  Sometimes, volunteers and assistants create special problems.  There is one category of child sexual abuse problems that sometimes strikes people as so benign that they miss it - until a problem occurs and they're either in court or in a long series of meetings - and it pertains to volunteers or assistants who aren't much older than the athletes they are coaching.  At the college level it may be an irritant to have the 23-year-old basketball graduate assistant dating 21-year-old seniors on the volleyball team.  However, it is not against the law.  The college may need to develop policies to guard against it.  But what about a 19-year-old college freshman who chips in by helping their old high school coach, and ends up dating or having a sexual relationship with the 17- year-old high school senior on the team?  A 19-year-old college freshman dating a 17- or 18-year old high school senior wouldn't ordinarily be a problem, but, unless the coach is sensitive to the issue, he or she may not realize that, once the 19-year-old becomes an agent of the school or program, he or she has created some legal issues by dating a participant in that program.  This is more than an irritant; under the wrong circumstances, this could be a crime.  This one gets missed a lot, and, when it happens, it creates all sorts of problems. 

For more tips on screening coaches and setting ground rules, see Doing Your Homework Key To Finding 'Good' Coaches, Prevent Sexual Abuse by Keener A. Tippin, K-State Perspectives, Summer, 2003.

1. Ryan K. How I Did It: Gilt Groupe's CEO On Building A Team of A Players. Harv Bus Rev. January-February, 2012;43

Posted February 12, 2012, updated April 11, 2017