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Why No One Did Anything About My Gymnastics Coach's Sexual Abuse

In the microcosmic world of hyper-competitive athletics, a high-performance culture where winning trumps all, obvious moral choices become blurred.

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Looking back, I was hoping someone, anyone, an adult with some common sense would have done something. But no one did. And the effect on me was: You girls don’t matter. He does. Because Don Peters creates winners, and that is the most important thing.

And so, despite the fact that I wasn’t sexually abused, the insidious effects of a culture that allowed it, are salient to me. You learn not to trust your own experience.  Maybe I’m wrong? Maybe it’s fine. Everyone else seems to think it’s OK. If I am good, this won’t happen to me.

Morality viewed in the funhouse mirror of elite athletics is grotesquely distorted. And the distortion becomes invisible after a time. A parent or coach might say: What if the reports aren’t true? It would be unthinkable to ruin this great man’s reputation. Oh, and by the way, he might not let my daughter/gymnast compete in the next big meet if I implicate him in such ugliness. This all-powerful man will strike back and my daughter/athlete will suffer. We’ve worked too hard. Let’s let it slide.

So it slid for almost 25 years. Until this week, when Peters was issued that lifetime ban. More than 20 years later Doe Yamashiro  found her courage, stopped believing that she was somehow complicit, or that maybe it wasn’t that big of a deal.

She told her story to the Orange County Register, and USA Gymnastics, the governing body for the sport, responded. They investigated and held hearings. Peters resigned his coaching positions, but the sport still expelled him for good. It took this long because those of us in the sport were enthralled by his power. And the same might have been true of Paterno. While he didn’t commit these alleged acts of abuse, he did run the legendary program. No one wanted to mess with that. Even now, students remain in his thrall, protesting his firing – because he made winners.

Pediatricians and other healthcare workers are required by law to report any suspected abuse of children. They can lose their licenses and their livelihoods if they fail to do so. Teachers are held to a similar standard. So why aren’t coaches? They spend more time with the kids they coach than doctors or schoolteachers. I spent up to eight hours a day with my coaches. But coaches somehow exist outside the laws of child protection.

The solution needs to be legally mandated guidelines for coaches of minors. If the guidelines are violated, legal action must be taken. And the guidelines must specify that other member-coaches are required to report suspected abuse to child protective services. Adults cannot be compelled to “do the right thing” when there are wins at stake. They must be required to do so.

And child athletes must be encouraged to speak up when there is abusive or questionable behavior from a coach. All too often an athlete in this sort of relationship feels powerless. He questions his own rights, his own take on the experience. He is beguiled by the coach in hoping for that all too critical break — the spot on the team or an extra hour of one-on-one training. So enthralled, the athlete is unable to come to his own defense — and the lingering effects will last a lifetime.

Parents must demand regulation that has real legal implications — not just a ban or a firing. The good coaches need to come to the defense of their beloved sports by requiring that the “bad coaches” be held to task in the eyes of the law. And we all must insist that coaches are teachers of children first, and champion builders a far, far distant second.

 
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