By Lauren Keiper
BOSTON (Reuters) - Millions of children are lacing up sneakers and skates, donning swimsuits and grabbing rackets to join the ranks of youth sports teams and leagues across the country, often with minimal parental supervision.
But accusations of abuse last week against a major figure in amateur athletics have renewed concerns that the dynamics of youth sports could provide predators easy access to children in an environment where abuse could go undetected.
Young athletes may spend significant amounts of time with coaches or team volunteers on the playing field or traveling to tournaments or taking part in camps. Rarely does this happen with close parental supervision.
"You don't necessarily know a lot about these people except they know how to coach basketball," said Jarrod Chin, director of training and curriculum at Northeastern University's Sport in Society program, citing basketball as an example.
The Amateur Athletic Union said on Saturday it was investigating allegations of child sex abuse against its former president Robert W. "Bobby" Dodd dating back several decades. The union contacted police in Memphis, Tennessee, who said they have opened a probe into the matter.
The allegations against Dodd surfaced after a series of accusations of child sexual abuse against assistants to high profile coaches at Penn State and Syracuse universities rocked the world of major college athletics.
Sports network ESPN has reported that two players who accused Dodd of abuse said he had engaged in a pattern of inappropriate touching and sex acts in hotels during tournaments and that he gave alcohol to underage players.
Dodd, who has not been charged with a crime, was not available for comment. An attorney for Dodd has not yet been identified.
Past instances of alleged sexual abuse in youth sports have ranged from a figure skating coach accused of molesting students to youth baseball and basketball coaches accused of abusing boys, the National Council of Youth Sports said.
Nor has the abuse been limited to boys. Coaches of girls' track and volleyball teams have also been accused of interacting inappropriately with young women, the council said.
"It's a larger social issue, and sport is one avenue where sexual predators find ways to assault young people," Chin said.
The National Council of Youth Sports has been trying to find the best way to screen coaches for at least a decade, and some sporting organizations have made background screening mandatory, executive director Sally Johnson said.
The National Council, whose members include the AAU, recommends guidelines for such screening as well as use of a third-party company to process comprehensive checks. Johnson also wants to see better training and reference checks about past behavior by coaches.
The AAU, one of the nation's largest youth sports groups, has said it planned to review the safeguards it has in place to protect youngsters, but did not elaborate on what those procedures were.
Despite an eagerness for their children to join sports teams, especially those organized for all-star youth athletes, parents often don't have the financial means to travel along for tournaments, which means an inordinate amount of trust is handed to coaches.
Johnson said parents and children needed to trust their gut reactions.
"I think children get a feeling if something's not right, and they need to be comfortable coming forward to report that," Johnson said.
Northeastern's Chin said that publicity from the abuse probes of coaches at major universities may be spurring victims to speak up.
"I think a lot of people are feeling like they can say something, tell their story, that they are not alone," he said, adding that the Sport in Society program works to educate coaches, parents and teammates to recognize the signs of possible sexual abuse and to address it.
David Clohessy, director of Chicago-based support group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said that it was always hard for victims of child sexual abuse to speak up.
"It's especially hard when the predator is a popular, well-loved individual," he said, adding that in his experience it helped victims to hear about other people coming forward.
"Somehow as a society we've got to come to grips with the fact that people who sing, dance, coach, preach or perform well in public can also have horrific private demons," he said.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)