By Nathan L. McCown
Youth sport in America has a long-held tradition of the volunteer coach. At all levels of amateur sport are adults with a desire to coach, lead, and stay connected to the game they love. These volunteer coaches are the backbone of local recreation programs, various non-profit organizations, and even high school athletics. The label of volunteer may not adequately encapsulate the time, energy, and resources these coaches pour into a team or even a single athlete. As amateur and youth sport continue to professionalize, the responsibility placed on the volunteer coach is real and growing.
The Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017 (SafeSport Act) was passed into law by Congress on Feb. 14, 2018. The Act represents a bipartisan effort to address the lack of oversight in youth sport following the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal surrounding doctor Larry Nassar. It establishes organizations and individuals involved with youth and amateur athletes as mandatory reporters of abusive behavior to law enforcement. The SafeSport Act targets national federations governing bodies specifically, but also extends to all organizations involved in amateur and youth sport.
Child Abuse Legislation
The history of the Act dates back to the establishment of the Victims of Child Abuse Act of 1990 and the Amateur Sports Act of 1978. The original Victims of Child Abuse Act of 1990 established a definition of child abuse, mandated that professionals working with minors report abuse (without a timeline to report), and established training requirements of those professionals working on federal land. The original bill was also amended in 2013 to authorize funding to children’s advocacy programs, development of child abuse investigation and prosecution programs, and training of attorneys to better prosecute such cases. The current bill extends the original Victims of Child Abuse Act by identifying all adults authorized to interact with minor amateur athletes, termed covered individuals, as mandated reporters of any suspected child abuse within 24 hours to authorities. Child abuse is defined as physical or mental injury, sexual abuse or exploitation, or negligent treatment of a child. Furthermore, any authorized adult who fails to report suspected child abuse is subject to criminal penalties. Updated civil remedies include extending the statute of limitations to 10 years (originally three years) for a minor victim reaching the age of 18. Additionally, a victim may seek civil remedy within 10 years of discovering the violation or injury instead of 10 years from the date of the action.
The Amateur Sports Act of 1978 designated the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) as the coordinating body for amateur sports, effectively displacing the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). A structure was established for national governing bodies in individual sports with the USOC at the head. Many youth sport organizations do not fall under direct authority of the USOC but may compete in sanctioned competitions or use official rules and regulations.
A key amendment designates the United States Center for SafeSport as the independent national safe sport organization. As the official national safe sport organization, SafeSport is responsible for developing policies and procedures for training, reporting, oversight, and sharing of information between organizations.
Youth Sport Organizations
Important aspects of the bill for amateur sport organizations include identifying adults as mandated reporters to comply with requirements, establishing procedures to limit one-on-one time between a minor and adult, providing training for adults in contact with minor athletes, and prohibiting retaliation. Many organizations may already have these mechanisms in place, but there may be a number of programs across the country unaware of such requirements or incapable of implementing them effectively. Budgetary shortfalls, understaffing, and inadequate volunteer support lead many organizations to operate under less than ideal circumstances. This raises the issue of how a volunteer driven youth sport organization institutes and complies with new federal requirements.
Non-profit youth sport organizations around the country survive off of volunteer coaches and staff. These organizations include county recreation parks and programs, local school teams, religious institutions, and sport clubs. Growing costs, shrinking budgets, and numerous participants drive the need for volunteer hours to the forefront of operation. For some recreational teams, a warm body is sufficient coaching qualification and may be the only barrier to access to minors. Identifying and securing a volunteer is often a challenge that accounts for countless hours and persuasive conversations. Coaching has turned into a more thankless job than ever, with hours unaccounted for in pay for high school coaches and absorbing expenses personally for a volunteer. It takes a special person to commit hours of time and personal resources while receiving no pay, parental abuse, and unmotivated athletes. More rigorous requirements may keep away potential volunteers due to the time and effort barrier to begin volunteering. Organizations need to harness the positive aspects of volunteer requirements, training, and accountability to better serve their athletes.
The Modern Volunteer Coach
What does this mean for the volunteer coach and the organizations which rely upon them? First and foremost, the volunteer coach carries great responsibility in the position despite any monetary, social, or authoritative status. They are the single most influential individual on a team and carry the responsibility of providing a safe environment for the athletes. Second, a coach’s knowledge or skillset of administrative duties beyond the sport may be limited. Proper training and support mechanisms will equip the coach to better meet those needs and requirements. Finally, organizations will need to recommit to their athletes and families by actively engaging with new requirements through mission revision, facility policies, training requirements, and staffing procedures. It no longer is sufficient to simply teach the game. Coaches must be committed to each athlete by providing a safe, secure, and positive team environment first and foremost. Additionally, facilities and organizations must be committed to establishing control mechanisms for a safe environment while mandating training for all volunteers working directly with minors. Any volunteer coach committed to the sport and their athletes should seek development through coaching licenses and additional training beyond minimum requirements.
The United States Center for SafeSport is the national safe sport organization. As part of its mission, SafeSport offers resources and training for youth sport organizations. The cost is $20 per person and provides in-depth training on mandatory reporting, sexual misconduct awareness, and emotional and physical misconduct. The training will equip the most dedicated volunteers to better serve in their role while communicating a commitment to oversight and accountability to predatory individuals seeking easy access to minors.
Congress has sent a clear message to youth sport. Organizations are responsible for the selection, training, and actions of their volunteer staff in providing a safe environment for youth athletes as well as reporting any abuse. Administrators and boards must assess current organizational procedures and structures, effectively train employees and volunteers, and establish clear facility rules to promote a safe environment for all amateur athletes. The full impact on non-profit youth sport organizations may not be recognized until a major court case affirms the new legislation requirements and legal consequences.
Nathan L. McCown is the Director of Athletics at Johnson Ferry Christian Academy and an adjunct professor of economics with Truett McConnell University. He has served as an administrator, coach, and athlete in organizations across the globe including the U.S., Europe, and Africa. He is currently a Ph.D. student in sport management at Troy University researching athletic identity, amateur sport, and career transition. He lives in Atlanta, GA.