Child Abuse in Youth Sports: Why We Need the U.N. Human Rights Council More Than Ever

By Brooke de Lench

For the past six years, I have had the honor of being a coalition member for the International Safeguards of Children in Sports. The coalition is spearheaded by the UK U.N. | UNICEF. As one of three members from the United States I have the opportunity to interact with fellow members from around the world on a regular basis. During my week long trip to London a year ago to meet at the UNICEF headquarters to work on policy I found myself overwhelmed with questions about the US being to lone nation yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN CRC) and the uptick of abuse of all forms since President Trump took the office.

Last week we learned that Mr. Trump withdrew from the U.N. and U.N. Human Rights Council. A tweet by the U.N. Human Rights Council summed it up:

I did not think it could get worse but now The US joins Iran, North Korea and Eritrea as the only countries that refuse to participate in the UN Human Rights Council’s meetings and deliberations in the middle of a humanitarian crisis at our border.

Numerous times I have sat in the audience and was on a panel at the United Nations in NYC. Each time I am there listening to sports related presentations and panel discussions on bullying, hazing, sexual abuse, concussion prevention etc. I can’t help but find the choice of the U.N. as a venue ironic, because as positive as the focus on safeguarding young athletes has been no similar effort has been made to enact laws to protect children playing sports from abuse, whether it be physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual, at the hands of coaches, parents, and other athletes, and the United States remains the only in the world yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN CRC).

The CRC spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere should enjoy, among them the right to survival, to develop to the fullest, and to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation, and provides, in the words of a recent UNICEF report, “the overarching framework that can guide those who provide and supervise sport for children.”

Yet when that same UNICEF study reported a troubling lack of awareness of and education on child protection issues among youth sports coaches, parents, and other stakeholders, it received absolutely no media attention in this country.

Which begs the inevitable question: Why not?

It can’t be because children playing sports in this country are immune from abuse, because they are not. As the recent USA Gymnastics cases and the subsequent $500 million settlement by Michigan State to 332 athletes each a victim has made abundantly clear the past several weeks, the sad fact is that youth athletes are victims of violence and abuse in its myriad forms every day: a River Bluff SC football player died after coaches punished his team for poor performance in a scrimmage the day before with a series of sprints and strenuous exercises in 95-degree heat, athletes forced to participate in physically injurious or sexually degrading initiation rituals (e.g. hazing), allowed to return to the playing field too soon after a concussion, sexually assaulted by coaches, psychologically degraded or humiliated by coaches based on gender, sexual orientation, body shape or performance, or required or encouraged to follow nutrition and weight loss regimes that lead to eating disorders and abuse of appearance- and performance-enhancing drugs such as anabolic-androgenic steroids. Simply put, the kinds of abuse we see in youth sports would not be tolerated in the classroom or in the workplace. Yet there are no laws that specifically address such abuse in the context of sports. We need a seat at the U.N. Human Rights Council table more now than ever.

The lack of media attention and legislative action can’t be because youth sports organizations, whether they be at the national, regional or local level, are doing all they can to protect children against such violence and abuse. As the UNICEF study reports, while some other countries (most notably, the United Kingdom) have enacted child protection programs in sport, they are virtually non-existent in the United States.

A major part of the problem, in my view, is that instead of defining youth athletes in a way appropriate to their needs — as children first and athletes second — organized youth sports in the United States and other industrialized countries all too often treat children, whether they have exceptional athletic potential or not, as adults, with potentially serious adverse consequences to their physical and emotional health. More and more parents — many on full display in “Friday Night Tykes” — seem to accept abuse as the inevitable price their children must pay to succeed in our winner-take-all-society.

Child abuse is the most preventable youth sport injury. Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse should not be the price children have to pay to play competitive sports. The status quo should and must be changed. The United States should ratify the CRC. Laws against child abuse should be strengthened in every state to protect against abuse, not just at home, but on the playing field, courts, diamonds, and rinks of America. It is time for the abuse to stop. We owe the children of America nothing less.

About: Brooke de Lench is the author of “HOME TEAM ADVANTAGE: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports” (HarperCollins) the Producer of “THE SMARTEST TEAM: Making High School Football Safer” (PBS) and the Executive Director of MomsTeam Institute, an advocacy group for youth sports safety and for the Smart Teams Injury reduction programs

Follow Brooke on twitter @BrookedeLench @MomsTeam @SmartTeams

Child Athlete Safeguards & Rights Pioneer, Author, Film Producer (PBS)