Youth sports coaches have been patting players on the back or putting their arms around them for years. It always seemed pretty innocent.
Recent arrests of several prominent coaches, however - most notably former Penn State football assistant Jerry Sandusky - on child-molestation charges have caused youth coaches to re-examine how they interact with their players.
"We live in a reactionary society," said Dennis Foreman, a Northfield resident and youth basketball and baseball coach. "You do those things with a genuine love of coaching and love of education. But there's always that voice in the back of your head that says because I put a hand on a shoulder is somebody going to think something else is going on? That's really upsetting."
Sandusky's case shook the sports world. Authorities arrested Sandusky, a Penn State assistant from 1969 to 1999, on charges he sexually abused 10 boys. Former Syracuse University men's basketball assistant Bernie Fine and the former president of the Amateur Athletic Union, Bobby Dodd, have also been accused of child sex abuse in the past few months.
Because of these high-profile cases, many people will never look at coaches the same again.
Foreman coached the Northfield 9- and 10-year-old team to the Little League state championship last summer.
"He (Sandusky) just ruined the goodness of the profession," he said. "A lot of people coach a lot of youth sports for the right reason, and it only takes one person to poison the waters for anybody who volunteers for the right reasons."
Coaches, however, should not be upset about the increased scrutiny, said Jim Thompson, founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance, a national nonprofit organization based in California that is committed to making youth and high school sports a positive experience.
"We see this as a national teachable moment," Thompson said. "This is an opportunity when youth sports organizations and parents can make a difference. This is an opportunity to protect kids and even save lives."
Coaches and athletes spend countless hours together. The best coaches forge bonds with their players. Physical contact between a player and a coach has been part of the sports culture for years: There's a high-five or fist bump for a player who hits a home run, scores a goal or sinks a basket; there's a hug for the player who strikes out with the bases loaded or misses a foul shot in the closing seconds.
"Coaching is an emotional, intense profession," Atlantic City High School Athletic Director Frank Campo said. "But coaches really have to look at what's appropriate and what's inappropriate behavior."
Nearly all high school coaches are teachers who routinely undergo training on sexual harassment and how to interact with students, Campo said. But few youth coaches receive any training in this area.
Somers Point City Council approved an ordinance Feb. 9 that requires people who have contact with minors through youth programs, including sports, to undergo a criminal background check. Fewer than a third of the 23 municipalities in Atlantic County have ordinances mandating such checks.
Councilman Dennis Tapp said there had been renewed interest in passing the measure since the Penn State scandal.
The Positive Coaching Alliance has guidelines on its website that local youth sports organizations can adopt to govern relationships between players and coaches. Among the behaviors the alliance says coaches should not engage in are profanity, sexual jokes with players and indoor practices behind closed doors.
Thompson said coaches shouldn't do alone with an athlete what they wouldn't feel comfortable doing in front of a large crowd.
"Patting somebody on the back, tousling their hair is fine," he said. "Patting somebody's butt, that was probably never a good idea. There are ways to communicate physically that you're part of a team that don't have any sexual innuendo or demean the players. Most of us have a gut feeling about what is appropriate and what isn't. "
Thompson said coaches should never stay alone with a single athlete in a hotel room. High schools and the alliance discourage coaches from giving athletes rides home after practices and games. Campo said he especially warns his male coaches never to be in one-on-one situations with female athletes.
"It's sad," Campo said. "You never know. The world is crazy today. It's a litigious society."
Thompson said coaches should be proactive. Too often the issue of sexual abuse is kept secret.
Even getting local youth coaches to comment on the issue for this report was difficult. One coach said he did not want his name to come up in a Google search with Jerry Sandusky's.
The alliance encourages coaches to meet with parents before a season starts to discuss potential issues.
"Coaches can say we're all concerned about what's happened in these high-profile cases," Thompson said. "They can tell them the safety of their kids is paramount to them as a coach. I'm not going to do anything to cause you to worry about my behavior with your kids, and if you are concerned about something I do, come and talk to me about it."
The fallout from the Sandusky case is just one more thing to frustrate volunteer youth coaches. The days of coaches just drawing up plays are over. Today's coaches must often undergo background checks and training to handle health issues such as concussions.
Foreman admits that coaches sometimes ask why they volunteer.
In the end, it's often the friendships and relationships with the athletes that keep coaches going.
Foreman recalled seeing high school students he had coached when he was younger at a local convenience store.
"They genuinely look you in the eye and say, ‘Hey, coach, how are you?'" he said. "You catch up (for a few minutes), and you realize that maybe it really is worth it. You can't get away from deep down what you know is the right thing to do."
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