Young Athletes Deserve Protection

| Dec 14, 2020 | Youth Athletic Organizations

Two of the saddest sentences we can imagine are in a recent article about child sex crimes at “arguably the world’s leading soccer finishing school, the launching pad for dozens of top professional players.”

Early in the article, we read “In almost every case, investigations later found, rumors and claims of misbehavior and abuse were well known but ignored.”

And the article ends with this line: “Eight years after seeing the (perpetrator’s) message on her son’s phone, the mom says she wishes she had just gone to the police.”

The crux of the story:

“David San José has never been the subject of an official complaint of sexual abuse or improper physical contact with a child.  But that he has been able to continue working with young athletes despite red flags has raised new questions about the inability, or unwillingness, of sports organizations to conduct meaningful investigations into the conduct of adults responsible for the care of children.”

Those ‘red flags’ were many, including “dozens of disturbingly affectionate text messages to a 13-year-old boy, inviting the boy to lunch and weighing boys naked.”

Eventually, French soccer federation officials fired San Jose but kept quiet about why. And for the past eight years, it has allowed him to quietly move from job to job, always retaining a highly valued certificate issued by the federation that has eased his ability to continue working in the sport. His contact information remains available to potential employers on the federation’s website.

In other words, even as you read this, very little has been done to protect other young athletes from San Jose.

Two ‘take-aways’ leap out from this story, one for employers and one for all of us.

(1) Employers should assume that when a prospective hire seems too good to be true, she or he probably is.

“One of San Jose’s next stops was at Olympique de Valence, a team playing in the lower rungs of French soccer about an hour’s drive south of Lyon. The team’s sporting director recalled being surprised that someone as qualified as San José was available. Given San José’s tenure at Clairefontaine, the director considered it a coup to have hired someone of his pedigree to coach Valence’s under-15 team. Within months, though, Vivant began to have suspicions.”

If a professor at a prestigious university applies to work at a much less prestigious one, the hiring committee should be especially vigilant.

(2) All of us should take note of this all-too-frequently used excuse for “overstepping.”

The victim’s mom said St. Jose “disarmed her by telling her that in his culture — he has a Spanish background — it was routine to say things like ‘I love you’ even to people outside your own family.”

We should be very skeptical when an adult cites ‘cultural differences’ for crossing the line with a child. Yes, different nations, people, and cultures have slightly different expectations about boundaries and affection.

But it’s the job of adults to err on the side of caution and to learn what’s deemed appropriate in different settings. A well-intentioned man will tell parents “In my culture, it would be considered polite for me to kiss your daughter on the cheek at this point. But I want to see if that feels OK to all of you first?” A predator will just go ahead and do it and later profess ignorance and regret.

And when that happens, all of us – even by-standers – must step in and say “That may be permissible where you come from. But it’s not here. You shouldn’t have done that.”

A fleeting moment of personal discomfort or a fear of being considered culturally insensitive shouldn’t stop us from doing what’s right to protect the vulnerable.