What the Positive Coaching Alliance Is Doing About Sexual Abuse — Why So Much More Needs to Be Done

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by Irvin Muchnick


Two months ago, in the course of my annual jaundiced commentary on the Santa Clara Law Sports Law Symposium, I took some shots at Jim Thompson, head of a group called the Positive Coaching Alliance.

Of course, as I got to know Thompson better in one-on-one dialogue, it  turned out that he is just about the most perfect gentleman you could ever hope to meet. He bore no animosity over having been on the receiving end of harsh criticism. “One of my favorite shows is The Newsroom,” Thompson told me in a recent phone conversation he arranged so that we could discuss in depth the problem of coach sexual abuse in amateur sports. “Most media are too bland.”

Thompson, I think, learned a lot from me about a subject that, like so much unpleasantness, gets buried, packaged, homogenized. I also learned about the good things PCA is doing to eradicate abuse, and this post fulfills my promise to disseminate that information.

It’s safe to say that Jim and I are in complete agreement that abuse is profound and cultural. We can talk all we want about the tyranny of the moneyed interests, but explanations for this persistent national scourge go beyond pedestrian economics. Many recent developments in the sports world — including its confrontation with homophobia and the newest wrinkle, locker-room bullying in the National Football League — have more to do with warped constructions of masculinity. This is the particular theme of the post-football career work of the wonderful Joe Ehrmann.

With respect to direct anti-abuse measures, the Positive Coaching Alliance has partnered with the nonprofit Kidpower International and the Green Bay Packers to produce a series of educational videos and a policy template for sports organizations. I urge everyone to check them out at http://positivecoach.org/our-tools/child-abuse-prevention/.

I shared this material with Katherine Starr of Safe4Athletes, the most dynamic critic of the abuse architecture in sports. What Starr believes — and I think the pattern of USA Swimming abuse, now the focus of a Congressional investigation, bears this out — is that the issue has unique features when you get into the athletic power struggle and the imbalance in relationships between young performers and the adult mentors who hold so much control over their careers. In Katherine’s view, Positive Coaching’s efforts align with the post-Penn State regime of teaching kids about appropriate and inappropriate touching, and discouraging the presence of Central Casting child predators in programs where young people congregate. But these measures miss the point, even harmfully domesticate it — and that retards true reform more than it catalyzes it.

So, as a companion to the Positive Coaching resources, I think everyone should also read Starr’s essay on “breaking down sexual abuse in sports”: http://www.safe4athletes.org/blog/item/52-breaking-down-sexual-abuse-in-sports.

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick