Experts insist a proactive approach can dramatically increase the chances of a safe sports environment
The Babe Ruth League’s headquarters are in Hamilton, N.J., less than five minutes from the field where its first game was played in 1951.
It’s 10 founders created the league to develop young people in the community, a mission that’s clearly been embraced; there are 3,000 Babe Ruth Leagues with nearly one million ballplayers spread over 48 states and seven countries.
Babe Ruth League prides itself on avoiding cookie-cutter approaches to how baseball and softball are played and operated in communities. So centralizing anything from headquarters is never a flippant decision.
Yet Rob Connor, the league’s vice president and national commissioner, dutifully handles something of grave importance. In December, the league overhauled how it conducts background checks and has processed 45,000 of them.
From his tidy office — the one with a Cal Ripken and national baseball team jerseys hanging prominently on his wall — Connor is the league official who is notified of the individuals who’ve been flagged or failed.
“When I started to see what comes in,” Connor says quietly, “I’m even more convinced we’re moving in the right direction. There are some people who really should not be involved in youth sports programs.
“It’s been eye-opening.”
Many parents take the “See no evil, hear no evil” approach to youth sports. They sign their child up, drop them off before practice then pick them up after practice. They implicitly trust the league and its coaches and leaders.
But countless examples of abuse, neglect and misdiagnosis continue to regularly emerge throughout the nation and world. The stewards of youth sports, as a whole, are slow to adapt and change, sometimes due to cost, sometimes due to the challenges of implementation. Yet others insist that there are problems — and not enough people looking for solutions.
Instead of leaving things to chance, parents can check with the youth sports organization they are considering for their child and be confident in the protocols of these four safety initiatives.
Connor admits he did a 180 on the topic.
The Safe Sport Act was passed in February 2018, and Connor attended a USA Baseball briefing on the implementation of the law in June of that year. Babe Ruth League had its own internal briefing in August and decided they needed to make changes.
Connor did some research and was alarmed at the standard for what qualifies as a “background check.”
“What we found was, all background checks are not created equal,” he says. “People would say, ‘I found a place that will do it for $5 and that will cover it.’ But some of these checks don’t do the job.”
In early September, Connor contacted Sports Engine, and they activated the new program by December.
In general, Connor notes that many league administrators or parents lament the cost of the background checks. Some organizations pay for those background checks, while others compel anyone who needs a background check to pay for it themselves.
“No matter how big the league,” Connor says, “that cost will be far less than if something happens. There’s no ceiling on litigation.”
Attorneys Gregory Love and Kimberlee Norris evaluated hundreds of child sexual abuse cases and kept seeing similar patterns. Those experiences compelled them to start Abuse Prevention, with its training and five-part safety system.
“Most people are introduced to good information about sexual abuse, after a child is harmed,” Love says in a video on Abuse Prevention’s website. “The painful but most common comment that we will hear in doing some of this work are the five words I hate the most in my practice: ‘Now that you mention it…’ People will see it clearly, now that it’s in the media, now that it’s clear that a child has been harmed.”
That was strongly presented in a long Sports Illustrated feature in 1999 titled, “Every parent’s nightmare the child molester has found a home in the world of youth sports.” It tells the story of different abusers, including one named Norman Watson in San Bernardino, California. He had been a popular Little League coach and umpire, who told the SI reporter that he’d abused “a couple of hundred” children, most of them between 11 and 14, over three decades.
“My advantage is, I have a good personality,” he told Sports Illustrated. “People are drawn to me. They want me to shake their hand in public, stand in their pictures. I knew how to be popular in that Little League environment. It gave me a sense of power, but more a sense of belonging, which is something I lacked in my life. When I wasn't around Little League, I was lost. It wasn't just the boys. It was the whole Little League family that I think fell in love with me. But I did a lot of this just for the availability of kids.”
That article is old, but the problem persists: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports approximately one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18, mostly at the hands of a trusted adult. Sports is one of the settings that pedophiles are drawn to, given the volume of potential targets. And in this digital age, they can also access athletes via social media and cell phones.
Abuse prevention is proactive and can educate and empower the adults connected to the youth sports organization about grooming techniques and methods, and also create an environment that protects the athletes as well as the coaches.
For instance, some organizations prohibit coaches from being alone with athletes or even communicating directly with athletes. Another key is informing your child about what is permissible behavior by adults.
It’s a common scene in youth sports: A young athlete goes down, crying due to an injury. The ref halts the game, the players take a knee, and the coach trots onto the field.
But does the coach know what he’s doing?
Many countries require coaches to go through a safety training program, but the United States does not. The standards vary widely, from state to state, sport to sport. According to a survey by SafeKids USA, 40 percent of coaches said they received no safety training at all.
Parents can politely ask if their child’s team has immediate access to a well-stocked first aid kit and a protocol in place, when a child is injured.
As for concussions, the CDC estimates that there are 1.6 to 3.8 million sports and recreation-related concussions each year. To that end, the CDC created the HEADS UP program, which aims to educate coaches, parents and athletes about concussions in youth sports. The goal is to provide information on preventing, recognizing and responding to a concussion.