Sports Transgressions

The angry athlete

Lessons from Sandusky: Not Just Athletics, WE need to do Better

Let it be known – sports are an easy place for predators to hide

There were ten victims identified. Likely many more existed as serial predators are masters at grooming their victims and then keeping them quiet. Whether showering their prey with attention longed for from parents that didn’t deliver or with the threat of violence or shame, silencing the victims is a necessary skill for pedophiles if one hopes to have their cake (abuse at will) and it eat it too (avoid detection and incarceration).

Of course, merely the thought of the acts that Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of are appalling; and it is difficult to not hear the testimony without becoming infuriated and wanting a pound (at least) of flesh. This case represented many things to many people. First, following the case in the slightest bit exposed you to the explicit heinous details that must be discussed to get an indictment, let alone a conviction. The courage that it takes to come forward is tremendous. The risk of being retraumatized is remarkable and understandably something victims would want to avoid. Perhaps the only advantage in this case, as opposed to more “traditional” rape cases, is that the preposterous dragging through the mud of the victim’s purported contribution to the crime, such as what they were wearing, what their sexual history was, etc. (which Rape Shield laws are supposed to protect – and they don’t), was spared. The victims were more accurately seen as victims, though not without an attempt by the defense to paint the victims’ motive as financial rather than seeking justice.

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Second, it brought to consciousness the realization that boys are victims of sexual abuse as well. The ripping away of the innocence of any child is deplorable and the perpetrators should, if/when found guilty, be punished to the fullest extent of the law. But, when the victims are male, there are added burdens. Not only are the scars a plenty (physical, emotional and psychological), but for boys, with the exception of the cases where the perpetrator was female – which represent the minority of cases – there is the added confusion of one’s gender identity. This is not about one’s biological, pre-determined, naturally developing sexuality. This is a question of when one is forced to engage in homosexual acts, the boys then wonder if this then makes them homosexual. And when the grooming is done with positive affection and attention that a boy may be sorely lacking, it does not feel like abuse…at least at the start. It can feel like they are being saved. A promise that Sandusky likely offered before it slowly morphed from him filling their needs, to the victims having to meet Sandusky’s. This is why confusion and ambivalence are ubiquitous in these types of cases. The victims are often years into the abuse before they appreciate the wrongness of what is happening to them and it is cloaked behind the illusion of their being rescued. So for boys, in this merciless world of homophobia paired with the all-too-common turning a blind eye by adults, they are often too ashamed to come forward and report the crimes that were committed against them. And, if they are actively struggling with post-traumatic symptoms, they will avoid the topic at all costs.

Sexual abuse is grossly underreported and for males, it is whispered with even greater trepidation. I have worked in many treatment settings over the course of my career: state hospitals, city hospitals, private hospitals, and for the past twelve years, state prisons. In no other population besides state prisons have I seen such a high percentage of men report being survivors of sexual abuse. And I am not talking about the sexual abuse that they incurred in prison. Nor am I talking about individuals in prison for sexual offenses. I am talking about men, often born into horrific, non-nurturing surroundings (though not always), who were raped, sodomized and dehumanized for an aggressive’s pleasure. Whether or not there is a direct connection between their victimization and their future criminality is up for debate. I would argue that for some there is a direct connection and for others, it is another data point on a backdrop that paints a poor prognosis for anyone. Statistics offered by MaleSurvivor.org, an organization that focuses on overcoming victimization of boys and men and has been very visible and active at Penn State since the Sandusky allegations arose, estimate conservatively that 1 out of every 6 men have been sexually abused at some time in their lives. This is not a new phenomenon but one we need to be more aware of, vocal about, and available to stop the abuse and help the victims.

And then, there are sports. I have written, over the years, that the reputation of sports has been marred by the transgressions of the few. That all of the great things that sports provide, the camaraderie, the development of communication and leadership skills, the teamwork, the physical vigor (and the list goes on), the value of learning resilience from losing, it is all at risk for being permanently slandered by the alarming events that sometimes happen inside the sports’ milieu. Do I believe that sports are a breeding ground for deviant behavior and athletes are a particularly surly bunch? No. In general, sports are a metaphor for life. And just as there is deviance amongst us in our everyday lives, it also can be borne in the athletic domain.

Increasingly we are becoming aware of abuse that has been woven inside the fabric of the sports world. Before, when the name Sandusky was more associated with theme parks in Ohio, USA Gymnastics and Swimming both were exposed for having predators in their midst and since have been working to rid themselves of the problem. It is very difficult to do this when first, you must take a look in the mirror. Penn State is/was in precisely the same situation. If you asked me to list the coaches that would be least likely to have a sexual abuse scandal happen under their noses, perhaps only John Wooden would have been above Joe Paterno. I was wrong. Paterno was wrong. And so was everyone at Penn State who turned a blind eye and enabled Sandusky, with all of his pseudo charity and football, (not-so) Happy (anymore) Valley clout, to have his way with vulnerable boys. Collectively, they should be ashamed of themselves because this could have been stopped earlier. We cannot canonize anyone in the sports world. Hell (blasphemous pun intended), from what we have seen in the Catholic Church, if you can’t canonize priests, looking to coaches may or may not be an upgrade in morality. By the way, it is a strange coincidence to me the timing of the conviction of Monsignor William Lynn, also in Pennsylvania, who transferred priests known to be sexually abusing children to other churches rather than reporting them sharing the same timeframe as Sandusky.

The point is that sports represent a perfect hiding place for predators unless (or until) we do a better job at screening coaches. Not just taking their reputation or popularity as the gospel. Psychopaths tend to be tremendously affable. Run background checks on everyone. Develop checks and balances to investigate. Make everything transparent. Yes, there will be hierarchies, and there should be. Someone with a clear conscience should have no problem being asked questions about what they’re doing and why. If parents feel something is “off” about the attention their child is getting from a coach, ask about it. Don’t take your children’s safety for granted…ever.

Finally, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. I have said it before. There are thousands of tremendous coaches out there. Many of which have been true saviors for kids that would otherwise have drowned in their communities. Many have been the role models and disciplinarians that their parents wouldn’t be or couldn’t be when they drop their kids off at practice and either go to work or somewhere else that their busy lives take them. Coaches, however, should not take the place of parents, even if many of them do an excellent job in that role. Parents need to be parents and do their very best to protect their most precious commodity from the dangers of the world: their children.

What we cannot allow, and it happens all too often in the sports world, is to allow leaders to have so much power that they can escape culpability or hide, willfully or unknowingly, predators in their midst. No matter how we may wish to fantasize that a world without predatory pedophiles can exist, it is not the case. We need to do a better job of creating a culture that will not tolerate the atrocities that Sandusky perpetrated on those boys. Because, sadly, no matter how disturbed Sandusky may be, he was able to hide behind a Nittany Lion and a charity to evade exposure. That, we have to safeguard against with all of our might. And considering the amount of money that sports brings in to universities, there is no financial excuse to not create the infrastructure required to improve detection and removal of those who harm others.

So as Sandusky will likely move towards spending the rest of his life in prison and people will hope for all sorts of evil meeting him there, we are left with thoughts and emotions. He will probably spend the bulk of his time in protective custody because no warden would want Sandusky’s blood on his hands. Over time, might prison justice be served? Perhaps. But just like with capital punishment. When a murderer is executed and the family members of the victim are salivating for revenge, they are often left with a feeling of “that’s it”? Sandusky going to jail may present a momentary sigh of relief that he will not have the opportunity to abuse another boy. But in the next breath, the victims need to move on; to move from the position of victim to survivor. To heal. To take back their lives. To succeed despite what has happened to them. To let their wounds become scars – increasingly faint reminders of what happened and that they were able to be resilient and move past this; rather than scabs that continue to be at risk for being ripped off allowing the bleeding to start over again.

And we need to be available to hear their stories regardless of how painful they may be to hear. We need to get them help. We need to look for the subtle cues that someone may be suffering. To ask the question. To not be afraid of the answer. To help people become the best they can be. And that, is what is at the essence of sports…it represents a place where people can be their best.

Ultimately, our children need to be protected. Our society needs to be protected. And sports need to be protected. In that order.

Mitch Abrams, Psy.D. is a clinical sport psychologist specializing in anger management, sexual assault prevention and the treatment of trauma.

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