Norman Watson still misses the game he loves most. He misses the dusty world of Little League baseball. He misses riding to the games on a motorcycle, and he misses managing and umpiring and the feeling that Little League gave him, the sense that in a life of drift he somehow belonged. Come the shades of nightfall—as he stokes the embers of his darksome fantasies in his prison cell—he also misses sex with his preferred partners. He misses the boys.
Blue-eyed and articulate, cool and composed, Watson hardly fits the stereotype of the child molester—a snaggletoothed gargoyle in a trench coat at the edge of a playground, leering at the downy-limbed children playing on the swings. That was never Watson, never his pedophiliac style, though he has spent most of his 54 years sexually preying on children. By his own count, he figures he has molested "a couple of hundred" children over three decades. Most of them were youngsters, between the ages of 11 and 14, whom he first met through his work in Little League. With many of those kids he spun his sticky web into affairs that lasted months and even years.
It's because of his uncontrolled desire for sex with boys that Watson is sitting this August day in a small cubicle inside a large California prison, serving the second year of an 84-year sentence that will end no sooner than his life. Hands folded on a table, now smiling at a remembrance, now tearyeyed at another, he occasionally glances out the window to a larger visitors' room, waving or nodding to some fellow prisoners while scanning the faces of others. He lives warily these days, an undiscovered pariah leading a life of maximum insecurity. To other prison inmates, child molesters rank somewhere between roaches and the AIDS virus, but despite the dangers of revealing the nature of his crimes—he has until now kept them secret from his fellow inmates-Watson sees a redeeming value in granting this interview. "My life is over anyway," he says. "Maybe I can say something that will make sense to parents...."
After so many years in the criminal justice system, after so many years of counseling and therapy, Watson has reached this ineluctable conclusion: He should die within these walls that now confine him. "I think it's good I'm no longer in the position to do any more damage," he says. "I have hurt people out there. I've sat here, and I've had plenty of time to think about it, and I know some abused kids have been scarred for life.... I have a predisposition to want to be around, and am sexually aroused by, young boys. I can't be where I have access to boys."
Sixteen months earlier, during his sentencing hearing in a San Bernardino (Calif.) County courthouse, Watson, at times weeping with his face in his hands, had sat and listened as angry, tearful parents, some with their long-molested children at their sides, sent him off to prison with cries of execration. He'd pleaded guilty to 39 counts of lewd acts with children, four boys and a girl, that had occurred between 1990 and '96, when Watson was a San Bernardino Little League coach and umpire and the five kids were all playing in the league. Unbeknownst to the players' parents, Watson was on probation during much of that span for a 1980 molestation offense in nearby Riverside. None of the parents knew that their beloved and winning coach—this glib, engaging soul who had lived with and among them, who had so generously babysat their kids, taken the youngsters to movies and bought them expensive gifts-had undergone more than five years of treatment in two state mental hospitals for child molesting. One of those institutions was Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino, not far from the East Base Line Little League field where Watson would become a leading coach.
By the time Watson was sentenced, the parents' sense of betrayal had mutated into fury. One by one, parents and children rose at the sentencing to read their victim-impact statements. "You made my life a wreck," said one 13-year-old victim. "You scared these kids, took advantage of their innocence and suffocated them so they would not tell on you," a parent said. Another parent looked at Watson and said, "You're worse than a thief. You're worse than a murderer. A thief steals what can be replaced. A murderer kills his victim one time. What you have done to these children is going to last the rest of their lives, and unfortunately history says that a fair portion of your victims are going to start victimizing others as you have done.... I hope you rest in hell."
Now Watson shifts in his cubicle chair and rubs the stubble on his face. "I've got a lot of time to think in here," he says. "I don't allow myself to think about what I've done to all those people because I don't think I could handle it. There's one thing that's helped me since I've been incarcerated here: I'm where I belong."
In preying on prepubescent and newly pubescent athletes, Watson was hardly a lone wolf. While there have been no formal studies to determine how many child molesters have coached youth teams, a computer-database search of recent newspaper stories reveals more than 30 cases just in the last 18 months of coaches in the U.S. who have been arrested or convicted of sexually abusing children engaged in nine sports from baseball to wrestling—and this despite the fact that child sex-abuse victims, for reasons ranging from shame and embarrassment to love or fear of their molesters, rarely report the crime. For every child who reports being molested, according to a variety of experts on the sexual exploitation of children, at least 10 more keep their secrets unrevealed. The molesters are almost always men, and in youth sports most, though not all, of the victims are boys. (The one girl Watson admitted molesting was only five when he began abusing her. He says because she was a player he viewed her "as just one of the boys.")
Today the reporting of child molestation in youth sports is about where the reporting of rape in society was 30 years ago. However, there are indications that things are changing, that after decades of being ignored, minimized or hidden away, the molestation of players by their coaches is no longer the sporting culture's dirty little secret. "I'm no longer surprised when I read that this or that pillar of the coaching community has been accused or convicted of multiple counts of child molestation," says Steven Bisbing, a clinical and forensic psychologist from Takoma Park, Md., who studies sexual abuse of children by authority figures. "It's not an isolated problem, just a few bad apples. This was the prevailing view for a long time: 'It's isolated. It's one guy. They're rid of him. No more problem.' That's absurd.... It occurs with enough regularity across the country, at all levels [of society], that it should be viewed as a public health problem."
Although child molestation is by no means confined to sports, the playing field represents an obvious opportunity for sexual predators. In the U.S. more than 10 million children under the age of 16 play organized sports, coached or otherwise supervised by more than a million adults, many of them unscreened male volunteers—which is to say, men on whom background checks have never been done. "Youth sports are a ready-made resource pool for pedophiles, and we better all get our heads out of the sand before we ruin the games," says Bob Bastarache, a police officer turned private investigator and the current president of one of New England's largest AAU clubs, the Bristol Stars, of New Bedford, Mass. "Parents today are so busy, they're allowing coaches to take over the after-school hours, and that's the foot in the door pedophiles need."