ALEXANDRIA, Va. — For 47 years, longtime NFL defensive tackle Joe Ehrmann kept secret the sexual abuse he suffered as a child. Just as he was coming to terms with what happened all those years ago, the plight of those like him became part of one of the biggest scandals in sports.
“The Penn State issue re-traumatized me in a very profound way,” Ehrmann said Tuesday. “And it kind of blindsided me. I remember sending out a tweet one day that if you see any man dazed and confused, give them a hug because I think there was a re-traumatization around this country when that story broke.”
“I admire, in Penn State, the amount of courage that it took for those young men to stand up publicly, to speak out,” he said. “It really confronted my own lack of courage, and I wish I had revealed so much earlier.”
Ehrmann and former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy spoke of their decades-old emotional wounds at a two-day summit focused on ways to prevent child athletes from sexual abuse. The event, hosted by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and the Cal Ripken, Sr., Foundation, aims to come up with a “gold standard” of safeguards for youth organizations across the country.
“After the events of Penn State, our foundation realized that, as we grew, we needed to make certain that those interacting with kids on our behalf were the right people,” Hall of Fame shortstop Ripken told the gathering. “This was the harsh reality that we had to face.”
Ehrmann was attacked by two men at the age of 12 and kept the memory buried throughout a 10-year NFL career with the Baltimore Colts and Detroit Lions — and beyond. With the help of treatment, he unearthed the hidden trauma and began talking about his experiences four years ago at the age of 59.
“I had worked through so many issues,” he said. “I’ve dealt with depression since I was a 12-year-old boy, suicidal thoughts, drug addiction, relational difficulties. I have a whole history of that. … I always knew there was an undercurrent in my life that needed to be dealt with.
“Most men don’t report until a minimum of five years. It’s very difficult. It’s tied in your masculinity. It’s tied into your whole self-concept, this concept of shame that somehow I’m deeply flawed, I’m unworthy of love, connection, and so what you do is hide that. So what I did, as many men do, I built a facade. I trained people to see me as this tough-guy athlete.”
Kennedy, who played in the NHL from 1989-97, was a key figure in Canada’s version of the Penn State scandal, beginning in 1997 when he accused junior hockey coach Graham James of sexual abuse. Others came forward, and James is now serving a five-year prison sentence.
Kennedy has been leading the campaign for new guidelines for youth sports in Canada and has testified before the U.S. Senate. He speaks of the need to “empower the bystander.” In other words, witnesses shouldn’t stay silent when they see something amiss.
“Most of the time we have a gut feeling when something ain’t right,” Kennedy said. “Our goal is to empower people to act on their gut.”
The various panels discussed the need for comprehensive background checks for coaches and assistants, and the value of training coaches and parents to recognize the behavior patterns of sexual predators and the signs that a child is being abused. The center plans to release its recommendations in a few weeks.
Ehrmann would like to see rules that forbid one-on-one interaction between a coach and child when there’s no third party present, similar to the two-deep adult rule the Boy Scouts have implemented.
“I think you need to have two (adults) on a site,” Ehrmann said. “To not only protect that child, but to protect yourself as a coach as well.”