Good Touch, Bad Touch: Are Coaches Overstepping Their Boundaries?

USA TODAY Sports

A run of incidents in the past year - some high profile, others only talked about in smaller circles - have led some to wonder whether the issue of sexual predation in college athletics is one of epidemic or histrionic.

It seems to keep happening all across the country. In State College, Pennsylvania, Jerry Sandusky used his long-standing tenure as a head coach to engage in sexually inappropriate behavior with young boys as the university appeared to turn the other cheek.

In Toledo, Ohio, Kevin Hadsell went from a cross-country coach to the overseer of everything that is Toledo track and field, and used that influence to flirt with his athletes and create consequences for those who didn’t comply.

In Camp Springs, Maryland, Lloyd Irvin and a warped power culture of "Android" and "Programmer" allowed numerous alleged sexual misconducts to take place, including a New Year’s Eve gang rape.

In Salt Lake City, Utah, university administrators are alleged to have ignored repeated notices about inappropriate behavior, which appears to have resulted in a head swimming coach, Greg Winslow, continuing to coach despite a pattern of abuse that may have included sexually assaulting a 15 year old girl.

Why do these situations keep happening? These sexual predators appear to be everywhere within the coaching ranks, especially at the "elite" levels (intercollegiate and above) – why isn’t anyone doing anything to stop it?

The answers are a little more complicated than you would think, but we are all responsible.

"THE degree of authority for coaches makes athletics ripe for predators, who seek out such opportunities."

This is according to Dr. Anne Salter, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist from Madison, WI. As an expert on the subject, and the author of Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, And Other Sex Offenders, she points out that access is key for such behavior, and authority is the best way to get that access.

The battle is always there between parents and coaches.

How much authority do I, as parent, give my child’s coach to serve as a de-facto extra parent when it comes to education and discipline while they are under that coach’s direction, without feeling like I’m being replaced as a trustworthy authority figure in their life?

How much leeway do I, as a coach, allow my athletes’ parents to have when it comes to being supportive and participatory in their child’s athletic endeavors, without feeling like the parent is not only controlling their child, but also controlling me and my ability to do my job?

There may not be a good answer to those questions, especially when it comes to preventing the ability of a coach to prey on an athlete.

"Such people are pathological, and will find situations fertile for their behavior," says Dr. Jack Singer, a professional sports psychologist from Laguna, CA, who also said he has worked with a number of cases like this in the past.

These incidents we read about in the news are unavoidable. As that parent, all you can do is get a read for your child’s coach and how they interact, and then leave the rest to your faith in humankind.

This becomes especially true when you reach those increasingly elite levels of sport, where there is an accompanying increase in the amount of time and energy the athlete must spend away from the protections of home and out with their coaches on their own. I guess, in that case, you just have to find a coach you can trust.

But can you even rely on that?

According to Dr. Salter, "there's something built into humans that likability and trustworthiness go together. If we like someone, we instinctively trust them. It turns out the two have nothing to do with each other; some very obnoxious people are very trustworthy, and some charismatic, likable people are completely untrustworthy. But likability is a huge factor."

Perhaps at some point some allegations are made. It’s just an isolated incident, nothing to become too concerned about. Then the incidents become more than isolated, but those charged with doing something about it are conflicted – they think to themselves ‘but this is Dave! He’s done so much good for our program and our school, and he’s such a great guy! He couldn’t possibly do something like this… could he?"

Well, as it turns out, he (or she) could.

"Such people are pathological, and will find situations fertile for their behavior" -Dr. Jack Singer, PhD, on whether the environment or the predator happens first


That's the naive thinking, that this [incident] is a one-time deal; that this person just made a mistake and they'll be fine," says Singer. "This is a defect in their character."

Then the institution, whose members’ loyalties are obviously torn between that individual they care about and that institution they care about equally, decides to cover up the situation by whatever means are necessary. While this may cause things to die down in the short term, eventually the truth comes out, and the rage is only that much greater.

"What I always tell institutions is that there is no problem so bad that a cover up won’t make it worse," said Salter. "Yes, people are loyal and want to help this organization when they can, but in the long run, tolerating sexual abuse does not help."

Indeed, it is the perfect storm. An environment where you can get the authority and access that you need to engage in the kind of inappropriate behavior that you desire. An environment where you just need to be likable enough to get people to trust you, and then they'll defend you to the death because you represent the institution to which they are so inseparably attached. Who knows how many coaches out there are reaping the benefits of such circumstances?

"THESE situations are the exception, not the rule."

Dr. Singer was still quick to note that, as dark as the subject matter is, he didn’t want to paint the entire topic with any broad, morbid brush strokes. In the big picture, incidents like the ones we talk about here are the exception, not the rule, and by a pretty wide margin.

That’s largely due to the one thing that everyone I spoke to seemed to agree upon – the presence and fostering of a well-placed trust. It’s a two way street; the athletes need to have people whom they can trust and turn to, and the parents and coaches need to be successful on earning trust from those athletes by supporting the whole person, not just the athlete.

"What I always tell institutions is that there is no problem so bad that a cover up won’t make it worse" -Dr. Anne Salter


Dr. Salter said it best when she pointed out that "families (need) to let (their children) know that athletics are not the beginning and end of their affection for the child, whether they succeed or fail." But that trust that a young athlete doles out needs to go not only to their biological family, but to their athletic one – and it’s on everyone in that environment to make that sharing of trust possible.

"I try to create a family environment, both through hiring coaches too dedicated to their craft to be distracted by outside influences, and by challenging players to do more than just play good basketball – to be good people."

That’s how Jamion Christian, head basketball coach at Mount Saint Mary’s University, sees things. "We give [our players] two things we want them to focus on. One, we want you to graduate, and two we want you to play great basketball - and if you dedicate yourself to those two things, everything else will work itself out. We try to hold them to that standard every day. They don’t always like that, but if we make that a constant standard then the person who doesn't follow that becomes the outlier."

That familial environment is crucial. Christian's coaches are close to the players, and each player has a coach they can turn to about anything, whether it's a test they struggled on or an argument they had with their girlfriend. Everything is an open communication. But it's not just the coaches who need to work towards the creation of that family environment away from home; the athletes have to have an active role as well.

Emily can attest to that. She was a collegiate gymnast for very successful squads, always attending the national finals. But not every athlete was comfortable with their male head coach.

"They felt that he would get too close when he was talking to them, that he would touch them inappropriately for a college athlete - a hand on their lower back or on their shoulder," Emily said. "I didn’t have an issue with it, and it was a 50/50 split across the team as to who did or didn't have an issue with it. "

Obviously this was a very different situation than the very drastic circumstances of the scenarios like the one at Lloyd Irvin’s facility that we used as an entry point to this topic, but that dissidence over what was and was not appropriate created a rift in the team, to the point that several girls stopped attending practice on the day that coach was there - not ideal given the amount of practice necessary to succeed on a national level.

That being said, Emily had past experience with a positive environment that made this one a non-issue. "[My coach] was always mindful of where he was touching me, so it was never inappropriate for me," Emily said. "If my coach was spotting me and he accidentally touched my chest, once I was back on the ground the very first thing he would do is apologize. It mattered that he recognized it and acknowledged his intentions, and he did that every time it happened."

IT'S comforting to know that, as awful as these situations can be, they are very rare. More importantly, it is good to know that with the right people in place, they are highly preventable. That said, it is incumbent upon all of us – as young athletes, coaches, parents, and administrators – to take an active role in ensuring that these incidents remain the exception to the rule.

A research study was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology last year exploring parents of former elite athletes, and their reflections on any emotionally abusive coaching practices that took place during the athletes’ careers, and a pattern became pretty evident.

"A large percentage of these parents were upset at themselves because they just took at face value whatever the coach did, and if the coach said ‘I don’t want parents involved,’ they didn't get involved," said Dr. Singer. "Even if their child came home from practice upset about something, the parents were afraid or hesitant to talk to the coach about what happened."

So it is incumbent upon the parents to make sure that they ask questions, and get involved, because as Coach Christian pointed out, "families don't have secrets; they talk things out."

We need to make sure that the youth in our lives are able to trustfully come to us in times of need and know that, no matter what, their athletic successes or failures are just one blip on life’s radar. They have to understand that our unconditional love for them does not hinge on a stat sheet or a trophy, and it will not turn on the flimsiness of a "their word against mine" argument.

But even beyond that family dynamic, it is up to the individuals (including those young athletes) to tend to one another in a way that helps develop a trust in their peers.

"Families don't have secrets; they talk things out" - Jamion Christian, Mount St. Mary's coach

"You are a person who should be respected too, regardless of age or status on the team," Emily said. "You just have the courage to stand up and do what's right."

If we can do all of those things, it might be enough, but those of us who write about such subjects play a role as well. By talking about these situations more openly and honestly – before they become such a large issue that nobody knows where to start – we can create an environment where a victim can be believed and empowered, perhaps in a way that prevents them from becoming a victim in the first place.

If you, or anyone that you know, has been the victim of sexual abuse as an athlete or otherwise, Dr. Jack Singer can be contacted via his hotline at 1-800-497-9880.

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