Seat belts were a revolutionary change in transportation that have cut the risk of lethal car crashes nearly in half. We went from a society of families with children free to roam about in the car and therefore capable of being thrown out on impact, to one where children are legally required to be strapped into a safety seat until they are large enough to use an ordinary seat belt. The changes happened through a combination of legal reform and insurance industry involvement.
Sports now needs its own seat belt — for child sex abuse. With approximately 45 million children in the United States involved in sports, this should be a national priority.
Just this month, the law firm Ropes & Gray published a report exposing the mind-boggling failures of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) to protect hundreds of gymnasts from abuse, particularly from Larry Nassar. The time has come for a comprehensive approach to end and prevent child sex abuse in sports. There are three steps needed to build the seat belt to do so.
First, don’t expect the USOC or USA Gymnastics, which just declared bankruptcy, to do this on their own. No institution, secular or religious, can itself turn the corner on this culturally embedded practice of letting children be sexually abused. The USOC instituted “SafeSport” with Congress’ approval and federal funding to investigate child sex abuse in programming linked to the Olympics. But Safesport is fatally flawed, because it provides a false sense of security by putting claims through an arbitration system. The result has been a frustrating lack of transparency about dangerous coaches and programs putting young athletes at risk. All that Safesport can or will do is remove an individual coach from his position. It doesn’t have jurisdiction over the institutions involved, e.g., the USOC, USAG, or any other national governing body. This is not meaningful justice.
Needed more is the same remedy for all other arenas involving child sex abuse: give the victims full access to legal justice. Like the clergy victims subjected to institution-based systems that endangered children, athletes in most states have faced expired statutes of limitations (SOLs), often making it impossible to either press charges or sue for damages. States need to enact child sex abuse statute of limitations reform: eliminate the criminal and civil SOLs for future cases, and enact “window” legislation that revives expired civil SOLs.
The civil lawsuits that result from these processes produce the most public information on hidden predators, and provide the most validation for victims. They permit investigation into the specific ways in which the institution has covered up abuse in each case. While findings like the recent USOC report do a great job of outlining procedures and practices, and calculating numbers of victims and perpetrators, they do not hold a candle to the information learned in an individual civil case. Every victim deserves to learn how exactly they were put in danger’s way and why. So does the public. Only the legal system does that. SafeSport’s opaque investigation and arbitration do not begin to.
Second, we must arm every parent with the facts. Parents and every adult dealing with children need to understand the actual prevalence of child sex abuse. It’s common, reaching an estimated one in four girls, and one in six boys. Yet victims are so powerless compared to their perpetrators that around only one in three comes forward during childhood. Research suggests the average age to come forward is 52.
The government needs to get behind public service announcements that teach these facts and the best tips to protect children, including the critically important “two-deep rule,” which bars adults from being alone in a closed space with a child. This rule is just as important in sports as in a pediatrician’s office and a school. There must be open doors, but also rules against taking children where they are at risk, e.g. alone in a car, training room, or hotel room with a coach.
Third, like the seat belt scenario, there is a role for the insurance industry to play in reducing risk. Youth-serving organizations including the USOC, national governing bodies in sports, and every sports league should be subjected to an annual child protection audit as a prerequisite to liability coverage. If the organization fails, it must improve its practices or risk insurance coverage termination. Right now, the insurance industry is being shortsighted as it focuses its resources in this arena on lobbying against victims’ access to justice by fighting SOL reform. It is time for it to become part of the solution.
We can dramatically improve the fate of children in sports with this three-pronged approach. Let’s do it.
Marci Hamilton is the Robert A. Fox Professor of Practice at the University of Pennsylvania and the CEO of CHILD USA, a think tank to prevent child abuse and neglect.