Hours before the NCAA men’s basketball tournament ’s first play-in game, three retired professional athletes walked through the doors of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for the country’s most important sporting event.
One, a Hall of Fame ex-Baltimore Oriole, had an idyllic childhood. The other two men, who used to play in the NFL and the NHL, went through hell, unable to admit for years the sexual abuse they suffered as kids.
Cal Ripken Jr., Joe Ehrmann and Sheldon Kennedy played different sports. Their careers were as different as their demeanors and speech. But their cause was singular as they grabbed the microphone and spoke to the heads of Pop Warner, USA Swimming, the Boys and Girls Clubs and 50 other youth organizations.
“Basically, we’re all committed to make sure more kids don’t suffer,” said Ehrmann, a towering, gruff, white-haired former defensive lineman who played for the Baltimore Colts and Detroit Lions in the 1970s and early 1980s.
In the coming days, a document intended by its authors to be the “gold standard” for helping prevent childhood sexual abuse will be made available at safetocompete.org. The Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation and the children’s center that hosted the two-day event in Alexandria are urging every youth sports organization to adopt a set of guidelines. The goal is to enlighten both kids who play sports and their parents, to empower the bystander who sees something wrong and to better expose the sick people who prey on children.
The committee that assembled the guidelines benefited from the the input of pediatricians, law-enforcement officials, advocates for better background checks of coaches and volunteers, and a team of international sports scientists. It also had the personal anecdotes of survivors such as Ehrmann and Kennedy, and the social conscience of Ripken.
“After this I think every parent of a youth sports player in America today ought to be able to go to any coach and say, ‘What’s different since Penn State? What have you put in place that makes my child safer and better protected?’ ” Ehrmann said. “And I think if we can create that kind of social agitation that would really force a tremendous amount of organizations and coaches to implement it, [we’ve succeeded] in helping some of those kids.”
This was a disturbing — but even more necessary — meeting of minds.
An FBI survey of incarcerated pedophiles, we were told at Tuesday’s session, revealed they committed on average 150 acts of molestation. Some of the literature found in the homes of arrested pedophiles included nearly 200-page guides on how to groom boys for sexual abuse, naming specific coaching and volunteer jobs in which they had a better chance of not getting caught. “It doesn’t matter how or where you want to find children, but sad and lonely children are the children you want to look for,” stated one of the directives, available online to pedophiles. There were interviews with convicted child sexual predators about the demented rationalization they use to “help” kids through a rough time.
Horrifying but true: People of Jerry Sandusky’s ilk actually network better than some of the people entrusted to stop them.
Ehrmann and Kennedy’s stories resonated the most because they were about the cure: coming forward. They showed a courage that had nothing to do with the shake-it-off, don’t-show-weakness worlds of football and hockey they played in.
For decades, Ehrmann, 63, locked away the image of two men sexually assaulting him at age 12. But after adult survivors of sexual abuse from Sandusky’s Second Mile charity came forward to confront their abuser, Ehrmann said, it “re-traumatized me in a very profound way.”
“I admire, in Penn State, the amount of courage that it took for those young men to stand up publicly, to speak out,” he said. “It really confronted my own lack of courage that I wish I had revealed so much earlier.
“Most men don’t report until a minimum of five years. It’s very difficult. It’s tied into your masculinity. It’s tied into your whole self-concept, this concept of shame that somehow I’m deeply flawed. I’m unworthy of love, connection. And so what you do is hide that. So what I did, as many men do, I built a facade. I trained people to see me as this tough-guy athlete.”
Kennedy, 43, a former Canadian hockey pro, saw the youth coach who abused him more than 300 times on television with other kids 17 years ago while Kennedy was playing for the Calgary Flames. He couldn’t take it any longer.
“None of the other adults at the time were doing anything about it,” he said. “I knew I’d never be the dad I wanted to be unless I dealt with it.”
Graham James, the coach once celebrated as the Hockey News’s “Man of the Year,” was eventually sentenced to five years. Kennedy battled cocaine addiction and many other demons before writing the book “Why I Didn’t Say Anything” two years ago.
“The shame and the guilt that’s exemplified in sport culture,” he explained. “We’ve been taught our whole lives to be tough, strong and, you know, never surrender, and to be able to show weakness, especially to that extreme, is so shaming that people have a hard time with that. That’s why we have a lot of kids killing themselves.”
Ripken was fortunate to never have the same experience. But he and the foundation named for his late father knew, after what happened at Penn State, that they wanted to act. “It’s a sadness that comes over,” Ripken said. “There’s a victimization that I can’t fathom. You know, kids are very fragile. And your responsibility as a parent is to bring them along and protect them.”
After Kennedy spoke to the full conference room, he stepped away from the microphone and breathed deeply. Then he expressed how important it was that he came forward. He said the fear of being ostracized if he ever told was quickly put to rest. Among the 250,000 letters he received of support afterward, many of which came from men who were sexually abused as boys, was a note from a veteran of the U.S. Army.
“He sent me his Purple Heart,” Kennedy said. “He wrote, ‘You deserve this.’ ”
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.