This is a different kind of scandal in sports. There are victims.
Steroids have exposed cheaters and diminished statistical achievements. Drugs and alcohol have ruined careers and knocked heroes off of pedestals. Recruiting scandals and academic fraud have reaffirmed the lost mission of college athletics.
But predators who molest young athletes — they ruin lives and cripple souls. It’s not about somebody trying to gain an advantage on the field or losing their moral compass. It’s about never having the compass. It’s being morally bankrupt. That makes this latest scandal to hit sports the scariest of them all.
What does it say when over 400 Penn State football players, rather than merely focusing on the 52 alleged counts of sexual abuse in the Jerry Sandusky child molestation case, seem more concerned about signing a letter in support of former coach Joe Paterno, who was fired amid perceptions that he did not do enough to stop his former assistant coach?
“Their loyalty has become delusional,” former NFL fullback Heath Evans said. “Loyalty has crippled people’s judgment.”
Evans retired in August following a 10-year career, most recently with the New Orleans Saints (whom the Falcons play Monday night). He now runs the Heath Evans Foundation, which benefits victims and their families of child sexual abuse. Evans’ wife, Beth Ann, was a victim of abuse when she was in the third grade.
The foundation now has over 100 in active counseling and has
seen a recent surge in people finally coming forward about past abuse, likely in part because of several high-profile stories, including Sandusky, former Syracuse basketball assistant Bernie Fine, former AAU president Bobby Dodd (no relation to the former Georgia Tech coach) and long-time Philadelphia sports columnist Bill Conlin.
Evans said victims were slow to start contacting his foundation when it started in 2006 because, “People don’t want to talk about it. Ninety percent of the time victims know their predator, and they’re discouraged from speaking up.”
It’s happening more now. Brace yourself. More stories likely are coming.
Two of the biggest college athletic programs in the nation – Penn State football and Syracuse basketball – have had major abuse scandals. Logic screams they are not alone.
“I think we’ll see more,” Evans said. “The good thing about what’s going on now with this situation is we’re turning garbage into gold. We’re bringing predators to justice.
“It can’t just be a coincidence that two big programs like this have had this come out. People are looking at this right now and trying to work up the courage to tell somebody about what happened to them. But some are thinking, ‘Well, there’s a statute of limitations [on legal charges] — nothing can happen to [the perpetrator]. The statute of limitations should never run out on sexual abuse. It stays with the victim. It’s like emotional cancer.”
Evans calls sexual abuse “an epidemic.” One out of every four girls and one out of every six males are victim of sexual abuse before the age of 18. Many of those cases occur in youth sports.
A presentation on the “Physical and Sexual Abuse in Sport” in Canada in 1999, quoting the U.S. Olympic Committee’s John Mair, said among those most at risk for abuse are young athletes “who take frequent trips or relocate frequently to be near coaches or authority figures.”
The report referenced a 1995 report from the University of Winnipeg that revealed 21.8 percent of athletes surveyed said they had sexual intercourse with “authority figures.” Of those athletes, 8.5 percent said it was forced, 20 percent said it happened when they were under 16.
Emotions fuel major college athletics. That causes some people to lose perspective. Evans said of the Sandusky/Penn State story, “The abuse and the cover-up didn’t surprise me at all. Joe Paterno being in the middle of it surprised me because of what we knew about his reputation. But if he had any concerns or just an inkling of what the grand jury report said, he was wrong [for not doing more].”
When accusations of Fine’s abuse of two former Syracuse ball boys came to light, coach Jim Boeheim initially accused the alleged victims of lying and extortion: “That’s what this is about. Money.” (Boeheim later backed off those comments.)
Evans’ response, “Those comments were a slap in the face for all victims.”
Chances are, we’ll be hearing from more of them.
You can help support the Heath Evans Foundation and win a trip for four, including tickets, airfare and accommodations, to the BCS championship game between LSU and Alabama. Go to HeathEvans.org for details.
By Jeff Schultz