While there has been strong focus on concussions in recent years (all 50 states and the District of Columbia now have concussion safety laws), no similar effort has been made in this country to enact laws to protect children playing sports from abuse — whether it be physical, emotional, psychological or sexual — at the hands of coaches, parents and other athletes. The United States also remains one of only two countries in the world yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The convention spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere should enjoy, among them the right to survival, to develop to the fullest, and to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation. It provides, in the words of a 2010 UNICEF report, "the overarching framework that can guide those who provide and supervise sport for children."
Yet when that same UNICEF study reported a troubling lack of awareness of and education on child protection issues among youth sports coaches, parents and other stakeholders, it received absolutely no media attention in this country.
Which raises the inevitable question: Why not?
It can't be because children playing sports in this country are immune from abuse, because they are not. As the Esquire Network's disturbing documentary series about youth football, "Friday Night Tykes," has made abundantly clear, the sad fact is that youth athletes are victims of violence and abuse in their myriad forms every day. Two coaches on the show, which highlights the competitive nature of the Texas Youth Football Association, were suspended last month for encouraging profanity and dangerous helmet hitting among their eight- and nine-year-old players. Last week, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin asked Esquire to pull the show because it glorifies violence.
Young athletes across the country are forced to participate in physically injurious or sexually degrading initiation rituals through hazing; they're required to run punishment laps in 102 degree heat for being late to practice; and allowed to return to the playing field too soon after a concussion. Some are sexually assaulted by coaches; psychologically degraded or humiliated by coaches based on their gender, sexual orientation, body shape or performance; or required or encouraged to follow nutrition and weight loss regimens that lead to eating disorders and the abuse of appearance- and performance-enhancing drugs such as anabolic-androgenic steroids.
The kinds of abuse we see in youth sports would not be tolerated in the classroom or in the workplace. Yet there are no laws that specifically address such abuse in the context of sports.
The lack of media attention and legislative action also can't be because youth sports organizations, whether they be at the national, regional or local level, are doing all they can to protect children against such violence and abuse. As the UNICEF study reports, while some other countries (most notably, the United Kingdom) have enacted child protection programs in sport, they are virtually non-existent in the United States.
A major part of the problem is that instead of defining youth athletes in a way appropriate to their needs — as children first and athletes second — organized youth sports in the United States and other industrialized countries all too often treat children as miniature adults, which has potentially serious adverse consequences to their physical and emotional health. More and more parents — many on full display in "Friday Night Tykes" — seem to accept abuse as the inevitable price their children must pay to succeed in our winner-take-all-society.
Child abuse is the most preventable youth sport injury. Physical, emotional and sexual abuse should not be the price children have to pay to play competitive sports. The status quo should and must be changed. The United States should ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Laws against child abuse should be strengthened in every state to protect against abuse, not just at home, but on the playing field, courts, diamonds and rinks of America. It is time for the abuse to stop. We owe the children of America nothing less.
Brooke de Lench is the author of "Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports" (HarperCollins) the producer of "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer" (PBS) and the executive director of MomsTEAM Institute, an advocacy group for youth sports safety. Her email is deLench@MomsTeam.com.
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