Putting a warning label on club ball

On High Schools

High Schools

February 01, 2005|By MILTON KENT

IF YOU'RE a parent of a talented athlete, the easiest thing, the completely understandable thing, to do after hearing the story of Rick Lopez is to sit back, take a breath and be thankful that it didn't, no, it couldn't happen to you or your kid.

Lopez, a Colorado-based girls club basketball coach, was charged with 55 felony counts of molesting and having sexual relations with some of his players - all minors.

We perhaps will never know the extent of the coach's involvement with the players, because Lopez committed suicide in his jail cell the day after Christmas.

But we do know that the story of Lopez, told in painstaking detail in the most recent ESPN The Magazine, and again on Outside the Lines last week, combined with other tales of misconduct, will raise warning flags among many parents.

Or will it? How many guardians will rationalize that the things that happened in Colorado and in other places could never happen with their child because they know everything that is going on in the program?

Lopez's case is, admittedly, an extreme one. He not only lived with his parents until he was 35, but over a nine-year span, the magazine article reported, Lopez also lived with the families of three of his players for a spell.

But Lopez is hardly the only coach involved in improper contact with his players. In 2001, the Houston Chronicle reported more than 60 instances in which Texas high or middle school coaches lost their jobs because of allegations of sexual misconduct over a four-year span.

In a series of articles last month, the Albuquerque (N.M.) Journal examined the conduct of a local high school coach who had had allegations of sexual misconduct follow him for more than 10 years. And The Seattle Times reported in 2003 that 159 coaches in Washington state schools had been reprimanded or fired for sexual misconduct over the previous decade.

Most astounding is a 2000 survey from Sandra Kirby, a sociology professor at the University of Winnipeg in Canada. As reported in an article accompanying the ESPN The Magazine piece, Kirby's study found that nearly 23 percent of those responding had sex with a coach or person of authority within their sport.

At least, parents have the partial comfort of knowing that their kids' high school coaches go through some kind of screening process, though, in The Seattle Times review, of the 159 Washington coaches that had been fired or reprimanded, 98 continued to teach or coach.

It's in the shadowy netherworld of club teams where the picture gets muddled. Lopez, for instance, was tapped at age 24 by a parent to coach the new Colorado Hoopsters team. Though he had played high school ball, Lopez had never coached a team before taking over the Hoopsters.

Sure, a coach has to get a start somewhere, but can a parent reasonably entrust a child's welfare, not to mention his or her athletic future, to someone who is unaccountable?

Even with the horrors presented by Lopez's case, the club situation, in soccer, volleyball, basketball and lacrosse, just to name a few sports, isn't going away. Club coaches have become important conduits in the recruiting process, providing exposure to kids as well as access for college coaches to the kids.

Though boys have certainly been victims of unscrupulous coaches, concerns have become heightened with the increasing presence of girls in the athletic realm, though the Title IX explosion is an easy, but unfair target.

Most of the fears of the predatory male coach feasting on unsuspecting and helpless girls are irrational, if not downright sexist. Those qualms may insult hardworking, well-intentioned coaches and bright, talented kids, but they are there.

"We're following the men right down this road of kids playing 12 months a year, 80 to 100 games," Stanford women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer told ESPN. "The club coaches can be powerful brokers. Girls live in a more emotional world. The chemistry, the camaraderie. So much is about being accepted. Then you have a male coach with a 14-year-old girl wanting to please this person. Girls are really motivated by being pleasers. Are they more vulnerable? Yes, I think they are."

To its credit, the Amateur Athletic Union, the governing body for many club teams, has a policy to keep known sexual predators out of its competitions. The trouble is the AAU policy is largely toothless and, of course, doesn't apply to coaches like Rick Lopez or teams like the Colorado Hoopsters, who weren't in the AAU.

The truth is, without a centralized governing board to oversee the club process, to ensure that coaches are licensed and have gone through some kind of vetting procedure, sadly, there will be other Rick Lopezes on the scene. Parents should remember that when they take that next easy breath and tell themselves they know everything.

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