03/21/2013 07:12 pm ET Updated May 21, 2013

Is It Any Safer to Compete in Sports?

This week the Cal Ripken Sr Foundation came together with NCMEC (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children) to discuss Safe to Compete and address sexual abuse in sports.

What did we learn that would make sports a better place and a safe and positive environment for all athletes?

The highlight of the conference was that there seems to be a general consensus in the room; to unify background checks. There is a need to the fill the gaps to expose the abuser that continually beats the system and fall through the cracks because of inconsistencies across agencies that maintain felony files. Another issue that was raised is the ability to flag coaches/volunteers that had a sexual abuse charge dismissed that pertained to a minor. If a system can be put in place to install a more meaningful database that all people can draw from so we have a better chance of identifying abusers who have left organizations before suspension, termination or completion of investigations.

Another highlight was data around gender equity in sports leadership. In sports where the board of directors is 50/50 there is significantly less sexual abuse.

The low-lights of the conference were the lack of knowledge about and sensitivity to sexual abuse in competitive sports. There seems to have been a misconception about the number of unprotected athletes that we are talking about -- there are 60 million young athletes in open amateur sport community-based multi-sport organizations.

What wasn't touched on or insufficiently addressed is the multiple levels of abuse that an athlete experiences, many of which are often justified in the guise of "sport" -- abuse like physical punishment and verbal and emotional abuse. The problem became bigger as we realized that we don't understand why these commonly acceptable sport behaviors constitute abuse. With the growing number of women now in sports, this demographic is even more susceptible to all aspects of abuse especially sexual abuse and harassment. A study that came out of Japanese Olympic Committee found that 12 percent of Judo athletes complained about some sort of abuse or sexual harassment according to the BBC Sports. This number doesn't account for those who don't feel safe to speak up or athletes who don't know want abuse is.

In closing, on another low-light is the imbalance of women in leadership roles as sports coaches as well as on the boards of leagues and associations.

We can make a difference today by adopting effective and thorough policies already available at We need to know that the culture of abuse in sports will not be addressed through the court system which will handle only the most egregious cases. Each of us at the local program level must be protectors. This means we must educate our coaches, athletes and parents and we must adopt and enforce policies. We cannot wait for someone else to act.