Coaches Face New Scrutiny on Sex Abuse

The case of Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator for Penn State’s football team accused of child sexual abuse, is now working its way through the courts. But it is already having an impact on thousands of other coaches, both volunteer and paid, who find themselves facing new scrutiny from parents, sports organizations and even state legislators.

Since the Penn State scandal came to light in November, lawmakers in more than a dozen states, including New York, California and Pennsylvania, have introduced bills adding coaches, athletic directors or university officials to the list of “mandated reporters” of suspected child abuse or neglect. In the past month, such bills have been signed in Virginia, Washington and West Virginia, with several other states expected to follow suit.

While the bills vary, some would impose significant punishments, including fines, felony charges and potential prison time for coaches or officials who violate the new laws that require the authorities to be notified.

Taken as a whole, the bills are meant to guard against what critics of Penn State said was a lax response by officials there — including the late coach Joe Paterno — that may have allowed Mr. Sandusky to continue his contact with children for years after suspicions of abuse arose.

“What we saw in Penn State was a conspiracy of silence, and that’s what my bill is directly aimed at,” said State Representative Kevin Boyle, a Democrat who introduced a bill in Pennsylvania in mid-November. “I want to stop institutions that keep sex abuse under wraps.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks such laws, most states spell out exactly which professions must report child abuse, including everyone from teachers to social workers to health care providers. Legislators say the proposed new laws are not meant to cast doubt on innocent coaches, but  to close loopholes in states where they are not explicitly named in abuse-reporting laws.

“Hopefully, this is a positive step rather than a punitive step,” said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, the California Democrat who sponsored one of the state’s several pending reporting bills.

Background checks of potential coaches are also on the rise, as are efforts to close gaps in such inquiries. This month, the National Council of Youth Sports is expected to announce expanded and tightened criteria, specifically adding any conviction or pending charges involving indecent exposure, prostitution or a crime involving harm to a minor to a list of “red lights” meant to warn sports leagues away from questionable volunteers.

The new guidelines, expected to be used by leagues in a range of sports to determine who can coach, are meant to strengthen a set of “zero tolerance” guidelines that already list crimes like cruelty to animals and drug possession as potentially disqualifying offenses, no matter when the violation occurred.

“If somebody wants to volunteer, and thinks they shouldn’t because they are worried about whatever happened to them in the past, then don’t,” said Sally S. Johnson, executive director of the council. “I’m sure there’s other people out there who want to coach.”

For all the concrete changes affecting coaches, the new oversight has also led to more subtle shifts in attitudes and approaches. “I know my players’ parents would never suspect me of misconduct,” said Raven Scott, a college volleyball player at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., who also coaches 14-year-old girls. “Yet at the same time, I know that they are now even more inclined to be present at practices to monitor with that ‘just to be safe’ mentality.”

Coaches, many of whom are parents themselves, said they were more conscious of how they communicate with players. Some said they had taken to sending more e-mails and texts to teams to provide a record of interactions in case accusations ever arise, while others said they had also shifted how they congratulate winners or console losers.

“I have become even more careful about being the initiator of hugs,” said Dug Barker, a computer system administrator and father of four in Louisville, Ky., who has been a coach in a variety of sports since the late 1970s. “And I am very careful with words and phrases that can have double meanings.”

The Sandusky scandal has also served as a reminder of the importance of long-practiced codes of conduct: avoiding working alone with players, for instance, or giving rides home without another adult or player in the car. Physical contact — a hand on the arm to adjust a swing, for instance — should be announced in advance.

All of which is meant to protect not only children, but also the reputations of coaches. Karen Ronney, a professional tennis instructor and the mother of three tennis-playing daughters in San Diego, said she remained “extremely cautious when dealing with kids” — continually monitoring everything from the way she speaks to the way she dresses — despite years of experience on the sidelines. “One potentially negative situation can destroy a career or a life,” Ms. Ronney said. “Possibly my own.”

Organizations that represent youth sports have also taken action in response to the Sandusky case. In late November, Little League Baseball reiterated its guidelines for reporting abuse — and for identifying potential child sex offenders — after hearing from parents and volunteers. In February, the Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit group in Mountain View, Calif., hosted two online seminars devoted to stopping abuse.

“Part of our message to coaches is: ‘Don’t be defensive, don’t take it personally,’ ” said Jim Thompson, the group’s founder. “Don’t be like, ‘I’m a good guy, why would there be any suspicions of me?’ Recognize that this is a community trying to protect kids and embrace your role as a protector of kids.”

“If a child says you have been abusive, don’t try to suppress or deny it,” read one tip in the presentation. “Instead, use this as a teaching moment. You can say, ‘Thank you for telling me this. I am sorry that this upset you. Problems should not be secrets, and we are going to talk this over with your parents.’ ”

Perhaps no place has been more shaken by the Sandusky scandal than towns like Mill Hall, Pa., down the road from State College, home to Penn State. Bill Garbrick is a Little League coach here, and by all accounts, a model for others: humble, hard-working and devoted to his team, a squad that he led to the Little League World Series last year.

He said the scandal had hit “real close to home,” and certainly could put some coaches ill at ease. “If I was one of the new coaches coming into the league, I’d certainly be very cautious,” he said.

His players’ parents say they, too, were shaken by the Sandusky accusations, though they had no worries about their children being away from home for overnights during the Little League World Series.

“I’ve always felt safe with them,” said Shelli McCloskey of Mr. Garbrick and his fellow coaches, who have coached her son Tyler for several years. “They are very respected by the kids.”

On a recent Friday night, as Mr. Garbrick watched his team practice, he admitted the Sandusky case was hard to avoid. But he said he was much more worried about the children who said they were abused.

“How it affects coaching Little League? It’s certainly going to make it a little more difficult,” he said. “But that’s a little piece of it.”


© The New York Times