Parents can Help to Cut Risk of Sexual Abuse by Coaches

by Rachel Corbett.

In arguing for a light sentence for convicted sex offender George Smith, defence counsel noted that the stigma from this conviction would make it difficult for his client to continue as a track coach.

I could not believe I was hearing this. It was perhaps the most amazing part of the amazing story about the coach who abused his position of trust and sexually assaulted young female athletes. The bottom line is, this man should never coach again.

Many people who have not been athletes fail to appreciate the power and control in the coach-athlete relationship. The standby joke in sports circles is that when the coach says "Jump" the athlete doesn't ask why but asks "How high? How far? How many times, coach?"

I have been told by people in sport that the phrase "athletes' rights" is a contradiction in terms: athletes don't have rights. Typically, the coach decides how athletes will train, what they'll eat, when they'll sleep, how they'll dress, how they'll groom themselves, what they'll say - and in extreme cases, how they'll spend their spare time and who their friends will be.

Most importantly, the coach has the ultimate authority to decide if and when the athlete gets to compete. The coach exercises complete power over an aspiring athlete's career - so it is no wonder that so few athletes are willing to come forward when this power is abused.

In most cases the sporting experience is a positive one and most coaches serve as excellent role models and mentors to our children. However, there are some coaches who do not hesitate to abuse their position of power. And when they are accused, many people jump to their defence with statements like "the boys idolize him, he wouldn't do that" or "sure he touches the girls, they all do and it's just innocent" or even "He's so good he might help my child go to the Olympics some day."

Worse yet, many sport organizations contribute to the cover-up. As was shown so well in The Fifth Estate TV program Crossing the Line, if the coach was good another club was only too happy to snap him up. Very few sport organizations have a sexual harassment policy which allows them to deal decisively and effectively with incidents of sexual harassment. And no sport organization that I'm aware of has ever created an environment which was supportive of athletes speaking up about such incidents.

All of this places an even greater onus on the parents of athletes to be involved in and aware of what their child is experiencing in their sport program. Many parents never meet their child's coach, and certainly never take the opportunity to observe the coach interact with his athletes. Parents should encourage open communication with their child about all facets of the sport program, and should become suspicious if the child suddenly stops talking about his or her coach. Parents can also share observations with other parents.

Furthermore, there is virtually no reason that young athletes should ever visit the coach in his home, just as there is no physiological test or examination which requires that the athlete be naked. Parents and athletes should question any coach who claims differently. When an athletic team is travelling, parents should satisfy themselves that suitable chaperons are accompanying the team, or may wish from time to time to chaperon themselves.

Finally, parents should be wary if it appears the coach is exercising control or influence over their child which extends outside the sport activity. A common pattern in other sexual abuse cases is the coach gaining control over the athlete's friendships, dating relationships and leisure time activities. While a commitment to the sport is essential to athletic success, parents and young athletes should try to keep things in perspective and balance sport with other activities and priorities.

The conviction and sentence of George Smith represent a huge step forward for other young victims of sexual abuse at the hands of their respected, trusted and idolized coaches. This writer hopes that more of them have the support, courage and strength to step forward.

Originally published: Edmonton Journal. Edmonton, Alta.: Dec 6, 1993. pg. A.11

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