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Sexual Abuse in Youth Sports

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The headlines remind us that the prevalence of sexual assault in youth sports is alarmingly high. Larry Nassar, a convicted pedophile doctor who for 18 years used his position with the United States Women’s Gymnastics to rape and assault young girls, was stabbed this past week in prison. While the internet was divided on how to respond, some of his survivors came forward and denounced the act of violence. 

Youth sports are crucial in shaping children’s physical, emotional, and social development. Engaging in sports fosters teamwork, discipline, and a sense of accomplishment. However, a dark and pervasive problem lies behind the positive aspects: sexual abuse. This issue has garnered increased attention recently, exposing a troubling reality that demands urgent action. This article examines the prevalence of sexual abuse in youth sports, its underlying factors, and the steps that can be taken to safeguard young athletes.

Statistics of Sexual Abuse in Youth Sports

Statistics on the prevalence of sexual abuse in youth sports are difficult to obtain due to underreporting and a lack of comprehensive data. However, numerous studies and high-profile cases shed light on the magnitude of the problem. A 2018 investigation by the Associated Press revealed that over the past two decades, around 290 coaches and officials involved in Olympic sports were accused of sexual misconduct with young athletes. Furthermore, a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2019 estimated that 1 in 3 athletes worldwide experienced sexual harassment or abuse during their careers.

Several factors contribute to the prevalence of sexual abuse in youth sports. First and foremost, the power dynamics between coaches and young athletes create an environment vulnerable to abuse. Coaches hold authority, trust, and influence over their athletes, which individuals with ill intentions can easily exploit. Moreover, the lack of adequate policies, training, and supervision within sports organizations enables perpetrators to operate unchecked. Fear of reprisal, social stigma, and disbelief further discourage victims from speaking out, perpetuating a culture of silence.

Congress Acts

The need to address sexual assault in youth sports was recognized by Congress when they passed the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017. This act established a nonprofit organization called the U.S. Center for Safesport. The Act also charged them with developing and enforcing policies, procedures, and training to prevent abuse and misconduct. The Center’s SafeSport Code governs all participants in the Movement, and their oversight authority helps ensure all Olympic & Paralympic national governing bodies (NGBs) adhere to Minor Athlete Abuse Prevention Policies (MAAPP) that support athlete safety.

The Center in 2021 received a record-high 3,708 reports of abuse and misconduct, over 60% more than in 2020. This issue is still far too widespread. Young athletes are falling prey to abusers every day. It is happening across all sports, even ones lesser known.

Equestrian Abuse

Over the past few years, stories have surfaced about another underground network of abusers in many elite sports. Equestrians.  World champion shows jumper and coach Rick Fellers was arrested in 2021 on multiple counts of sexual abuse of an underage girl he coached. While he originally pleaded not guilty on all charges, this week, he stood in an Oregan federal court, pleaded guilty, and agreed to serve a four-year sentence on the federal charges and a 30-month sentence on state charges. 

The overwhelming number of sanctions handed down by the U.S. Center for Safesport shows this problem is widespread. The Center webpage launched this story into the public realm when they listed Fellers in suspension status once initial allegations arose. 

Sexual Abuse in Sports Survivors Speak

Sexual abuse can have severe and long-lasting consequences for the victims. Beyond physical harm, such as injuries or sexually transmitted infections, survivors often suffer from psychological trauma, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The negative impact extends to their academic performance, self-esteem, and overall well-being. Many survivors face challenges forming healthy relationships and may struggle with trust issues. The effects of sexual abuse on young athletes are far-reaching and demand immediate attention.

One of Fellers’s survivors launched #WeRideTogether, a public awareness campaign with Horse Network and the Wrigley Media Group. It consists of a series of digital PSAs, and an in-depth microsite designed to empower, inform, and unite the equestrian community. This campaign and its webpage are a safe space for survivors to seek support and resources and serve to educate the larger community. 50% of all athletes experience sexual abuse at some point. 

From the #Metoo movement to the Nassar survivors standing up and speaking out these brave, impacted people have led the charge to expose predators and shift rape culture. 

Pennsylvania-Ground Zero

Pennsylvania has been ground zero for far too many sexual abuse cases. The disgraced and now imprisoned former coach for the Pennsylvania State University, Jerry Sandusky, cracked open the national dialogue well before the #Metoo movement started. 

The Pennsylvania National Horse Show happens in Harrisburg annually, and there are stables with trainers in every area of Pennsylvania. After all, Pennsylvania is one of the country’s most prominent and largest agricultural states. Sexual abuse headlines have dominated this state for several years. It is not only reasonable to think that there are many survivors of equestrian sexual abuse among us, but there are likely children who are actively being abused.

It is widely publicized that high-profile trainers have sexually assaulted children at Pennsylvania Shows. Two men accused a well-known trainer, George Morris, in court filings. As with any other sexual abuse, it is not only common; it is a coping and survival mechanism for victims to delay reporting and hide the abuse they have endured for years. There are many well-documented reasons, none relating to lying, false memories, or deception. It’s a trauma response to not talk about sexual abuse. Victims are shamed, blamed, manipulated, and blackmailed into silence. 

Statute of Limitation Reform Changes Rape Culture

Recognizing the urgency to address sexual abuse in youth sports, various measures have been proposed and implemented. Sports organizations are increasingly adopting comprehensive abuse prevention policies. These include background checks for coaches and staff, mandatory reporting protocols, and education on recognizing and preventing abuse. Collaborative efforts involving coaches, athletes, parents, and sports authorities aim to create a culture of safety and accountability. Additional initiatives include survivor support programs, the establishment of helplines, and advocacy for legal reforms that extend statutes of limitations for reporting abuse.

Many states are working towards eliminating criminal statutes of limitations for sexual crimes against children. Many are also trying to modify or outright eliminate the statute of limitations on civil remedies. Unfortunately, even in states that are successful in doing so, rarely can these laws be applied retroactively. Anyone victimized before the laws change can not bring forth claims. 

This is why window legislation is so vitally important and needed for accountability, exposure, and healing. Windows allow for short periods where a state can suspend its existing laws and rules. This allows previously time-barred survivors to bring forth claims against abusers and those who covered the abuse in civil court. 

What is Pennsylvania Doing

Pennsylvania hopes to be next on that growing list with the pending legislation that will allow the state to temporarily suspend its laws and rules and open a two-year window for Pennsylvania survivors to bring forth claims of abuse against their abusers and institutions who sought to cover up that abuse. 

To understand your case and whether or not a statute of limitation applies, you need a calculator and a calendar. Seek the guidance and advice of an attorney who truly understands the laws surrounding sexual abuse. Andreozzi + Foote has the experience and commitment.

If you are a sexual abuse in sports survivor, please know that you are not alone. Our experienced sexual abuse in sports lawyers can help guide you through your rights and options today. If your state has yet to pass legislation allowing you to file, speaking with an attorney is vital. Contact us at Info@vca.law today.


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