After the Larry Nasser abuse scandal rocked the world of gymnastics, many observers thought that it would be a watershed moment in the fight to protect young athletes from harm. Although some youth sports organizations have retooled their policies and implemented safeguards to better protect children, significant shortcomings remain. In some cases, according to a recent USA Today report, due diligence was an afterthought rather than a primary concern.
The latest controversy emerges not from gymnastics but a sport closely related to it—cheerleading. According to the investigative report, lax policies have allowed many convicted sex offenders to work in cheer training gyms and with young athletes. USA Cheer and the U.S. All Star Federation, the two bodies primarily charged with governing the sport, maintained policies that allowed dozens of offenders to slip through a "ban list."
USA Today identified 74 registered offenders, ranging from choreographers to coaches, currently affiliated with one or both cheerleading bodies. In total, they identified 140 individuals who had at minimum received a conviction for a sex-related offense. While USASF insisted that its "Safesport" policy was proactive and highly effective, the organization's list of individuals banned from participation began to swell in the weeks preceding the report's publication.
Neither organization polices member clubs and gyms. The organizations require extensive background checking, such as the US OneSEARCH from backgroundchecks.com, only for professionals who will be in areas with young athletes during cheer competitions. Member gyms face a requirement to vet their employees, but no one from the organizations follows up—enforcement is left up to the gyms.
Competitive cheer continues to grow in popularity year after year, with nearly four million annual participants. Chronicled in the report are stories of abuse and cyclical shortcomings that reveal cracks in the system. When the parent organizations received reports of abuse allegations, both were often slow to act and indecisive in their efforts, sometimes allowing the accused to continue working in gyms for weeks.
The challenges examined by the USA Today report make it clear that parents and operators hold significant responsibility for maintaining safety in youth sports. A renewed commitment to due diligence and transparency is a must. Parents should actively seek to learn more about those who will supervise their children, and investigating a gym's credentials and policies is vital. For gym operators, pre-employment background checks such as the US OneSEARCH are essential, but so is ongoing criminal monitoring and a zero-tolerance policy for harmful behavior.
As another sport grapples with the challenges of protecting its participants, promises and press releases won't be enough to calm the fears of parents—action must follow.