Protecting athletes from sexual abuse is the focus of the new SafeSport Act adopted by Congress in February 2018. The amount of abuse coming to light in youth serving organizations is alarming. The 156 victims who spoke during the Nasser hearings regarding abuse in gymnastics are the tip of the iceberg. The U.S. Center for Safe Sport opened in March 2017. This entity is authorized to investigate complaints in many organized sports organizations. Within 15 months of opening, the Center had fielded 1,000 complaints. The vast majority (81%) of these were current complaints, not historical complaints. A majority (65%) were complaints against coaches.
When we know that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are abused before they reach adulthood, foreseeability of childhood sexual abuse is clear. Abuse specifically within sport is lower but is still suggested as between 2% and 8% of all athletes according to a 2011 report. Where there is predictable risk, then there is a duty to take action.
Foreseeability of Child Sexual Abuse
The prevalence of these complaints has a direct effect on the legal standard imposed on youth-serving organizations. In 2017, a California court concluded that “it was reasonably foreseeable to defendants that a child participating in [U.S. Youth Soccer Association] would be sexually abused by a coach.” Doe v. U.S. Youth Soccer Association, 8 Cal.App.5th 1118 (2017).
Oklahoma courts have frequently recognized the special place that children hold in our society and adults’ heightened duty to protect them. Because almost all national sports organizations have either adopted or are required to adopt policies and procedures for child protection, it is likely that the failure to have such rules will be considered a violation of the common law duty to protect children within a youth-serving organization.
The SafeSport Act
In an effort to address sexual abuse of athletes, including children, in organized sport, the U.S. Congress passed the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act, effective February 14, 2018. There is no doubt the Act is needed.
The U.S. Center for SafeSport and the SafeSport Act is part of the solution. The Act now requires mandatory child abuse reporting for those affiliated with amateur sports and U.S. Olympic Sports, including college athletics. Anyone affiliated with these organizations must report sexual abuse to law enforcement within 24 hours or they can be charged with a federal crime. In some ways, Oklahoma has been ahead of the curve. Oklahoma has been a mandatory reporting state for many years. By law, all adults who are aware or have a suspicion of child abuse or sexual abuse of a child under the age of 18 must report to the DHS Child Abuse Hotline, 1-800-522-3511.
The SafeSport Act also addressed much-needed investigation and enforcement mechanisms. It requires the Center for SafeSport to establish policies for handling allegations. The Center has an investigation process. The Center will also hold hearings after their investigation. Following the hearing, individuals may be placed on a banned list. Unfortunately, the sheer number of complaints along with lagging funding is threatening to swamp the process.
The SafeSports Act also provides guidelines for civil actions. The Act acknowledges that for many people the recognition that what happened to them as children was actually sexual or criminal in nature often does not occur until years after the event. Thus, the SafeSport Act provides an extended statute of limitations for civil cases of ten years after the date of discovery of the act or injury. The Act does not define what constitutes discovery. Oklahoma’s civil statute of limitations governing childhood sexual abuse was extended in 2017 until the victim’s 45th birthday. This extended period, however, only applies to perpetrators and not to youth-serving organizations.
Youth-sports programs, like all youth-serving organizations, give adults access to youth. In many sports, there are also “high risk” factors including overnight trips, changing in locker rooms and travel to practices and games where an athlete may be driven by a coach or volunteer.
In addition to the fact that all sports is body-oriented, there is also a power imbalance between coaches and athletes. Coaches are given a lot of authority over athletes, even children. Coaches may set up a culture where their authority is not to be questioned, at risk of playing time or other disincentives. Additionally, while abuse may occur in all sports, individual athletic sports such as gymnastics and swimming may be even riskier because the one-on-one is inherent in the sport.
Given all these risky circumstances, the SafeSports Act requires that the Center for SafeSport establish policies for preventing abuse. Many national youth-serving organizations already have explicit prevention policies in place. The U.S. Center for SafeSport offers a variety of online training courses aimed at creating safe and respectful sport environments for all athletes. Their website also provides guides for parents of children involved in sport. For those who may need information for implementing safety procedures for local organizations, SafeSports’ own code can be found online. Many other national organizations also offer resources.
For all of these reasons, local youth-serving sports organizations should make sure that they have taken the steps necessary to reduce the chances of child sexual abuse within their organization.
If you or a loved one is a victim of child sexual abuse in athletics, Koller Trial Law may be able to help. Contact us.