The safe sport act won’t prevent child sex abuse in youth sports

The safe sport act won’t prevent child sex abuse in youth sports
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The U.S. Olympic Committee’s (USOC) recent decision to revoke the USA Gymnastics (USAG) governing body status was more than just a crisis PR move. It sent a clear message that Olympic affiliated sports organizations that fail to act when allegations of child sexual abuse arise will be held accountable.

The need for sports organizations to take action and police themselves and their business partners on the issue of child sexual abuse is more important today than ever before. That’s because a recent law enacted to prevent the very same failures exhibited by the USAG will do little to correct the underlying problem. In fact, the likelihood that this law will have any measurable impact in stemming the tide of child sexual abuse in youth sports is about as high as my chances of medaling in the 2020 Summer Games.

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As USAG’s star was imploding, in a rare show of bipartisan support, Congress passed what is known as the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017 (safe sport act). It compels any adult involved with youth athletes to be a mandatory reporter of child abuse if they see or sense a child may be in danger. The Safe Sport Act obligates individuals in sports settings to notify the authorities within 24 hours of such behavior if or when it occurs. 

It’s a noble goal and it’s now the law of the land. There are just a few problems; few know it exists, it’s not federally supported and it’s most likely entirely unenforceable.

In preparing for this column, I called several friends whose children are actively involved in various sports (lacrosse, soccer, sailing) and live in states all around the country and not one had heard of the safe sport act. In fact, they learned about the law’s existence and its requirements from my email, having received little or no information by their respective sports’ leagues. News coverage about it has been scarce and the public is right to wonder how many youth sports leagues around the country have instructed their representatives who interact with children on a regular basis about the law’s new provisions. 

Why the apparent lack of awareness? The safe sport act lacks two essential ingredients – funding and accountability. It’s effectively an unfunded mandate, where Congress passed it without dedicating the necessary resources to ensure its success. And it provides no enforceable requirement for youth sports organizers to be trained on how to spot the warning signs of child sexual abuse.

Most troubling is the fact that the safe sport act establishes zero consequences for adults in youth sports who do not uphold the law and fail to report suspected child predators to the authorities. And that raises a central question: Why wasn’t more done to ensure this law would successfully reduce child sexual abuse in U.S. sports in the wake of the USAG calamity?

The safe sport act is a well-intentioned effort that sadly won’t do anything to stop the failures that occurred at USAG. Funding must be available to give youth sports organizations the proper coaching and education they need, so that they may serve as a first line of defense on this issue for the children in their care. Those who serve as mentors for children in youth sports must be compelled to report anything they may see or hear, as the safe sport act commands, or face penalties for staying quiet. And it must be part of a national standard for mandatory reporting, where those in any profession who fail to step forward and do the right thing to protect defenseless children from child sexual abuse face serious consequences for their inaction.

In revoking USAG’s status, USOC’s CEO Sarah Hirshland noted that U.S. gymnasts “deserve better.” She’s correct, but we can’t stop there. All children deserve to be protected from predators, including those in and outside of sports.

And while we must do everything we can to educate ourselves on what we can do to prevent child sexual abuse, Congress must provide funding and training and hold all adults accountable to protect children, and ensure the horrible failures that occurred at USAG will never be repeated.

Lyndon Haviland, MPH, DrPH, is an advocate for public health and is the former CEO of Darkness to Light, a nonprofit that aims to prevent child sexual abuse.