After Larry Nassar: How can parents, organizations protect youth athletes from predators

Larry Nassar in handcuffs
Larry Nassar stands to hear his fate as he is sentenced by Judge Janice Cunningham for three counts of criminal sexual assault in Eaton County Circuit Court on February 5, 2018 in Charlotte, Michigan. Cunningham sentenced Nassar to 40 to 125 years in prison. He is currently serving a 60-year sentence in federal prison for possession of child pornography. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

USA Gymnastics.

USA Swimming.

U.S. Figure Skating.

The end of the year is the perfect time for the GlobalSport Matters staff to reflect on the stories and people that stood out.
Today: The country was horrified by the abuses perpetuated by convicted team doctor Larry Nassar. As a parent, how do you keep your athlete child safe from predators?

Three national governing bodies that are crucial to the success of Olympic-sport athletes. All three have been rocked by claims of sexual abuse by coaches and/or trainers working for those groups.

Earlier this year Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics national team doctor for three decades, was convicted of 10 counts of sexual assault on young girls/women who were competing for the national team. Nassar has been accused of assaulting at least 250 young girls and women.

As a parent, what can you do to protect your child from the problems that have plagued and hounded the groups designed to lead America’s elite athletes to the pinnacle of their sport?

Ty Schalter, a professional NFL analyst who writes for several web sites, recently wrote a story for HuffingtonPost.com. His family lives in East Lansing, Mich., and his 9-year-old daughter Luisa trains and competes at Twistars, one of the top gymnastics facilities in the region. Nassar worked there, as did John Geddert, head coach of the United States’ 2012 Olympic women’s gymnastics team. Geddert was recently suspended by USA Gymnastics for violations of its Safe Sport Policy.

“When the head coach of one of the most dominant Olympic teams in history tells you his staff is properly trained, you believe it,” Schalter wrote. “And when you trust your child to what you think is the best coaching and medical care money can buy, the violation of that trust is as shocking as it is horrifying.”

Kristin Hoffner is the principal lecturer in exercise science and health promotion at Arizona State’s School of Nutrition and Health Promotion/College of Health Solutions. She says that the recent headlines can have far-reaching effects on young athletes and their parents.

“Any stress or any anxiety can impact performance,” she says. “If the parents are worried and ‘over-prepare’ their child – ‘Be careful of this. Be careful of that. Tell me if this is happening’ – that can be distracting and have an impact on the athletes’ performance. It adds an extra dimension. A young athlete shouldn’t have to worry about trusting their coach or their trainer.”

Parents of athletes who can compete at the highest levels of their chosen support can be pressured to not only provide financial support in terms of training and travel, they also have to balance the “outside microscope” of being stage parents who are pushing their children for the glory of accomplishment. As evidenced in stories about Nassar and USA Gymnastics and USA Swimming, parents or young athletes who question the coaching or training methods are considered “problems” that can lead to fewer opportunities or exclusion.

“The angst that a parent might be feeling could wind up being transferred to their young athlete,” Hoffner said. “What is the right level of preparation? I would think it’s challenging asking a 10-year-old up to an older teenager knowing or drawing the line between physical therapy and sexual assault.”

Hoffner believes that the spotlight brought by the Nassar scandal has also revealed problems with other sports groups and will lead to a culture change. Dr. Eric Legg, an assistant professor in the School of Community Resources & Development at Arizona State University, agrees.

“I think we’re at a tipping point and I think the question is not so much what should parents be doing but what should organizations be doing,” Legg said. “The idea of background checks has been around for years but it’s still slow moving. We need systems that ensure that it’s safe for kids and parents to report suspected poor behavior. In gymnastics, those athletes were scared to report sexual abuse because they were scared of derailing their Olympic dreams.”

Nassar’s crimes were ignored for three decades. With the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements leading to multiple sexual assault charges in dozens of professions, the attention on this scourge is at an all-time high. Hoffner and Legg concur that the time is ripe for change but that change will take time. For instance, funding for background checks at all levels of youth sports – from tee-ball to the organizations that train Olympians – will be difficult to procure.

“We can thank the Me Too movement for making it OK and easier to speak out,” Legg said. “I’m an optimist so I would hope that in five to 10 years we can see significant change with this problem.”

There are some steps parents can take. According to Parenting.com, some simple steps like asking about background checks on coaches, meeting everyone who will be working with your child can go a long way. Char Rivette, executive director of the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center told the site. “Sex abusers don’t choose kids whose parents are very involved.”

Parents should make clear to children to respect authority, but if what a coach tells you to do seems wrong or involves touching areas of the body in the “swimsuit zone” they should tell their parent.

In the wake of the charges against high-level coaches, the U.S. Olympic Committee formed U.S. Center for Safe Sport, to make athlete well-being the centerpiece of American sports culture. The center’s goal is educate and create awareness through best practices, policies and programs designed by experts. It also has been entrusted to respond to reports of sexual misconduct within the Olympic and Paralympic movements.

Outside the Olympic movement however, there are no national standards on investigating reports of sexual or physical abuse by coaches. Emmett Gill, a professor at the University of Texas, called for the creation of safety guidelines.

“If we’re really about youth development and character development,” he told Time, “this is going to be in front – and the most important part – of our bylaws.”

Wendell Barnhouse started his career as a sportswriter at 18 and spent the next four decades in newspapers writing and editing. From 2008-2015 he was the website correspondent for the Big 12 Conference producing written and video content. He has spent the last three years freelancing, most recently covering college basketball for The Athletic.