Crossing the line

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Phillips grew up in Mt. Airy, played college ball nearby, coached in a neighboring town. He was well-known and well-liked. Criminal background checks turned up nothing before he was hired in 1997. References vouched for his abilities and his character and nothing Phillips did off the court provided a hint of what would transpire. “I think most of the folks here felt they knew the young man,” Church said.

Not that it was their fault, but most of the folks were wrong. Asked how to prevent such an occurrence, Church, a former coach, replied, “I wish I knew the answer to that. It’s a tremendous dilemma. I think most of us, in our business, are doing everything we can to ensure the right type of person is involved with children. We’d like to think we do everything that is necessary to know if there is a problem. But even with everything we do, it’s almost impossible to guarantee that incidents such as this will not occur.”

When they do occur, an entire profession is indicted.

“It paints everyone with the same broad brush,” said Rick Strunk, associate executive director of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association. “It’s interesting to me that coaches 400 miles from Mt. Airy were not only lamenting their colleague, but also how it affects people’s perception of coaches.”

The perception only worsens when incidents keep happening. In Blue Ridge, a small town in the western part of North Carolina, the former high school baseball coach and athletic director was sentenced to not less than 64 months after pleading guilty to eight felonies and four misdemeanors in connection with a sex scandal at his school.

Strunk also noted that in Chapel Hill, a girls’ softball coach was fired after it was revealed that a tanning bed he owned and was allowing some of his players to use at a discount had peep holes in “strategic areas.” All the background checks on this coach, said Strunk, “checked out perfectly.”

Coaches acting improperly toward students and athletes is not a new concept. The subject has been studied and discussed for years, as in a 1994 document prepared by the Women’s Sports Foundation titled, “Prevention of Sexual Harassment in Athletic Settings: An Educational Resource Kit for Athletic Administrators.” But media coverage never has been more intense, and examples of bad behavior that once were kept quiet are now printed and broadcast for all to see and hear.

Some speculate that other changes in society, specifically in sexuality, have perhaps created an environment where incidents should not be unexpected. “Things have changed,” Church said. “Maybe some things don’t seem as severe as maybe they were 10 or 15 years ago. The type of things we consider acceptable have changed dramatically. There’s a tendency to take some of the negative onus from what should be classified as inappropriate.”

Jessica Roos, then admittedly a naive, immature 18-year-old skater, did not know that being touched by her coach, Robert Young, was inappropriate. It continued for four years. “I was, and am still, a very trusting person and an honest person,” said Roos, now 26, married and a skating coach herself. “Those things right there made me vulnerable.”

So did the fact that Roos desperately wanted to pursue a skating career. “I was on a mission to prove I belonged in skating,” she said. Her coach knew that, and exploited the situation.

“If something seems too good to be true, often it is,” she said. “That was the trap I fell into.”

Because Roos was 18 when the physical contact began, she could not file criminal charges. She filed a civil suit and the case was settled out of court. Young was banned from coaching within the U.S. Figure Skating Association, but he continues to coach young figure skaters, even though his actions led to a new law being enacted. Roos, from Simsbury, Conn., was supported by the statements of former student-athletes from nearby Southington, who claimed they had been molested by a high school coach.

“I coach now, and kids come to me with their concerns and fears and high school problems,” Roos said. “I’m appalled at what some of these kids are facing, things I had no clue about. They come to me and talk about things they’re not comfortable talking about with their parents. But, as a coach, I have to draw the line about what I can say, and what I can’t say. The line gets foggy.”

Based on her experience, Roos offers this advice for young athletes: “Keep the relationship with your coach more businesslike than emotional. Don’t let that line be crossed.”

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