Today, more details about the Penn State sex scandal will be revealed when former FBI director and federal judge Louis Freeh issues his report. Some of us might be tempted to look away from some of the sad and sordid details. But Kathy Johnson Clarke thinks it’s about time we pay even more attention.
Clarke, an Olympic medalist who was the U.S. women’s gymnastics team captain during the 1984 games, has been witnessing the unfolding scandal with knowing disgust. She learned, years after the fact, that two different coaches of hers had pressured teammates into sexual relationships.
One of them, Don Peters, her former Olympic coach, was banned last year from coaching by the USA Gymnastics league after an investigation into allegations by former gymnasts.
Clarke has heard echoes of those experiences in the Penn State episode: Too many people did not follow through on their suspicions, and officials charged with oversight chose to look the other way.
“The most frustrating and infuriating part,” she said of the abuse by her coaches, “was learning that there had been rumors flying at the time, even mention of the sexual contact in a published book, and yet no one with the authority to do so took the responsibility to investigate or even approach the victim to see if it was true and what could be done to help her, much less try to prosecute the predator and prevent it from happening again. Where were the responsible adults?
“Because sex abuse against children often goes unreported for years, if ever, because of fear, shame or the sheer trauma of the abuse, it is critical for people to learn how prevalent it is and then understand how much easier it is for predators to groom their victims in a sports environment.
“By necessity there is physical proximity and often contact between athletes and their coaches. In my sport, hands-on spotting for safety or to correct body alignment and position is commonplace and necessary. It is a far less formal environment than the classroom and ‘fun’ must be part of the experience when the expectation for hard, physical work is demanded. This allows, in some instances, the blurring of the line between athlete and coach.
To better define those boundaries, Clarke has taken on the role of national spokeswoman for a new child abuse prevention campaign that specifically tackles abuse in youth athletics. It’s called “Blow the Whistle on Child Abuse” and is backed by the abuse prevention nonprofit Childhelp and Global Sports Development.
Though the abuse in both her own experience and the Penn State case occurred decades ago, she said the culture hasn’t changed enough to prevent current and future cases.
“Laws need to change to support a safer environment for children, one in which any adult should be required by law to report any suspected abuse or questionable behavior to a child services organization or law enforcement. The statute of limitations for child sex abuse should be lifted in all 50 states, making it possible to prosecute predators years after the abuse …
“Until we can educate children, parents, teachers, coaches, administrators [and others] on how to ideally stop abuse before it happens, recognize all the warning signs, report it immediately when it does and prosecute the perpetrators sufficiently, the number of victims will continue to rise and they will suppress it until they can bear it no longer.”
Having once been a vulnerable athlete, Clarke also had advice for parents of athletes:
“Keep an open line of communication between you and your child and your child’s coach,” she said.
“Don’t be afraid to ask specific questions or to step in when something doesn’t feel right. Never assume when things are going well athletically and your child is succeeding and achieving great results that all is copasetic.
Are your children involved in high-stakes athletics? How do you monitor the coach-athlete relationships?