Summer is almost over for most schools around the country with school sports and open amateur sports programs beginning across the United States. New sports season can often mean new coaches, supporting staff and new teammates.
As every parent prepares their young athlete for the new sports season, they get all the right equipment and make sure their children have everything they need to be successful for training and competition. Parents purchase the new team gear and may stock up on the latest trend in "energy" products to keep young athletes refreshed and hydrated in the field of play. Parents do as much as they can to ensure their children have whatever they needs to make the team, be successful at training and are in the best position they can be to win their races or contests.
As parent engage in this preparation, seldom do they consider the dark side of sports -- sexual abuse, bullying and harassment. If asked about the issue, most parents believe these are things they don't happen in their school or their children's youth sport program. At best, parents might say they've watched the latest educational video and know what to look for.
Even when parents have watched that video and feel educated about sexual abuse, bullying and harassment, when that behavior is right in front of them, they are at a loss with regard to what they should do, Without policies and procedures in place to address these issues, individuals who abuse our children continue operating in the sports system simply because there aren't mechanisms established to confront and penalize misconduct and ultimately to ban such individuals from continuing to work with our children.
The functions of having specific policies in place are multiple: (1) misconduct is specifically defined so that athletes, parents and employees know wrong behavior when they see it, (2) everyone in the sport program is made responsible for reporting conduct violations, (3) athletes know who to contact to safely report violations without fear of retaliation from coaches or others who are more powerful than they are, (4) a mandate for immediate decision-making and action to restore a safe sport environment is established and (5) violators of policy clearly understand what will happen to them if they engage in prohibited activities. Think of what could happen without policies in place: employees thinking they can get away with sexual misconduct, bullying or abusive behavior, parents, athletes and others hesitating to speak up about the conduct of a successful or popular coach, athletes being afraid of reporting the misbehavior of a coach and not knowing who to go to and program administrators taking too much time to decide what to do to deal with an unsafe situation.
We are not powerless over these issues, we can empower ourselves to make sure that there are policies and procedures in place. We also need an "athlete welfare advocate" in every sports environment so they athletes know a safe place to go for advice about their concerns and that this person is designated to represent them rather than the coach or the program. Without these key elements, we keep our athletes vulnerable to sexual abuse, bully and harassment without recourse and change.
If parents roll their eyes because they are concerned that putting such policies and procedures in place is just one more cost after all the other financial sacrifices they are making to enable their children to participation, they don't understand that creating such a safe environment doesn't cost anything. Safe4Athletes policies and procedures and educational materials are free and accessible online, ready for every local sports program to adopt.
We need to prepare our athletes and educate them on the range of abusive behavior that are commonly seen and experienced in the sports program. We need to educate our parents and empower them through knowledge. We need to teach our athletes how to speak up against sexual misconduct, bullying and harassment without fear over retaliation and further victimization. Parents must insist on such accountability in our sports programs.
If we set the team standard as meeting the threshold of "is it safe and positive" we are providing the best possible sports experiences we can. If not, we must address and be able to take action to restore the environment to meet that standard. Without a comprehensive program that includes policies and procedures that address sexual misconduct, bullying and harassment, we remain powerless in the face of such behaviors and allow these behaviors to continue hurting our children.
Take action and adopt a Safe4Athletes program today, and give a voice to every athlete everywhere.
Follow Katherine Starr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Safe4Athletes