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Athlete Sexual Abuse

Today, more than 35 million children in the U.S. under the age of 16 play organized sports. College athletes number more than 520,000, and about 12,000 athletes play professional sports in the United States. These athletes are coached or supervised by well over a million individuals ranging from volunteers, who frequently undergo no background checks, to the most highly vetted coaching pros. No matter the sport, coaches are trusted by players and, for younger athletes, by their families. If a coach violates that trust by sexually abusing an athlete, they should be brought to justice with the help of an athlete sexual abuse lawyer. If a school, athletic program or team management fails to provide proper oversight or actively shields a coach from investigation, they too should be held accountable for athlete sexual abuse.

In many sexual abuse cases, there are statutes of limitations that limit the window of time available to take action. If you are a survivor of sexual abuse, it’s important to speak with experienced athlete sexual abuse attorneys as soon as possible.

What is child athlete sexual abuse?

Athlete sexual abuse often occurs when an adult who is in charge of supervising a child athlete, whether as a coach, an athletic trainer or another member of the team staff, engages in grooming behaviors, sexualized touching or sex with a minor.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines child sexual abuse as the “involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared and cannot give consent, or that violates the laws or social taboos of society.” The perpetrator can be “an adult . . . who, by his/her age or development, is in a relationship of responsibility, trust, or power toward the victim.”

How often does sexual assault/abuse in sports occur?

Sexual abuse in sports occurs far more often than one might imagine. The Foundation for Global Sports Development, a non-profit organization focused on delivering and supporting initiatives that promote accessible, fair, and abuse-free sport for youth, reports that between 2-20% of young athletes experience sexual harassment or abuse.

The number of criminal matters and civil lawsuits alleging abuse by coaches and other adults responsible for youth sports programs has been growing. Over the last few years, many cases of coaches accused of sexual misconduct against young athletes have been in the courts, although it is highly likely such violations are underreported.

What are signs that sexual abuse may be occurring?

Indicators of possible abuse in sports include (but are not limited to) missing practices, illness, loss of interest, withdrawal and performance significantly below his/her abilities. Other signs may include:

  • Increasing isolation
  • Fear of being alone
  • Aggression and/or impulsiveness
  • Substance abuse
  • Depression and PTSD
  • Personality disorders, anxiety disorders, and even psychosis

While there may be other causes behind some signs of abuse, it is important to trust your gut if you believe you or someone you know may have been sexually abused. Addressing sexual abuse can be painful, but the sooner action is taken the better.

Too often, parents and communities think “not in our school’s athletic program; not in this league; or not on a team in this neighborhood or city.” This mentality enables the protection of sexual predators and makes the job of identifying predators and stopping their behavior more difficult. If the signs of possible abuse are there, dismissing the symptoms or delaying further investigation can easily result in additional harm.

What are some examples of sexual assault/abuse in sports?

PCVA has handled numerous cases of athlete sexual abuse. Here are links to a few examples:

How does sexual abuse in sports occur?

Sexual abuse in sports occurs for a wide range of reasons and in a variety of situations: who the coaches and other responsible parties are, the access they have to young athletes, and the trust they develop with the athletes, parents and the community.

Who they are: To begin with, coaches, athletic trainers and others in charge of athletics are often not licensed educators who have been vetted by virtue of the positions they hold. In other words, they may be either volunteers or employees of organizations who don’t perform background checks.

Access: These are individuals with unfettered access to potential victims, not only in practices and local games that may be in public, visible places, but also at away games where athletes and coaches spend the night in hotels, rooms and “personalized” coaching sessions.

Trust: Often coaches who turn out to be abusers have earned the trust of the athletes, parents and the community by appearing to always have the athletes’ best interests in mind, having a winning program, and appearing to be wonderful people who garner trust and respect.

How it happens: Coaches and athletic trainers who commit sexual abuse find opportunities to be alone with athletes who have come to trust them over time. Classic “grooming” may take place even over a period of years before an underage athlete agrees to a sexual encounter. Sometimes the trust engendered by grooming activities results in rape. The coach may have shown special attention to an intended target, may have advanced an athlete’s role on the team and may have developed a friendship with the family. It’s no wonder in so many cases that when abuse is revealed it comes as a complete surprise to the organization and to parents.

What are the signs that a coach may be “grooming” an athlete for future sexual abuse?

Signs to look out for include and adult:

  • Failing to respect boundaries, through physical touch
  • Attempting to be an athlete’s friend rather than an adult role model
  • Spending time alone with the athlete
  • Directly contacting the athlete child outside the normal channels of communication
  • Engaging with the athlete on personal matters (for example, hiring the athlete to work at the adult’s house unsupervised, or discussing the athlete’s romantic life)
  • Giving gifts without reason
  • Giving the athlete special treatment within the team or competitive environment

What are the long-term impacts of sexual abuse?

The effects of sexual abuse on children can last a lifetime. The shame, guilt, fear and anger that come with suffering coach or athletic trainer sexual abuse can have far-reaching repercussions,  including long-term psychological, emotional, physical and medical impacts. Often, survivors of childhood sexual abuse develop “psychological armor” to survive the experience, such that it is not unusual for survivors to go decades before beginning to understand the impact of abuse on their lives.

What should I look for in an athlete sexual abuse lawyer?

The short answers is experience, sensitivity and aggressiveness. PCVA’s sexual abuse attorneys have successfully handled athlete sexual abuse cases for years and recovered millions of dollars in settlements and verdicts while helping to ensure the abusive behavior of perpetrators ends. Our attorneys have undergone professional training on how to work with individuals who have been subjected to trauma, to prevent re-traumatization. When you work with us, know that you are working with an advocate who represents you with the utmost empathy and care. And equally important, we are relentless advocates and will not rest until justice on behalf of victims is achieved.

How common is sexual abuse in youth sports?

Unfortunately, sexual abuse within youth sports within and outside of schools is all too common. Youth sports leagues attract sexual predators, who exploit their positions of authority to gain access to vulnerable minors. “Every parent needs to be vigilant because predators continually show up – whether it’s soccer, gymnastics, wrestling, swimming or any sport – and take advantage of parents and their children who have hope for sport scholarships if their child just pleases the coaches with their performance,” says PCVA attorney Darrell Cochran. “When an organization fails to use sensible hiring, screening and supervisory processes, these sexual abusers have an easy time isolating and assaulting youths with ruthless and terrifying efficiency.”

Does sexual abuse occur in college and professional athletic programs?

There is no age cutoff when it comes to sexual abuse. According to the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MCASA), “In a 2021 survey of 1,500 current and former college student athletes, more than one in four respondents reported enduring inappropriate sexual contact from a campus authority figure, most often a coach.” College interscholastic athletics are governed by the NCAA, which can take action to protect students from abusive college staff and prevent further harm. The organization states, “Although the NCAA does not have the same power as law enforcement agencies, university conduct boards or university human resource departments, it can create and enforce rules, investigate infractions, and punish violating universities.” Colleges and universities also have very strict policies regarding sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse also occurs in professional sports. In 2022 an independent investigation into sexual abuse within the National Women’s Soccer League was widely reported, with NPR stating that the report “found emotional abuse and sexual misconduct were systemic in the sport, impacting multiple teams, coaches and players.” In another example, NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks were sued in 2021 by former player Kyle Beach, who alleged sexual assault by coach Brad Aldrich in 2010. An independent study of the matter reported that management simply didn’t care and were more concerned with “the challenge of getting to the Stanley Cup Finals and a desire to focus on the team and the playoffs.”

Why don’t victims always come forward right away?

There are many reasons why a survivor of sexual abuse might be reluctant to share their story. Fear of not being believed, shame and confusion are just some of the challenges that many victims face.

Courtney Butler, a soccer player raped by her Blackhills Football Club coach in 2005 when she was 16, refused to tell anyone at the time what had happened. Many years later, she filed a lawsuit against Blackhills, which the organization ultimately settled for $7.5 million. Butler told KIRO News, “I wish when I was younger I would’ve done something about it, but I didn’t believe in myself. I believed my perpetrator. And what I really want people to know, girls to know and guys too, I just want them to understand that there is no shame in this.”

PCVA attorney Darrell Cochran stated about the case, “Our clients and their parents are heroes for having the courage to step forward and take on this establishment when instead of standing by these sexually abused players, the Blackhills Football Club turned on them, denying that anything had happened and destroying documents to hide evidence that would help prove what had happened.”

How can PCVA help athletes who have been sexually abused?

Our nationally recognized attorneys have represented thousands of sexual abuse survivors, victims and their families, helping them achieve justice by holding the institutions and individuals that failed to protect them accountable and preventing future abuse. Through our efforts, we have helped recover hundreds of millions of dollars in damages on behalf of abuse survivors. While no amount of monetary compensation can erase the trauma of abuse, the financial assistance can help pay for necessary expenses to allow the healing process to begin.

Our attorneys have been involved in some of the most complicated and concerning sexual abuse cases in the country and are often consulted by other law firms for guidance and expertise when representing sexual abuse survivors. We take a trauma-informed approach to our counsel that acknowledges the sensitive nature of these cases.

If you or someone you know has experienced athlete sexual abuse or assault, our attorneys are here to listen and help. Learn more about how we help sexual abuse survivors or schedule a no obligation consultation with one of our lawyers by contacting us here or by calling (253) 777-0799 or (206) 462-4334.

How much do you charge?

Our work is done on a contingency basis. This means that you do not pay us on an hourly basis and we advance the costs of litigation. If we help you resolve your case, we receive a percentage of the amount you receive and you reimburse us for the costs we advanced on your behalf.