Victim Training: The Culpability of Youth Sports Organizations in Childhood Sexual Abuse

May 7, 2019

Every day of the week we see them: parents shuttling their kids to and from sports practice, cheering them on at games, celebrating their victories and comforting them in their defeats. We encourage and support our children’s athletic endeavors, hoping their participation in sports is not only fun, but fosters their physical, emotional, cognitive and relational development. We often regard their coaches and team officials as mentors who help our youth actualize their potential. Sports teams and clubs may become second homes to our kids – and just as they are in our homes, we assume our children will be safe.  But as victims of Larry Nassar have shown us, sports organizations need a lot more training in the work of protecting our youth.

In 2018, Nassar, former doctor with the USA Gymnastics Team, was convicted of sexually assaulting his young patients and sentenced to 40 to 175 years in federal prison. During his hearing, 156 women and girls came forward to speak about the abuse they endured at the hands of their physician. Many of the survivors recalled how their abuse allegations were minimized, dismissed or silenced by authorities within the gymnastics organization. Nassar sexually abused children for at least twenty-five years before he was brought to justice.

While the number of youth Nassar sexually violated is astonishing, the fact that this type of abuse exists within organized sports is not surprising. According to The Foundation for Global Sports Development, anywhere from two to twenty percent of young athletes experience sexual harassment or abuse. Considering that 35 million youth participate in sports annually, that puts the victim total anywhere from 700,000 to 7 million. When we reflect on these statistics, we should also keep in mind that sexual assault is thought to be drastically under-reported.

For sexual predators, the structure and culture of organized sports help facilitate their access to victims. As The Foundation for Global Sports points out, coaches often play “parental” roles in the lives of their athletes; they are granted generous access to children’s time and space, a privilege reserved for the most trusted adults. It is not unusual for a coach to be alone with a young athlete, driving the child to and from practice, engaging in one-on-one training, traveling to out-of-town events, and sometimes even sharing hotel rooms.  Some sports cultivate a culture in which child athletes vie for the attention and favor of their coach; this is particularly true in elite sports organizations. “Grooming” is a technique frequently used by coaches to make their intended victims more vulnerable to sexual abuse. This behavior involves fostering trust and loyalty by creating a friendship-like bond with the intended victim. After loyalty has been established, the perpetrator works to isolate and control the youth, using psychological and/or physical abuse to maintain the victim’s silence.

Sports organizations are also culpable in the victimization of young athletes. Many of these groups lack the structure and protocols necessary for preventing sexual abuse. They may lack methods for screening and monitoring volunteers and employees. In addition to a dearth of measurable rules, many sports organizations cultivate cultural norms that shape how participants perceive and respond to sexual abuse. The hierarchy embedded in these groups can make it particularly difficult for victims to speak against those in power. And, as in the Nassar case, when survivors do disclose abuse, officials in sports organizations may ignore, minimize or suppress the allegations. This lack of condemnation is not just negligence; rather, it implicitly supports and perpetuates the victimization of countless young people.

With the passage of the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act in 2018, sports organizations are now being held accountable for the sexual transgressions of their employees. This federal law requires all individuals working in amateur sports groups to report allegations of sexual abuse to law enforcement or social service agencies within 24 hours – or potentially face criminal charges. The Safe Sport Act also awards sexual abuse victims at least $150,000 in statutory damages. Recognizing that many child victims of sexual assault do not realize they were abused until they reach adulthood, the law extends the statute of limitations for filing suit. If you or someone you know would like to pursue a claim against a sports organization that left you vulnerable to sexual abuse, please contact one of our experienced attorneys for a free consultation.


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