Commentary

Not my coach. Not my town.

Coaches from pee wee to college know they are being watched. But will it matter?

Updated: December 16, 2011, 10:56 AM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN The Magazine

Hands offPhoto illustration by Phil ToledanoFor better and worse, sex abuse scandals have changed sports forever.

This story appears in the Dec. 26 "Year in Sports" issue of ESPN The Magazine.

THE CONVERSATION WASN'T EASY, fun or something that Steve Rockrohr had been particularly looking forward to. But he felt as if he had no choice. Rumors of a mysterious van in his neighborhood, on top of the horrific stories in the news, prompted him and his wife, Mary, to take action. So one night last month, a few days after Jerry Sandusky, Mike McQueary and The Second Mile became household names, the suburban Chicago father introduced his 7- and 9-year-old sons, both athletes, to a topic that makes every parent cringe: sexual abuse.

Right there at the family dinner table, Rockrohr and his wife, a teacher, talked about good touch and bad touch. They insisted that if anyone ever made the kids feel uncomfortable, they should tell Mom and Dad. Immediately. And they let it be known that Mom and Dad could always be trusted. No matter what it might be, no matter what anyone else might say, Mom and Dad will always be here for you. Forever.

The boys quietly listened as the words spilled into the room. When it was all over, the 7-year-old affirmed that yes, he understood. Now could he go play with his LEGOs? The 9-year-old processed things a bit deeper and asked a few questions: Why was this so important now? What happened? Am I not safe? "You could just sense this loss of innocence," says Rockrohr, the athletic director at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, Ill. "I felt like I had just told my kids there was no Santa Claus."

It was an uncomfortable chat that others across the country have surely replicated at dinner tables, in bedrooms and on car rides during the past month and a half. But for others, the topic is too sensitive. The culture of normalcy is powerful. Addressing a run-of-the-mill societal problem like poverty is hard enough; turn to a taboo topic like sexual abuse and the discussion becomes nearly impossible.

Every day that passes, the urgency of what allegedly happened at Penn State and Syracuse undoubtedly lessens. It's human nature: The more distant an uncomfortable situation becomes, the less we want to talk about it. So parents, coaches and administrators will do what comes naturally -- exercise denial. Not my coach. Not my kid. Not my town. Yet one can't help wondering: What if they're wrong?

Anyone who spends a few minutes online can find a high school or middle school coach in their state who has been charged with some form of sexual abuse. One blog that tracked such arrests from May 2007 to May 2011 tallied 625 coaches who had been charged with everything from propositioning a student for sex to child molestation to statutory rape. In the first five months of 2011 alone, BadBadTeacher.com, a site created to bring awareness of inappropriate actions by teachers, published stories about the sexual-abuse-related arrests of coaches (high school and middle school) and teachers in 24 states. And these were only the cases in which victims came forward and charges were filed.

"Sexual abuse affects everyone everywhere," says former U.S. Olympic swimmer Margaret Hoelzer, who was abused when she was 5 and has studied the topic and now speaks about it. "You can live in the richest gated community in the world, and I guarantee there is at least one sex offender, if not more, in that neighborhood."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday. That's potentially five girls on every 20-member soccer squad, two boys on every 12-player basketball team. To those who study such things, the high-profile tragedies that took place in State College and in Syracuse were just two among countless, undiscovered others. In a 1995-96 survey by Sandra Kirby at the University of Winnipeg, 22.8 percent of elite Canadian athletes admitted to having sexual intercourse at some point with a person in a position of authority in their sport -- a blatant abuse of the coach-player relationship. In 8 percent of those incidents, the victim was at least 20 years younger than the perpetrator.

"I don't want to say I was holding my breath, waiting for this to happen, but it was always a matter of where, not when," says Kristen Dieffenbach, who teaches athletic coaching education at West Virginia University and has studied coaching ethics and sexual abuse in sports.

Experts like Dieffenbach view the cases of Sandusky and Bernie Fine not as aberrations but as opportunities. They've brought a delicate topic into the American living room. We hear the excerpts from the Sandusky grand jury report; we argue about McQueary's response; and we watch Jim Boeheim evolve from a man who attacked the motives of his friend's accusers to someone apologizing and asking forgiveness. Sexual abuse in sports is no longer just a local issue splattered in community papers across the country. For the last month and a half, news about the dark side of sports has bombarded us every day. In every medium. And depending on whom you ask, that's a good thing.

"Your average dad isn't going to watch a Lifetime movie about some girl who got molested," says Hoelzer. "But you can believe he's watching ESPN and knows exactly what's happening at Penn State or Syracuse. And if there's a silver lining in this, that's it. This can introduce this topic to a new audience and serve as the wake-up call we so desperately need."

Dieffenbach, Hoelzer and other experts and advocates see this as a pivotal point in the history of our nation's sports culture -- the Anita Hill moment, something that can spark a systematic change in how we protect young athletes from such horrors. In a way, they're trying to capitalize on these tragedies to strengthen their pleas for action beyond improved background checks or a handout on mandatory reporting requirements. They want more conversations like the one Rockrohr had with his children. They want parents who are involved. Families, coaches and administrators who are constantly watching and are trained to react, not turn away. And government-supported standards and certifications for our nation's coaches. They want to empower each of us to be able to act.

"We can't change what happened," Dieffenbach says. "But we have to get angry about it. We have the power and responsibility to prevent the culture from letting this happen again."


[+] EnlargeJerry Sandusky
AP PhotoJerry Sandusky is not alone. Coaches in towns across America have been charged with sexual abuse.

IT'S JUST BEFORE 7:30 ON A FRIDAY NIGHT in the cushy Chicago suburb of Hinsdale. Inside the high school's gymnasium everything seems fine: the cheerleaders, the dance team, the AC/DC blasting on the PA. The sophomore boys basketball team has just beaten York in overtime, and in a few minutes the varsity squad will take the floor, seeking its third win of the season. On the surface, it seems as if this could be any gym on any late fall night in any town in America. And yet this sport, in this building, is different. The man who used to roam the sideline and bark instructions to the Red Devils, Robert Mueller, is currently serving 32 years in prison for having sexual relationships with two female students -- one an athlete and one a basketball manager.

The Hinsdale Central case tore apart the affluent community and brought down an entire administration. But that shouldn't have been a surprise. A 2010 study by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency found that coaches are the No. 1 influence on the lives of youths involved in sport. And any abuse of that trust -- consensual or not -- is likely to have a long-term negative impact on the athlete involved. "We're not saying that in every program there is a molester," Dieffenbach says. "But even lesser things are still setting up a dynamic in how children think about themselves. Those rip away the experience of being a child."

Parents fumed when the Hinsdale investigation revealed that the school had received an anonymous tip that Mueller and a student were seen having sex in his car at a local forest preserve and didn't immediately contact the police or the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. The district attorney considered charging the principal and superintendent but decided against it, in exchange for cooperation in the case and a promise to overhaul staff training that reinforces reporting all child abuse suspicions. In the scandal's wake, Mueller, the athletic director, the superintendent and the principal all left the school.

Now seven years later, the girls basketball team throws souvenir T-shirts to the students at halftime. There's a raffle for a free car wash. Yet a sense of discomfort about the Mueller case lingers. You would think school officials would love to boast about the lengths they go to now to protect their students and the lessons they've learned from the dark past. But this is sexual abuse -- an ugly stain on a proud community. It happened, but we've moved on. So should you.

That's the message everyone feels pressured to deliver. The new principal shakes hands, says hello and walks away when a reporter introduces himself at the game. One day, athletic director Paul Moretta talks freely about the emphasis the school puts on how it treats its students; a day later, he begs not to be mentioned or quoted. Varsity boys basketball coach Nick Latorre says coaching at Hinsdale Central hasn't changed his approach at all. "You sort of ask yourself, If I was the kid's parent or mother, would I be okay with this?" Minutes later, though, just like Moretta, he falls silent and asks not to be quoted; it's only his second season and he's the fifth coach since Mueller's arrest in 2004. "I'm sorry," he says. "I'm really sorry."

You sense they want to be open and honest about what's taken place and what's being done to make sure it never happens again, but the message from on high seems to be: Duck the topic.

About the only ones who don't shy away are the students. But theirs are the words of teenagers. Some of them were in elementary school at the time, and most lack the maturity to discuss such a complex topic seriously. So it isn't a surprise that when asked about the Syracuse and Penn State situations, one sophomore basketball player says: "Yeah, we talk about it. Just the other day we were joking around in the shower, 'Hey, there's Sandusky.'"

Here's a school that's been to the dark side and bounced back. It has made the policy changes that sex-abuse experts suggest and it cleaned house. It holds yearly meetings on mandatory reporting and reminds teachers and students about "the rule of three," in which a coach and player are never allowed to be alone together. And yet there's still this plague of sealed lips. It's one thing to clean up the mess in your backyard, it's something altogether different to help others from dirtying theirs.

"You can have new policies and procedures and posters, but is that real change?" asks former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy, who was sexually abused as a youth hockey player in Canada. "Most organizations don't even know where to start with this discussion. It's: Let's hope this never happens here, and if it does, we will put out the fire as fast as we can and shove it back under the carpet."

The default position has always been denial -- that's another town's problem, a different school's issue, somebody else's parents aren't watching their kids. As one small-town girls basketball coach put it: "We know our coaches here. That's more of a metropolitan issue."

Recent history shows otherwise. State College was never supposed to be that town either, Syracuse never that school. A 2009 report by Congressional Quarterly named State College the safest city in America. People trusted Joe Paterno. They believed in The Second Mile. At Syracuse, Bernie Fine was Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim's loyal confidant for 35 years; he ran successful basketball camps and was a past president of the National Kidney Foundation of Central New York. These were trusted leaders of well-respected communities, so everyone assumed the best. After all, the overwhelming majority of coaches have only good intentions for their athletes. People couldn't believe anything else.


Graham James
AP Photo/The Canadian PressFormer NHLer Sheldon Kennedy was abused more than 300 times by famed junior hockey coach Graham Jones (pictured).

NOT EVERYONE HAS BEEN IN DENIAL. Across the country, forward-thinking coaches, parents and administrators are open to operating under a microscope. They are the ones who know to avoid clearly inappropriate physical contact and any perception of impropriety that might alarm parents or other adults. It's a high school tennis coach who won't place his hand atop a player's hands when teaching a tennis stroke. Or an AAU basketball coach who investigates whether his volunteers can be trusted with his kids, many of whom come from broken homes in the inner city. Or Bob Livermore, who no longer hugs players, even after an injury.

Livermore, an assistant football and basketball coach at Gehlen Catholic High School in tiny Le Mars, Iowa -- a place known as the Ice Cream Capital of the World -- stopped embracing players years ago. "If you see a kid in pain or a kid who is suffering, you just can't walk up and give them a hug," says Livermore, a father of five. "I might shake their hand or give them a pat on the shoulder, but there's no more affection than that."

When he coaches Little League in the spring, Livermore says he no longer stands behind a batter or wraps his arms around him to show a proper hitting stance. Everything is done in front of or to the side of the player. "You might start doing something, and then all of a sudden this switch goes off inside of you -- I better watch what I'm doing."

Livermore's wife, Carol, is similarly cautious. She coaches girls track and always thinks twice about the way she helps get her sprinters in the blocks before a race. "As a coach, you can't feel those eyes on you, but I hope they're there," she says. "I want parents taking the same interest in their kids that I have in my own. And if they're watching me, that means they're watching the other coaches and volunteers. And that's how it should be."

That's the operative word here: should. It's not enough that some coaches and programs are changing the status quo. The experts will tell you that there needs to be formal training, a universal standard that all coaches must follow so that vigilance doesn't vary wildly from program to program or community to community. The goal is an atmosphere in which sexual predators can't succeed. It takes a village -- the institution to make the rules, the parents and other coaches to genuinely embrace them, and the teammates to feel powerful enough to speak up when they see something that isn't right. And everything has to be transparent.

Such measures wouldn't be necessary if sexual predators wore a label or fit a stereotype. But the image of the guy with the thick mustache cruising the neighborhood in a windowless van is a Hollywood myth. The most successful sexual predators are scarier than that. They're the people you trust. The coaches from 24 states who were arrested in the first five months of 2011 fit no profile: They were white, black, Hispanic. They were male, female, as young as 19 and as old as 61. They coached seemingly every sport, whether football, basketball, baseball, bowling or swimming. "These are normal, everyday people," Hoelzer says. "They're smart. They're deceptive. If they were creepy, they couldn't be successful. No one would give them access to kids."

Few people understand this better than Kennedy. In 1997, the former NHL winger told the world that longtime Canadian hockey coach Graham James -- the same James whom The Hockey News tabbed its 1989 Man of the Year -- had sexually abused him more than 300 times. The story sent shock waves throughout Canada, resulting in a strong initial instinct for how to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. "Catch all the bad guys," Kennedy says.

But it's just not that easy. Mueller, the former Hinsdale Central coach, had never been charged with a crime before his arrest. He, Sandusky and Fine would probably have passed criminal background checks before the damage had been done. Though most experts agree these checks are necessary, criminal histories also provide a false sense of security. And even if sexual predators had characteristics in common, theirs is a psychological disease that research shows has no cure. Catherine Hereford, the development director for the National Children's Advocacy Center, said her organization once received a $500 donation from a convicted sex offender because he feared he couldn't be helped and "wanted to help us protect kids from people like him."

Given the average predator's tenacity and ability to hide in plain sight, only a societywide response will work. Canada responded to the James scandal by creating Speak Out, the first coaching education program that all 13 regional branches of Hockey Canada have made mandatory. That prompted Kennedy to begin Respect in Sport, an online training program that aims to lift the taboo and give all adults the tools to act if their gut tells them something isn't right. The programs have trained more than 3.5 million kids and coaches in partnership with the Canadian Red Cross, which also staffs a tip line.

Respect in Sport has expanded to include programs for teachers, bus drivers, custodians and individuals in the workplace. Though she couldn't provide specifics because of confidentiality rules, Janet McMahon, who helped administer the program to 30,000 people in Manitoba, said there were numerous examples of graduates of the program who saw something they didn't like and reported it to authorities. "It's confidence," McMahon says. "It's knowing what's right, what's wrong and doing something about it."

Dieffenbach and Larry Lauer, a researcher at Michigan State's Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, are strong supporters of Kennedy's program. "We have better minimum standards for mechanics in this country than we do coaches," Lauer says. "Take your car in and you want to make sure it's an ASA certified mechanic. But we send our kids to holiday tournaments with a coach and there's no certification or proof."

In the end, the answers seem obvious. Parents watching coaches. Coaches watching each other. More training. More transparency. A more, well, Canadian approach. Perhaps that explains why U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) has invited Kennedy to testify at a Senate hearing -- the first federal hearing about the Penn State and Syracuse scandals since they broke. It will explore options for preventing, intervening and deterring child abuse, and Respect in Sport will surely be on the agenda. "You can't be naive enough to think it isn't going to happen again," Kennedy says. "But if it does, you need disclosure. You need action. You need to give people the tools to stop it. A tragedy like Penn State can be a great platform for change. But you have to embrace that change."

If not, when the next scandal strikes -- and surely it will -- perhaps the only place we should point the finger is at ourselves.

Wayne Drehs is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.