It would be easy, while reading about the likes of Norman Watson and Michael Hughes, to forget that the overwhelming majority of coaches on America's youth sports fields are there for all the right reasons. These coaches should be thanked, not subjected to a witch hunt. Nevertheless, a number of coaches have been convicted of child molestation, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the FBI and the mothers and fathers of some victims offer the following tips to help parents protect their children:
DO A BACKGROUND CHECK
Ask your league (or school) whether it does criminal-history or any other types of background checks on coaches. If it doesn't, ask why not. Many states and cities have policies allowing volunteer organizations that serve children to have criminal checks run for free by police. (If your state or city has no such policy, a criminal check by police should cost no more than $40 per coach.) Some states make their registry of sex offenders available on the Internet. Checks shouldn't be limited to criminal records, however. If the coach has coached in other leagues, call those leagues to make sure he wasn't accused of any sexual improprieties.
DON'T TURN YOUR CHILD'S COACH INTO A BABYSITTER
Don't drop your child off at games and practices and leave. Studies show that men predisposed to molest children often prey first on those regularly left unattended by parents. By being present, you let the coach know you are actively involved in your child's life.
DON'T FALL FOR FLATTERY
Be wary of any coach who says he's the one person who can help your oh-so-gifted child develop into a star or who spends an unusually large amount of time with the child "because he's such a wonderful kid." The coach may be trying to win your trust and groom your child for seduction.
TALK TO YOUR CHILD AND THEN LISTEN
Describe for your son or daughter what you consider inappropriate behavior by a coach (improper touching of his players, showing them pornographic material and so on). Make sure your child knows that if a coach says, "You can't tell your mom or dad" about something the coach is doing, the first thing the child should do is tell Mom or Dad. Assure your child that he or she will never get in trouble with you for telling the truth. If your child's interest in his sport or team suddenly diminishes for no apparent reason, ask why.
BEWARE OF COACHES BEARING GIFTS
"If it looks too good to be true, it probably is," Watson said from prison when asked whether he had any words of caution for parents. Watson took his player-victims to the mall and bought them games, clothes and athletic equipment. "All that should have been a sign," the FBI's Roger Young says. "That's not normal behavior for a nonparent."
Some coaches don't want parents to know where the team will be staying on a road trip. These coaches often say that the presence of parents hinders team development. Bad sign. Demand to know. Also, ask what the arrangements are for showering after games and practices. There's generally no reason for children to be nude in the presence of the coach and no reason for the coach to be naked in the presence of a child.