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At the risk of having all the coaches I've criticized as a sportswriter show up to heckle me at my team's next game, I will reveal that I am the boys' junior varsity basketball coach at Summit Prep, a small charter high school in Redwood City, Calif. We practice in the evenings, and more than a few times I have had players ask me for a ride home from the gym. I have always said yes, not just because I don't want them walking to the bus stop in the dark, but also because the one-on-one conversations in the car make going a little out of my way more than worthwhile. Sitting in the passenger seat, boys talk to me about the pros and cons of attending school dances, or give 10-minute tutorials on hip-hop, or tell me what they're looking for in a college. But there won't be any more of those chats, at least not in my car, because I don't drive kids home anymore. Not since Sandusky.
The recent allegations of child sexual abuse against Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach, and Syracuse basketball assistant Bernie Fine are still unproved—and both men have denied the charges—but they have nevertheless reminded everyone that pedophiles are often drawn to youth coaching because it brings them into contact with so many potential targets. The increased attention has made victims more willing to come forward and parents more vigilant about the people who coach their children, both of which are welcome developments.
But what about the overwhelming majority of coaches, those of us who have no dark motives? In the post-Sandusky world, we think more than ever about avoiding the slightest appearance of impropriety. I consider how the simple act of driving a 14-year-old boy home might be misinterpreted, especially after reading accounts about how predators often use such rides to gain trust. I recognize that I would have no proof to the contrary if, a couple of months, years or decades from now, one of my players for some reason claimed that something horrible had happened in my car.
I make sure I'm out of the locker room before my players begin changing into their uniforms. When they come out of the game and walk past me toward the bench, for a split second I even wonder whether it's acceptable to give them a squeeze on the shoulder as a sign of appreciation for their hustle. Other coaches tell me that they, too, often have the thought flash across their mind: How is this going to look? And we share our anger toward those twisted souls for all the damage they've done to children, as well as for making us think about harmless behavior we used to take for granted.
It's not that I'm offended by the scrutiny. I realize that it's the price of an increased awareness that will make it harder for pedophiles to masquerade as well-intentioned mentors. We all know by now that this kind of evil rarely arrives with a trench coat and a leering grin, that sometimes the most "normal" looking adults can do horrible things in secret. "It's important for coaches not to take it personally or be defensive," says Jim Thompson, founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance, a national nonprofit organization based in Mountain View, Calif., that gives coaches strategies for making youth sports a character-building experience. "It's easy to be indignant and think, How could someone even suspect I'd be capable of something so awful? But coaches just have to get past it and realize that it's all a part of the effort to keep kids safe."
Another part of that effort, Thompson believes, should be encouraging every youth sports organization to create a written set of rules that minimize the opportunities for inappropriate contact between coaches and players. The PCA is in the process of drafting guidelines for coaches, parents and youth-league administrators that include how to spot behavioral signs characteristic of possible abuse, as well as provide advice for adults who are uncertain about what to do if they have any suspicions. (One recommendation: Contact the National Children's Alliance, at nca-online.org or 1-800-239-9950.)
Thompson suggests that coaches meet with parents before every season and address the issue directly. "As a coach," he says, "you might tell them something like, 'It's a really high priority that the kids you have entrusted to me are safe in every way, and I will go out of my way to avoid situations that might worry you.' "
None of the parents of my players have ever expressed such worries, and it's not as though I feel I'm being watched with a suspicious eye. It's more that honorable coaches now feel the need to make sure no one could ever associate us with that kind of horrific behavior. So we add our own rules to whatever policies the schools and leagues have to offer, not only for the players' protection but also for our own.
The fact that it's necessary makes it no less sad. We take care to make sure the gym door is wide open if one kid wants to stay and work on his free throw shooting, and we limit physical contact to gestures like a high five or a fist bump. We talk less about reaching out to our players or getting close to them, because those phrases have taken on unsavory connotations. One-on-one interaction between player and coach, innocent and valuable, is lost. We get behind the wheel of our car after practice, and we leave the passenger door locked.