The prevalence of sexual abuse among all boys 17 and under has been variously estimated to be as low as 5 percent and as high as 16 percent.
In Close Relationship Between Player and Coach, Potential for Sexual Abuse
It was the summer before high school, and Christopher Gavagan, then 13, was preparing to leave the safe familiarity of the friends he had known during his boyhood. With a plan to excel at ice hockey, he began training on inline skates, moving through his New York City neighborhood, up and down the streets until, he said, “I turned down the wrong street.”
Gavagan, now a filmmaker, was one of eight panelists who participated Friday in a discussion about young athletes who have been sexually assaulted or abused by their coaches. The panel was part of the MaleSurvivor 13th International Conference, held this year at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The conference brought together men who have been sexually abused, as well as psychologists, social workers, academics and members of the legal community.
A dour procession of stories about sexual misconduct by coaches toward their male charges has come to light in recent months. Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at Penn State, was sentenced in October to 30 to 60 years in prison on 45 counts of child molesting. Sugar Ray Leonard wrote in his autobiography last year that he was sexually molested by an Olympic boxing coach. The N.H.L. players Theo Fleury and Sheldon Kennedy were sexually abused as teenagers by their hockey coach Graham James.
The prevalence of sexual abuse among all boys 17 and under has been variously estimated to be as low as 5 percent and as high as 16 percent. For some of the millions of children who participate in sports nationwide, and their parents, sexual assault in a sports context has its own dynamic.
“Sports is a place where parents send their boys to learn skills, to learn how to be teammates and how to work together — to make boys stronger and healthier,” said Dr. Howard Fradkin, author of “Joining Forces,” a book about how men can heal from sexual abuse. “It’s the place where we send our boys to grow up. The betrayal that occurs when abuse occurs in sports is damaging because it destroys the whole intent of what they started out to do.”
When Gavagan, now 38, turned down that fateful street, and stepped briefly into the house of a man recommended as a hockey coach by a couple of female acquaintances, what greeted him, he said, was “a young boy’s dream come true.”
The dream Gavagan glimpsed was embodied in the trophy room of the house.
“It was everything I wanted to be right there,” recalled Gavagan, who is working on a feature-length documentary on sexual abuse in youth sports, in which he interviews other sexual-abuse victims and his own attacker, against whom he has never pressed charges. In addition to the shiny relics that seemed to give testimony to the man’s coaching prowess, Gavagan said, the trophy room had pictures of hockey teams the man had coached and workout equipment — the physical tools promising the chance to get bigger and stronger.
“To a skinny 13-year-old, it was like winning the lottery,” Gavagan said.
Christopher Anderson, the executive director of MaleSurvivor, said sexual abuse — basically nonconsensual touching or sexual language — is devastating under any circumstance, but coach and player often have a special relationship.
“Especially as you progress higher and higher, the coach can become just as important in some ways to an athlete as the relationship with his parents might have,” Anderson said. “In some cases, it’s a substitute for parents.”
He added: “There’s also a fundamentally different power dynamic. When you’re a young star, the coach can literally make or break your career as an athlete.”
But caution has to extend beyond coaches who guide future Olympians, Gavagan said, noting that his coach was not of that caliber.
“The entire grooming process was so subtle,” Gavagan said. “It’s not like when I first went into his house that he tried to grope me.”
First, Gavagan said, the coach said it was all right to curse in that house. On another visit it was fine to have a beer, which led on another day to Playboy magazine and on subsequent days to harder pornography and harder liquor. It was six months before the coach laid an explicitly sexual hand on him, Gavagan said.
“I didn’t feel like a sudden red line had been crossed — the line had been blurred,” Gavagan said, explaining that he avoided his parents when he returned home with liquor on his breath by telling them he was exhausted and going straight to his room. (Unlike many sexual-abuse victims, Gavagan said his parents, with whom the coach had ingratiated himself, were supportive of their son, and his was a loving family. He said that if he had approached them about the coach, they would have listened.)
Another aspect of sexual abuse in sports is the environment, which emphasizes a kind of macho ethic.
“What is most different about abuse is the sports culture itself,” Fradkin said. “It is a culture that promotes teamwork and teaches boys to shrug it off. When a boy or man is abused, he risks being thrown off the team if he should speak the truth because he’ll be seen as being disloyal — and weak.”
At 17, after four years with his coach, Gavagan said he “aged out” of his coach’s target age.
“At the time I had no idea of how it would impact my life, but the unhealthy lessons about relations, trust and the truth set a time bomb that would detonate my relationships for the next 10 years,” Gavagan said.
As a word of caution, Anderson said the lesson for parents should not be that sports are dangerous.
“It should be that there are sometimes dangerous people who gravitate to sporting organizations and our safeguards aren’t good enough yet to adequately protect our children,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that we should be pulling our kids from soccer and baseball and basketball. What it means is that parents need to be vigilant.”
He added: “They need to be proactive with athletic organizations to make sure that policies are in place — such as doing criminal background checks on staff and having a procedure where young athletes can complain about inappropriate behavior — that make sure children are protected.”