Lewis: Child abuse in sport must be addressed

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CHILD ABUSE in sport continues to rear its ugly head across the world. No sport seems immune from the scourge with tennis, soccer, athletics and cricket rocked with scandals in the recent past. Victims have become bolder in speaking out even decades after abuse occurred at the hands of coaches and administrators in whose care they were left in. The Penn State football programme in the United States has been found to be complicit in covering up the many reports of sexual abuse by its renowned coach Jerry Sandusky who was later convicted on 45 counts of sex offences. Three Penn State officials were also convicted for failing to alert the authorities about the allegations.

Just last year, Bermuda soccer coach Andrew Bascome and his brother claimed they were victims of sexual abuse in the 1980s.

Bascome called for tougher security and vetting for those linked to youth sports to help to minimise the risk of sexual abuse. And in a case closer to home, former national runner Ato Stephens (also known as Ato Modibo), has been arrested and charged for sex offences against a female teen whom he was coaching in the Cayman Islands. Stephens has admitted to sending inappropriate messages to the teen but denies touching her or threatening to expel her from the track team.

At last week’s Sport Integrity Global Alliance (SIGA) conference in Lisbon, Portugal, Brian Lewis, president of the Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee (TTO C), along with other sporting officials raised the topic of eradicating abuse in sport.

Lewis, chairman of the Caribbean Association of National Olympic Committees (CANOC), acknowledged that sex sells but warned that the sexualisation of sport for commercial purposes is empowering and enabling pedophiles.

He said sporting bodies need to stop denying the gravity of the issue.

Speaking to Newsday on his return to Trinidad on Sunday, Lewis said he was approached after the Lisbon forum by Alexander Schischlik, Chief, Youth and Sport Section, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) who expressed surprise that Lewis would be brave enough to discuss the issue in such a frank manner.

Lewis said youths need to be protected especially footballers from Latin America and Africa who are keen to migrate abroad in search of professional contracts to better themselves and their families.

“The issue is one which has different elements. My focus has to do not only with overall child welfare and youth protection but the focus on the need to specifically protects youths and minors from abuse - sexual , mental, emotional and physical bullying. The institutions that have the weight - International Olympic Committee, FIFA, the IAAF - where they provide funding, it should be tied into that.

There should be a requirement to tie funding into meeting universal good guidelines of good governance, financial integrity and gender diversity. I feel there should be a requirement of all sporting bodies to have policies to address child welfare and abuse. It must be important to report issues of sexual abuse and whistle-blowers,” he said.

Lewis said many times in instances of sexual abuse in particular, the alleged victim is treated worse than the accused. He believes sporting associations and institutions must be proactive in making it easier for victims to come forward and report issues of abuse.

“There needs to be checks and balances, look at what happened in England, look at what happened in the US. It would be naive to think there are issues that are not swept under the carpet.

There is always the potential where the welfare of the child or the youth is not as important as the reputation or image of he institution.

In such a situation, the environment does not empower people to come forward and make the necessary reports because the entire system does not lend itself (to that). It requires an enormous reservoir of courage and character to press forward with cases.” Lewis said one big step in the drive towards eliminating abuse is promoting gender diversity at all levels of sporting bodies.

“I also believe it’s tied to the absence of gender diversity and gender equity. When i talk about gender diversity and future is female internationally, regionally and locally, the dots connect.

It is something that I believe in.

Whether people focus on steroids and drugs and corruption in sport, the issue of abuse is also something that could significantly compromise and tarnish the image of sport,” he said.

Lewis said the trivialisation of the issue needs to stop as it indicates that there isn’t a main problem that needs to be addressed.

He believes a universal thrust by major sporting bodies in collaboration with those under its umbrella will be effective in stamping out abuse and creating an environment where abusers do not feel comfortable in taking advantage of youths they are in charge of

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