Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Creepy Coach

It’s sad, but true and not uncommon. If you played long enough, you probably have a “creepy coach” story.

Predators are not stupid. They go where the odds are in their favor as authority figures without much direct supervision; the Catholic Church and youth church groups, the Boy Scouts and similar organizations, boarding schools. And, as the allegations against Jerry Sandusky attest, anywhere youth and sports intersect.

This is not to disparage the many fine men and women who give their time to coaching and working with children. Most think only of the kids and have the best of intentions. And in the decade or so I spent on youth league teams as a kid, and the five years I spent coaching as an adult, the vast majority of coaches I encountered were kind and caring and tried their to provide a safe and fun and positive experience. But . . .

Shortly after the charges against Jerry Sandusky were made public, I posted the following on my Facebook page for The Best American Sports Writing:

“Just watch. The narrative arc post-Penn State will follow that of the Catholic Church; the coaching profession has always been full of predators. Expect a decade long roll out of victims, not just PSU, but all schools/youth leagues, etc. Unfortunate, tragic and true.”

I hoped I was wrong, but in the weeks that have followed this scandal has begun to metastasize. Nearly every day one hears about another possible incident as victims, empowered by those who have come out of the darkness to reveal what took place under the sinister umbrella of The Second Mile and Penn State, start to speak out about their experience and lift the veil of shame and silence that has scarred the lives of so many. The allegations against Syracuse basketball assistant coach Bernie Fine are simply the latest in a trend I don’t see disappearing.

Since I wrote that Facebook post, I have spoken to many friends and acquaintances. Almost to a person, each has their own “creepy coach” story. While none, fortunately, have admitted being a victim of overt molestation, almost everyone has a story about the coach who was a little too familiar, a little off, who made them feel unsafe and uncomfortable and who now, looking back from adulthood, they now realize was probably coaching for the wrong reasons.

When I started to write this, I could recall in my experience only one such coach, one who was an alcoholic and often showed up drunk for games and practices. When he did, and when there were no adults around, he talked about sex and other adult topics he had no business talking about with us. When I think back now it seems to me that he got off on talking this way to us; that was my “creepy coach,” story. But over the past few days as I wrote these words, I recalled another incident far more disturbing.

As most young male athletes can attest, they have to wear an athletic supporter – a jock – and a plastic cup to protect the genitals. The wearing of a cup is mandatory in most youth sports, and should be. When I was a kid what was known as a “cup check,” was common practice, a way for your coach to make certain you were wearing your cup before each game or practice. Most of the time, you performed the cup check yourself, standing before the coach and striking your knuckles to your crotch so the coach could hear them strike the plastic and know you were wearing your cup. Nothing wrong with that.

But I have a memory, fuzzy and now buried so deeply that even now I not certain which coach I recall or even which sport I was playing at the time, a memory that even as I begin to write about it now produces a small wave of nausea and discomfort. I had at least a few coaches who performed the “cup check” themselves, going down the line striking your crotch with his own fist.

This was not rare and I remember never thinking much about it. If done quickly and lightly and with a sort of professional distance, while not really appropriate anymore, it was probably an act of innocence, and no big deal to most of us.

But there was one coach, one whose face, even now, I cannot see clearly enough to indentify, who I know went a little farther. He would strike you so hard that even if you were wearing a cup, it would bring a nauseating ache to your genitals.

He clearly enjoyed this. I can see the wide teeth of his leering smile, and hear his laugh, loud, and menacing. And then sometimes I think he did a little more.

Instead of striking you in the groin, or maybe after doing so and discovering you had forgotten that piece of equipment, he would reach and grope and squeeze. If you were wearing a cup, you avoided that humiliation, but if you weren’t . . .

I don’t recall ever being caught not wearing a cup, and I don’t believe that happened to me, but I do remember thinking I would NEVER, EVER forget to wear my cup. But I do have a recollection of seeing others doubled over as the coach squeezed their testicles long and hard enough to cause a howl of pain. And only then would he, still smiling, let go.

As far as I know, that was as far as it went. Whether that was enough to satisfy whatever twisted desire caused him to do this, I am not uncertain. But I do know that even this small humiliation can have an impact decades later . . .

When my daughter was younger I spent several years coaching and helping to coach her girls softball and mixed gender Little League team. For several years I did this either as an assistant coach or with someone else. Then one year I could not convince another parent or other adult to help out. During games practices, I was often the only adult left with a dozen or so kids, boys and girls.

At practice one day, one of our players, a girl of eleven or twelve, fell and scraped her knee, blood seeping through her uniform, and a wince of pain on her face. I dutifully got out my first aid kit, sat her down on the ground and helped her roll up her pant leg above her knee so I could clean and bandage the wound.

As I did so and my hand pulled her pants over her knee cap to expose the scrape and tugged it up a bit farther so I could clean the smear of blood on her inner thigh, it suddenly struck me that my hand was dangerously close to a place it should not be. With no other adult as my witness I realized that to anyone watching from afar (the field was near a playground), it might appear as if I was touching her – or trying to touch her - inappropriately. And then I thought how I might react as a parent if my daughter came home with a scraped knee and described a coach rolling up her pant leg and wiping blood off her thigh, and how depending on the way she described it, I might think that the coach was doing something he shouldn’t, something creepy.

I pulled my hand back, left the stain of blood alone and pulled the pant leg back down to the edge of the wound. I wiped it quickly with alcohol, smeared some ointment on a large Band-aide, placed it over the wound and asked her to press it tight, then told her to lift her pant leg over the wound before she pulled it down, so the bandage would stay on.

Practice resumed. Then later, as I thought about what took place later that day, as the only adult with a group of young kids, I made a decision.

At the end of the season, unable to insure I would have an assistant coach the following year, I quit coaching.

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