Time to Talk More Openly About Sexual Abuse in Youth Sports

By Betsy Kanarowski, PhD, LCSW

Chief Program Officer, Saprea

We rush around the house searching for misplaced equipment. We pack snacks, drive for hours and devote days to watching our kids play. As they get older, we wave goodbye as they travel with the team. We celebrate victories and support them through frustrations and defeats. We prioritize the time because we know the important role that sports play in childhood and in building healthy, engaged adults. When the topic of risk comes up, we often think in terms of concussion, injury and balancing schoolwork. But there is one risk many parents of young athletes ignore – sexual abuse. 

One in five children is sexually abused before the age of 18. It happens in every community and can impact any child regardless of gender, race and socioeconomic background. Youth in sports are not immune to abuse and, in fact, may be put in situations that increase risk. Eighty percent of children who are abused know their perpetrator. Sexual abuse in athletics occurs from the local level all the way through college and the elite arena. 

It is time we start talking openly about sexual abuse in sports. 

Most coaches, volunteers and parents are involved in sports for all the right reasons, and the relationship between coach and athlete is vital to a young athlete’s development. A strong, healthy bond with a coach benefits athletes and helps them work toward their goals. However, parents and governing bodies need to be educated about sexual abuse prevention and aware of signs that boundaries are being crossed. 

When coaches are well-respected and successful, concerning behavior may be overlooked. Unquestioned belief in coaching is dangerous – pay attention to what is happening and be aware of unhealthy relationships. Coaching staff members have power over their players and access to them across many settings and platforms. If frequent texts or phone calls, social media interactions and in-person interactions are occurring, this may be of concern. Background checks are a must, as is a clear understanding of what role coaches and parent volunteers play. Ambiguity in boundaries is concerning for everyone involved.

Another important part of sexual abuse prevention is age-appropriate, open communication with kids about privacy, physical touch, emotions and boundaries with adults and peers. How you talk to a 4-year-old starting soccer is different than a discussion with a 14-year-old traveling to another state with her ski team. These conversations can be awkward at first; think about what you want to say ahead of time and jump in ready to listen. Be attentive to shifts in your child’s behavior and physical and mental health. Listen to your gut if you think something is wrong. 

If your child has been sexually abused, it’s crucial to not only believe them, but also to do all you can to ensure the perpetrator is unable to continue illegal sexual behaviors against any children. How you support your child influences their healing process and can reduce long-term impacts.

About the Author 

Betsy Kanarowski, PhD, LCSW, is the Chief Program Officer for Saprea, a non-profit that exists to liberate individuals and society from child sexual abuse and its lasting impacts. She is also the mother of two college-aged daughters who benefited greatly from participation in youth sports. April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month and Sexual Violence Awareness Month. For more information about prevention and specific actions you can take, visit saprea.org.