It Takes a Team

January 29, 2015
In the wake of the Penn State scandal, athletic departments are rethinking how to protect minors--both those in their programs and visitors to their facilities. They are finding it takes a team effort.
By Dennis Read

Dennis Read is an Associate Editor at Athletic Management. He can be reached at:

For more than a year, the sexual abuse case involving Jerry Sandusky dominated headlines and it continues to affect Penn State University in ways no one would have imagined possible. But, while horrific because of the magnitude of the crimes, at its core, the Penn State situation was not unique. As the media chronicled every detail coming out of State College, countless stories of abuses involving minors in the athletic world occurred across the country.

In Indiana, a high school athletic director faced criminal charges for failing to properly report allegations of a coach having sex with an athlete. A high school basketball coach in Washington was relieved of his duties after players were accused of sexually abusing teammates during a hazing ritual at an off-campus camp. And numerous coaches were fired, many criminally charged, for having sexual contact with athletes.

"What happened at Penn State really isn't any worse than something that happens in a small high school, because both affect kids in the same way," says Mark Fisher, District Athletic Director for the Springfield (Mo.) Public Schools. "But being a national story, the Penn State situation brought the issue to light and reminded us that we have to protect everyone involved in athletics, especially minors."

In all levels of sports, athletic directors are taking a hard look at their programs and asking if something similar to the Penn State case could happen at their own schools. They are examining their program's culture. They are putting new policies and procedures in place. And they are toughening rules on supervision and who can use their facilities. They are examining every aspect of operations to ensure they are doing all they can to keep children in the athletic realm safe.

At Penn State and almost every school where sexual abuse has occurred, there were policies in place to prevent it. But policies only go so far. That's why, when Purdue University Athletic Director Morgan Burke began to revisit how to keep minors safe (in addition to long-standing programs aimed at student-athlete welfare), he thought deeply about the culture of his athletic department. He then went so far as to add a new item to the department's list of core values.

"Our first core value is integrity, the second is work ethic, and the third is team ethic," he says. "Now our fourth core value is lifeguard. We've recognized that we have a lot of people who enter into our domain--including patrons, alums, student-athletes, and children--and our job is to make sure they leave in as good a shape, if not better, than when they arrived.

"Certainly, you have to take prudent precautions that protect yourself and the institution by implementing policies that will help keep anyone who comes into contact with the program safe," he continues. "But at the end of the day, it's the quality of the people you have on staff that matters most, and that's why we introduced this fourth core value."

Eric Zillmer, Athletic Director at Drexel University, as well as a Professor of Neuropsychology at the school and a clinical psychologist, has also been thinking a lot about how to convey to everyone on his staff the role they play in keeping children safe. "Having been an athletic director for 15 years and also being a behavioral scientist, creating a culture is really what I want to do," he says. "I believe you do that both from the top-down and bottom-up. I want to build a community where people care about each other, so I have to be the leader and live by those principles. But it also comes down to people talking with and supporting each other, the same way coaches build their teams."

One key part of building from the bottom up, Zillmer says, is to empower everyone to feel responsible for protecting minors. When talking to his staff, he uses this example: "If a child is visiting your house, you want to know where they are, what they are they doing, and that they're safe," he says. "As a parent, this is something you do intuitively and automatically. I told everybody we need to do the same thing here and make sure we always know what's going on when we have minors around. You can't just assume everything is okay."

Understanding the power dynamics that exist between athletes and coaches, especially at the high school level, is an important part of establishing a safe culture, according to Kristen Dieffenbach, Assistant Professor in West Virginia University's College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences, who has studied sexual abuse in sports and teaches in the school's Athletic Coaching Education program. Because they have the power to decide who plays and who doesn't, coaches hold a great deal of control over athletes, and even parents who fear a coach may retaliate against their child should they rock the boat.

"Anytime you have a power dynamic where there is a perception of huge benefit or loss, such as getting a spot on a team, you have a potential for abuse," she says. "This is especially true if those in power aren't aware of how to yield that power with responsibility."

The problem increases when people are willing to look the other way because a team is winning or it's risky to challenge the status quo. "Keeping kids safe takes creating a culture where anyone can question those with power," Dieffenbach says. "People need to be able to say, 'I'm not sure if this is appropriate,' without being vilified."

Such a culture can only exist when it's supported by those in charge. "You can't turn your back on anything," says Darwin Rold, District Athletic Director for the Lee's Summit (Mo.) School District. "If a student or a coach comes to you with a concern, you have to approach it with an open mind. You can't close your mind and say 'That can't happen here.'"

Dieffenbach readily admits that all this is easier said than done. "Negotiating cultural nuances and the evolution of opinion are difficult," she says. "It calls for critical thinking, effective decision-making, and reflective evaluation. It requires not becoming so enamored in the magic of the culture that you forget to pay attention to the details. And it also takes a lot of courage, so athletic directors need to make sure they are willing to shoulder that responsibility."

In 2010, the swimming world was rocked by a report on ABC's 20/20 that detailed cases of sexual abuse of swimmers by their club coaches. In response, USA Swimming has done a lot of significant work to prevent abusive relationships between coaches and athletes, establishing its "Safe Sport" program (

Susan Woessner, Director of USA Swimming Safe Sport, explains that along with creating the right culture, well-constructed policies and best-practice guidelines are critical. The ones USA Swimming has implemented put everyone on the same page and many can easily be applied to the scholastic setting.

"Abuse is more likely to occur when there is no shared expectation for appropriate behavior and no policies for how adults are expected to behave around children," Woessner says. "Putting clear policies in place allows everyone to have the same perspective and understand the boundaries when it comes to working with children."

According to Woessner, the most effective boundaries reduce opportunities for someone to gain three things: access, privacy and control over an athlete. "Obviously, an offender needs access to a victim in order to offend," she says. "They also need privacy, since it's unlikely that abuse will occur in public areas. And then they need control over the victim. They need to be able to groom the victim by conditioning them, and even their family or the entire community, into thinking what a great person they are, which makes the victim less likely to report what's going on."

Reducing access and privacy occurs by creating as open and observable an environment as possible. Lee Green, Professor of Business and Economics at Baker University who has given numerous presentations about liability and legal issues at NFHS and NIAAA conferences, suggests eliminating interactions between one child and one adult. "Should it be impossible to ban them, policies should require that all activity be both observable and interceptable by other school personnel," he says. "So if a coach needs to work one on one with an athlete, it should be in an open space, not behind closed doors."

Travel is another crucial aspect to look at when it comes to access and privacy. USA Swimming recommends that a coach never travel with one athlete alone. Should a squad find itself sending only one athlete to a competition, USA Swimming suggests it travel with another team going to the same event.

Lee's Summitt takes a similar approach. "If one of our schools has just one or two athletes qualify for a state meet, we'll have their coach and athlete travel with those from another one of our schools," Rold says. "Sometimes you just have to take the extra step when it comes to supervision."

Limiting control or grooming requires policies that disallow coaches and athletes from interacting outside the school or sport setting. This should include establishing guidelines regarding the use of electronic communications. "A lot of times we see relationships develop through the use of text messaging or Facebook, in part because these methods allow for privacy, and people may type things they would never say out loud," Woessner says. "We recommend that policies include expectations about content, and require coaches to only send messages related to sport or team events or topics.

"Policies should also address time and volume," she continues. "We've had cases where we see an adult and an athlete exchange thousands of text messages a week. This is abnormal and should raise a red flag. And outside an emergency situation, there's no need for a coach to be texting an athlete in the middle of the night."

Woessner points to other USA Swimming policies and guidelines that limit the way coaches can interact with their athletes. "Conversations about sex or conversations that are sexual in nature are prohibited," she says. "By not having a boundary there, you allow the opportunity for that conversation to occur, which can then develop into something more explicit and escalate into abuse."

While coaches may consider some of these restrictions too harsh, Woessner says they should know that strong rules protect coaches as much as they do athletes. "Following these policies reduces the opportunity for a coach to even be in the position where abuse could happen," she says. "At the same time, these policies reduce the opportunity for someone to make a false allegation against a coach. If you have been transparent and observable in your interactions with athletes, you avoid putting yourself in a position where someone could accuse you of doing something you didn't do."

Policies like these can also help coaches maintain healthy relationships with team members without making any athlete feel slighted. "These expectations really help the coaches not look like the bad guy to the athletes," Woessner says. "If a coach rejects an athlete as a friend on Facebook or refuses to reply to a text, the coach can point to the team policy and the athlete won't feel like the coach is ignoring them."

If there's one thing every athletic director took away from the Penn State scandal, it was the duty to report any and all sexual abuse to the proper authorities. Green says athletic directors should become familiar with the laws in their state regarding what must be reported, who must report it, and to whom, and then work with others in their school to make any applicable laws part of a reporting policy.

"Schools need to impose an affirmative duty on their employees to report any indication of abuse," he says. "This should include volunteers and even outsourced personnel such as athletic trainers. The reporting procedures need to set forth, in detail, all the requirements of the particular state child abuse reporting law. The best way to do that is to make the law itself a part of the school's policy."

Burke says the need to report any signs of abuse is easier to get across to his staff members after what happened at Penn State. "There's a heightened understanding that if you see something that doesn't look right, you have to report it, particularly when it involves young people," he says. "You can't just say to yourself, 'I didn't see anything' or 'It really wasn't a big deal.' You have to let the professionals do that assessment. As uncomfortable as it may be to make that kind of report, it can become a lot more uncomfortable if you don't."

If state laws don't already mandate that reports of suspected abuse be made to a specific agency, it's important for schools to develop a policy on this detail. Green suggests the athletic director not be the person who reviews these reports.

"There's too much potential for a conflict of interest," he says. "The athletic director knows the coaches and may even be friends with them. Every school district is required by federal law to have a Title IX reporting officer, and that's where all reports of any type of discrimination are supposed to take place. For most school districts that is the person to whom reports of sexual abuse should also be made. Normally that would be somebody in the human resources department or maybe the school district counsel."

"One thing I've learned is that athletic directors can't be the detectives who figure this out," Zillmer says. "They're trained to run the athletic department, not to decipher what happened behaviorally or psychologically. There are other people who have those skills--let them handle the situation."

Having one person receive reports can also help reveal a bigger picture. "Sometimes we'll find that a parent is concerned about an athlete, a friend of the athlete notices a lot of texting with the coach, and an assistant coach sees the other assistant coach taking the same kid out to dinner," Woessner explains. "So everybody has a little piece of information that in and of itself may not be actionable, but when you put all those pieces together, it starts to paint a different story."

When making a report, athletic directors or coaches should be explicit about the information they have without overstating it. "If something was told to us secondhand, we would report that information, but we would also explain that it is secondhand information from another source," Fisher says. "If someone witnessed something themselves, then they would need to report all the facts."

Green adds that an athletic director's responsibilities don't end when the report is made. "They should follow up if they don't hear anything back within a week or two," he says. "I think if Joe Paterno had followed up a couple of times on his initial report, the perception regarding his lack of action would have been totally different. And all the correspondence, from the initial report to any follow-up, should be made in writing so there's a record. Don't just leave a voice mail or report it orally."

Even in cases that don't rise to the level of being reported, it can still be important to do something. "If a coach comes close to crossing a boundary, you would want to increase monitoring and remind them of the policies they must follow," Woessner says. "Sometimes people see something that concerns them but is not necessarily a policy violation or criminal behavior, so they don't do anything about it. That's where you need to be clear about your expectations and make sure it doesn't escalate."

In addition to raising awareness of sexual abuse in athletics, the Sandusky case has made athletic directors think about the protection of minors who are not their own student-athletes. These individuals typically are part of one of three groups: rentals to outside parties, recruits, and participants in college-sponsored programs.

After realizing the number of minors involved in athletic department activities, Zillmer took several steps to make sure they would stay safe. "First, we had all our employees, including student employees, undergo training about child abuse and the need to report any sign of abuse," he says. "Second, we trained our student-athletes who serve as hosts to recruits. We have done this before in terms of alcohol use and parties, and we added a component on sexual abuse to ensure that everybody is on the same page. We're also increasing foot patrol in our buildings when minors are present. We are trying to not allow situations where there is a potential for an unsafe environment. For example, if a minor needs to go to the bathroom, we make sure more than one person escorts him or her."

Drexel also decided to require any groups it rents to or partners with to "endorse and embrace" the school's policies regarding minors. "Many of the groups we work with have already implemented the things we've asked them to do, such as conducting background checks on the people they bring in and having additional insurance coverage," Zillmer says. "Other groups have been resistant to these changes. Many of them are nonprofits run by volunteers with limited means, and it's very difficult for them to add any more infrastructure. Unfortunately, we'll no longer be able to accommodate those groups. That means some children will lose the opportunity to come to our campus and participate in these events, but it is something we have to do."

Purdue came to a similar conclusion after reviewing its policies. The school now requires background checks on anyone working on the campus, including clinicians and counselors at sports camps. The limited liability corporations that operate the camps on behalf of the school's coaches are responsible for making sure the checks are completed, but the athletic department has offered to run the checks for them, just as they do for department employees.

"We haven't had any problems in the past, but you'd hate to find out that there was some obvious information you didn't pursue," Burke says. "Even though these camps are operated by limited liability corporations, most people would say they're going to the Matt Painter camp or the Sharon Versyp camp and associate it with Purdue."

High school athletic directors often find themselves on the opposite side of the camp equation, such as when their sports teams go to camps as a group. Such trips bring an increased risk for sexual abuse through hazing or inappropriate coach-athlete interactions. At Springfield, Fisher makes it clear that coaches and athletes on these trips are held to the same standards as when they are on school grounds.

"These may not be school-sponsored events, but if they involve our staff members and our student-athletes, we insist that there's appropriate supervision," he says. "They may be at a college where there are camp counselors present, but our coaches are still the ones responsible for their players."

At the end of the day, keeping children safe is about asking everyone in the athletic department to do their part. "I'm sure some athletic directors are saying to themselves, 'This is not what I signed up for,'" Zillmer says. "But that's no different than coaches who tell me they just want to coach. Well, they have to fundraise. They have to take care of their kids and make sure they go to class. The world is getting more complicated, and we're all being asked to do more. Simply put, these are part of our responsibilities as athletic directors."

Sidebar: BY THE BOOK
It can sometimes be difficult for coaches to see the importance of following policies and procedures. They may view them as needless paperwork or mere formalities. At Capital High School in Olympia, Wash., a coach learned the hard way how important they can be.

Doug Galloway was the school's Head Boys' Basketball Coach when he took the team to a camp at Western Washington University last June. During the camp there was "forced sexual contact" during hazing, which occurred while Galloway and other coaches were at a camp social event, reported The Olympian. Galloway notified authorities the next day when he learned of the incident. Campus police found that sexual contact had occurred but the county prosecutor's office declined to press charges, in part because the parents of the main victim did not want them to.

In August, the school announced it was not retaining Galloway as boys' basketball coach, although his teaching position was unaffected. The Olympian reported that Galloway had failed to file the proper paperwork needed for such a trip, and that the paperwork would have included a supervision plan, providing details about who would be supervising the students. School officials declined our offer to comment on the case.

After the decision was made public, parents and students rallied behind the coach and asked the district to reconsider, but the board stuck to its original decision. "The head coach didn't provide adequate supervision to ensure the safety and well-being of the students at the camp," school spokesman Ryan Betz told The Olympian.
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