When Coaches Cross the Line
November 2, 2013INDIANA SPORTS PAGE
Female athletes and their parents are complaining in increasing numbers about sexual abuse and harassment from male coaches, prompting the coaches themselves to examine their own roles in a very delicate power relationship.
"From what we're hearing, there are a lot of these cases out there," said Kathryn Reith, assistant executive director of advocacy for the Women's Sports Foundation in East Meadow, L.I. "They are often hard to document, and people often aren't willing to go on record. But this year we've gone from zero cases to at least two a month."
The relationship between a coach and any student can be intense, often in a constructive manner that produces positive results. Usually, the relationship remains within the boundary of teacher and pupil, but sports psychologists are beginning to understand that there is a unique relationship between the male coach and the young female athlete, and that the delicate balance can sometimes tilt the wrong way.
"There is a high probability of natural romantic feelings by female players toward male coaches," said Jim Loehr, a sports psychologist in Wesley Chapel, Fla., who is well-known in the tennis community. "Coaches are often heroes and become idolized and positioned as powerful figures in the lives of young athletes."
The cases of harassment and abuse that do occur still go largely unreported, experts believe, and no firm statistics are kept on such reports by athletes.
Still, the numbers of the more publicized cases are clearly growing, and the New York area was an uncomfortable witness last week to charges against three male coaches of sexual abuse or harassment in tennis and skating. The most disturbing case involved a Manhattan tennis coach who committed suicide after police say he failed in his plot to abduct a 17-year-old former pupil. For years, professionals such as teachers and psychiatrists have abided by strict codes of ethics, prohibiting romantic entanglements or meaningful physical contact with their students or clients. Now, while competing in a world defined by touch and visceral emotion, male coaches are trying to play catch-up, hoping they can match the heightened awareness of their students, and their students' parents.
"Any coach who has been coaching for 10 years and says he never fell in love with an athlete or vice versa is lying," said John Leonard, who is the executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association, which will become the first major coaching group to institute a formal code of ethics in September. "Shared goals and shared ambitions is almost the definition of love. But you can't act on it."
The profession of coaching -- even the coaching of female athletes -- is a male bastion. Federal regulations instituted in 1972 requiring equal opportunity for female athletes in college turned many previously volunteer coaching jobs into paid jobs, making the positions more attractive. The Women's Sports Foundation estimates that the number of men coaching women's college sports has increased from less than 10 percent in 1972 to more than 50 percent.
There have been documented cases of female coaches harassing female athletes. Victims Often Quit the Sport
Victims of sexual abuse, or even of a more subtle coach-athlete relationship where a coach's position of power proves influential, often quit the sport, and carry around a scar throughout life.
"You have to look at the intimacy, emotion, and intensity that students have with coaches," Loehr said. "There is an avenue for potential exploitation."
Such issues abounded in the three New York-area cases, which all evolved last week within a 60-hour period. On April 24, Gary Wilensky, a Manhattan tennis coach, killed himself after police say he failed in his plot to abduct a former student named Jennifer Rhodes. An ice-skating instructor from Somers, N.Y., Stephen Savino, was arrested in Plymouth, Mass., last Monday and will face charges of sexually abusing five girls, some of whom were his students.
In a non-criminal case more representative of the complex ethical climate, a prominent figure-skating coach in Manhattan began serving on Monday a 30-day suspension from his job at Sky Rink. An anonymous letter-writing campaign by coaches, parents and patrons at the rink alleged that the coach, Adam Leib, had been verbally and physically abusive to children, and had sexually harassed adults, according to a Sky Rink coach and one of several parents who wrote the letters. The coach and parent insisted on anonymity.
Examples of overstepped bounds and recriminations reach into almost every sport played by women. Two years ago, Guy Enriques, a coach of the Oregon State women's volleyball team, resigned after the team confronted him and accused him of having an affair with one of the players. Loren Seagrave was fired as a coach in 1989 after he spent the night in the same house with a woman on his track team at Louisiana State, although Seagrave denied having sexual relations with her.
Nancy Ota, a graduate fellow at Georgetown Law Center in Washington, D.C., studied 50 recent cases of sexual problems between male coach and female athlete, and noticed a couple of patterns.
"Most of the reports come from basketball and softball, where the girls talk about it with each other on the team," Ota said. "There is a sense of greater safety on team sports. In other sports, the complaints mostly come from parents."
Several top-echelon coaches insist that the power of the male coach over a female student can be used constructively. Bela Karolyi, the former United States national gymnastics coach, still coaches 2,500 girls each summer at his ranch north of Houston. He said that he had seen several of his coaches marry their students.
Karolyi, who also coached Nadia Comaneci to Olympic gold medals in gymnastics, said that when he was coaching team handball for women in Romania, he noticed one handsome male coach was able to gain the attention, and the fire, of his students.
"The girls were interested because of his good looks and had a better commitment," he said. "Their goals were remarkable. They wanted to be the favorite."
Bob Kersee, the coach, married Jackie Joyner, his star athlete, and they continued to smash track-and-field world records together. Touching between player and coach is sometimes necessary.
"The good coaches, the ones with ethics, use the relationship to bring out the best in the athlete," said Mary-Lynn Gelderman, who works with Peter Burrows in Monsey, N.Y., coaching figure skaters like Elaine Zayak, the former world champion, and Amanda Ward, the national novice champion.
"The girl usually has a little crush on the coach, and that can bring out the best," Gelderman said. "That love and admiration gets used constructively."
Zayak remembered a day when she ran away from her home at age 16, hid in the bushes of a northern New Jersey mall, and eventually called to ask Burrows to take her to his home. Burrows told her she was going back to her parents.
"There is an example of an athlete who was very vulnerable, at a point where some coaches might have taken advantage," Gelderman said.
Bill Rose, head swimming coach of the Mission Viejo Nadadores and former coach of the national women's swim team in Canada, said many of his fellow coaches had married their swimmers.
"They're together five and six hours every day," Rose said. "It's happened many, many times. I counsel all of my younger male coaches. I tell them that it is the easiest thing to get emotionally involved with an athlete. You will be a father figure. If you don't understand what is happening, you can get caught up in it."
The new code of ethics from the American Swimming Coaches Association will include a special section on the relationship between coach and athlete. Penalties imposed by the association's ethics committee could include a revocation of coaching certification, for an indefinite period.
The code met some opposition by voting members of the association, who feared they could become capricious targets of parents annoyed by their child's absence from a relay team. Among the articles included in the new code of ethics:
"Sexual misconduct consists of any behavior that utilizes the influence of the coaching position to encourage inappropriate intimacy between coach and athlete," and, "Coaches of collegiate-age athletes shall not engage in sexual relations with athletes that they coach, even of legal age." Guidelines Might Be Ignored
Although such guidelines might be ignored or difficult to enforce, there is good reason for coaching organizations and academic institutions to consider such strict, unambiguous language. On Feb. 25, 1992, a Supreme Court decision on the case, Christine Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, gave a former Georgia high school student the right to sue the school system because it had failed to properly address the student's charge of sexual harassment by a football coach, or to have a proper grievance procedure in place.
The issue's complexities can be seen in the instance of Leib, whose attorney, David Hashmall, denies the charges against his client and is appealing the coach's suspension with the executive board of Sky Rink. Last year, Leib was reprimanded for screaming at a young female pupil and for shoving her against a locker. Yet the chairman of the executive board of Sky Rink, Roland Betts, insisted that the student's mother defended Leib in that case.
"She said she wouldn't have it any other way," Betts said. "She didn't want a coach who would let her daughter get away with anything."
Another coach at Sky Rink, angered by Leib's business solicitations of her clients, began to collect letters this year about Leib's behavior and found several parents and patrons willing to file complaints with Sky Rink and with the Professional Figure Skating Coaches Guild. Included in the two packets of letters, according to one of the parents who wrote a letter, are charges that Leib humiliated young female students with cruel tirades, and that he sexually harassed a female guest.
Betts would not confirm the contents of the letters. He continues to defend Leib, stating that Sky Rink will not investigate the charges of abuse or harassment if the letters are unsigned. Betts said that Leib was not suspended because of these charges, but because he had acted "childishly and unprofessionally" to parents and guests after he became upset by the first packet of letters.
In an effort to refute the charges against him, Lieb has collected letters of support from several fellow coaches and parents at the rink.
Most male coaches never reach this crisis stage, and a few idealists still maintain there is not much to worry about.
"There shouldn't be sexual tension at all when a male coach is teaching a young girl," said Robert Lansdorp, the Torrance, Calif., coach of the tennis star Tracy Austin. "They might work extra hard for me to get my approval. But the guys, without infatuation, also want that. In the end, I care for all of them."