Athletic Organizations and Child Molesting

Recent headlines have drawn attention to the problem of sexual abuse in athletic organizations when felony charges of sex crimes against a minor were filed against Pennsylvania State University football coach Jerry Sandusky. In one report, it was noted that the authorities handed down 40 criminal counts regarding sex crimes. Twenty-one of those included felonies. It was alleged at the time of the report that Jerry Sandusky sexually victimized eight boys over an eight-year period. The charges were the result of a two-year grand jury investigation. A former graduate assistant reported to the grand jury he saw Sandusky having anal intercourse with a child (Wieberg & Carey, 2012). Sandusky was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison.

Researchers have examined the prevalence of sex crimes among athletic organizations. For example, in a survey of 1,200 Canadian Olympians, it was found that 8.6% reported forced sexual intercourse with some authority figure within their sport. Approximately 2% of the victims were under the age of 16 when this occurred (Kirby & Greaves, 1996).

A review of media reports has shown that sex crimes occur in a wide range of sports, such as gymnastics, hockey, soccer, football, basketball, track and field, and baseball (Terry et al., 2011). It has been found that the abuser is most likely a coach (Brackenridge, 1997). Other abusers, however, include organization officials, sports medicine professionals, and sports psychologists (Bringer, Brackenridge, & Johnston, 2001). Those who commit sex crimes within an athletic organization typically have between 10 and 12 victims (Terry et al., 2011).

Grooming behavior typically involves socializing with the victim's family (Stirling & Kerr, 2009). This was apparent in Jerry Sandusky's behavior with his alleged victims. For example, it was reported that he gave his victims gifts and promised a "walk-on" for one of the victims (Ganim, 2011). Another common grooming technique is to ask the child to play games with the offender or teach the child a sport (Gallagher, 2000).

Many obstacles exist in discovering and bringing to light sex crimes within a sports organization. Much of the social science research on sex crimes has not been on male victims (Hartill, 2008). Male victims often do not initially disclose the sex crime (Gallagher, 2000). Many sports organizations often reinforce a patriarchal structure with a dominant heterosexual-male culture (Hargreaves, 1986). Also, they are often comprised of men who subscribe to this patriarchal structure (Burstyn, 1999). The environment is not conducive to reporting unwanted sexual advances and victimization. The culture also involves ensuring protection of children, despite evidence to the contrary (Hartill, 2008). The problem of disclosure is compounded when the offender is held in high esteem in the community (Gallagher, 2000). Those in positions of authority in sports organizations, such as staff and managers, are not likely to follow up on claims of sex crimes, perhaps to protect the organization and due to the lack of procedures in place for handling such allegations (Sullivan & Beech, 2002). Thus, organizations become a sort of safe haven for offenders to sexually victimize children without fear of reprisal.

Sex crimes in athletic organizations also occur outside the U.S., and various governments have responded by instituting formal guidelines and practices for prevention and response. For example, in Canada, a documentary reported several female rowers who were sexually assaulted by their coach when they were children (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Television, 1993). Later, the Canadian Strategy for Ethical Conduct in Sport (2002) specifically prohibited harassment and abuse of any kind. In the U.S., the Little League requires background checks of the adults who are affiliated with the organization to protect children from sex crimes (Little League, 2008).

In Australia, the Australian Sports Commission also provides ethical guidelines to prevent sex crimes against children (see generally: childprotect). In the U.K., the Child Protection Sport Unit has been developed and funded by two organizations, Sport England and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). The organization was led by the efforts of Celia Brackenridge, who was an advocate for preventing and recognizing sex crimes in sports organizations (Hartill, 2008). In the U.K., sex crimes in sports organizations came to the forefront when Paul Hickson, an Olympic swimming coach, was convicted for the rape of teenaged female athletes on his team.

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