Independent youth sports organizations provide children with valuable opportunities to develop skills and connect with their peers outside the competitive constraints of in-school sports. However, these groups can also be a source of risk to children, too. Without a thorough screening procedure and guidelines in place to govern the supervision of and interactions with children, it is possible for the unthinkable to happen.
Lax procedures don't always lead to tragic outcomes, but youth sports organizers should have the same duty to protect those under their care as school administrators. A recent story out of Michigan highlights just how much can fall through the cracks without a rigorous approach to hiring volunteers—and how controversy can stem from how one handles such cases.
A coach for one of the youth football teams in Plainwell, Michigan, since 2018 notified the director of the league that he had failed a background check in early 2022. The check, run as a prerequisite for coaching a youth baseball team, revealed the extent of the man's record—nearly two dozen in all, including six felony charges.
The convictions included petty property crimes but primarily related to the man's struggle with methamphetamine addiction. Sober since 2018 and his entrance into a diversion program, he has had no subsequent encounters with the law. However, because he only completed probation in 2021, he is not eligible for expungement.
The coach voluntarily disclosed this information to the football director, who initially approved his continued presence in the league. However, days later, the director fired the man—saying "community feedback" had played a part in the process. The league proceeded to announce background checks would be a requirement in the future. There was no clarification as to whether they would rely on local county background checks or if they would consult broader state background checks as part of their process.
Several parents interviewed by the media expressed dismay that the coach had been fired despite his excellent rapport with players and clean record since 2018. Shockingly, the former director for the team—who now oversees the entire local league—said that he had seen no reason to use background checks in 20 years. Saying he had his "finger on the pulse of the community" and that he could rely on personal sources for adverse information about volunteers. More startling than the inconsistent treatment of the volunteer coach is the admission that there were no guardrails for decades.
From drug screening to background checks, volunteer organizations cannot be so disengaged with their hiring procedures. Even in small-town communities where "everybody knows everybody," there is no sure way to know what occurred in someone's past without consulting a background check. Even if they cannot prevent 100% of negative outcomes, they provide a critical filter to keep out the riskiest individual.
Crafting a well-defined and written policy at the outset and then applying that process consistently to everyone in an organization is the key to putting up safety barriers that can reduce the likelihood of harm. At the same time, examining each individual result on a case-by-case basis matters, too—sometimes second chances are well-deserved. One thing is certain: relying on trust and personal judgment alone is not enough in today's environment.
About Michael Klazema The author
Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based backgroundchecks.com with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments