Sexual abuse in sports is no anomaly

Human nature being what it is, one wants to sigh in relief at the vigorous denials issued on behalf of Syracuse assistant Bernie Fine. This is not another Penn State. That’s what they’re saying.

Save your breath.

It’s just beginning.

I’m not offering an opinion on the guilt or innocence of Bernie Fine, Jim Boeheim’s long-time assistant — or even his treatment in the media. But the Penn State story, it stands to reason, is merely a starting point in recognition of the problem. Sports may not be much different than life. Sports affords an ideal cover to those who would prey on children.

The crisis in the Catholic Church isn’t ancient history. Still, when the stories began to break, people wondered, "How could that be?" Now they say, "How could it not?"

To some degree, you have to figure, the same will be true of sports. The problem — sexual abuse in sports — isn’t so new. But talking about it still seems novel.

"I really do believe you’re going to hear more and more and more stories about this," said Dr. Doug Gardner, a youth sports consultant. "One of my biggest concerns is that with the proliferation of this professional youth-sports model and all the traveling teams, you’re going to see a rise in these types of incidents five to ten years from now."

A rise? Or an increase in the reporting? I wonder.

Gardner, whose doctorate in education focused on developmental and sports psychology, argues that stories like Penn State and, to a lesser extent, Syracuse, "reflect institutional concerns at a macro level." In other words, it sensitizes people (read: parents and the media). Sports provided a guy like Jerry Sandusky with a cover, influence in an insular community. But if you think about it, it wasn’t that much different than most adults in sports, who operate, as Gardner puts it, "on the micro level … in positions of trust."

This isn’t meant to sound false alarms. Vigilance is a lot better than paranoia, especially now. But the anecdotal evidence — the potential for abuse — is overwhelming. As coincidence would have it, tonight’s edition of HBO’s REALSports (coming off a six-month Boston Globe investigation) features a piece on Tennis Hall of Famer Bob Hewitt. Now 71, Hewitt is accused of abusing girls he coached (one as young as 10 years old) going back to the 1970s.

This is exactly what Gardner is talking about when he refers to "the professional youth-sports model." But, then, so were the aspiring gymnasts entrusted to Don Peters, coach of the 1984 women’s Olympic team. Two women recently told the Orange County Register Peters sexually abused them as girls. Though the statute of limitations has expired, USA Gymnastics saw cause to ban Peters for life earlier this month.

It was much the same for USA Swimming. In April 2010, ESPN’s T.J. Quinn uncovered pervasive abuse by swimming coaches, some of whom had abused kids for decades. By comparison, Sandusky is 67, and the allegations against him go back 15 years. Andy King, a former swimming coach in the San Jose area, was 62 when he pleaded no-contest to 20 counts of molestation.

You think that came as a surprise to, say, Sugar Ray Leonard? In his autobiography, published last summer, the 1976 gold medalist admitted to being molested by an assistant Olympic coach.

In my hometown, New York, the youth-basketball scene was rife with abuse allegations for decades. A probe of one Louis d’Almeida — founder of a then-famous AAU team called the Gauchos — was eventually dropped by the Manhattan D.A.’s office. By then, d’Almeida had slipped out of view.

His main rival — Ernie Lorch, of Riverside Church — stayed around longer. A wealthy lawyer, Lorch paid at least $640,000 to settle just two civil claims by men who said he abused them as boys. The allegations against Lorch — first reported by Daily News’ Michael O’Keefe — became public in 2002. Again, there were statute of limitation problems — though not in Massachusetts, where Lorch — now almost 80 — was indicted last year on molestation charges dating back to 1977.

Also guilty in Massachusetts was former Christ the King (Queens, N.Y.) basketball coach Bob Oliva, one of the most prominent high school coaches in the country. Oliva pleaded out last year after hearing a now-middle-aged victim testify of the abuse he took on a trip to New England in 1976.

Too bad Massachusetts never got a shot at Graham James, the youth hockey coach who assaulted at least two junior players and faces charges from several more, including Theo Fleury. Unfortunately, the Commonwealth misses some, too. In 2002, former Red Sox clubhouse manager Donald Fitzpatrick, then 72, pleaded guilty to four counts of attempted sexual battery on a child, between 1975 and 1989. The charges were filed in Florida, near the Red Sox’s former spring training home in Winter Haven.

But back to the present day. It will be weeks before police can make a decision on the allegations against Bernie Fine, 65.

It may not be Penn State. But it’s not cause for relief, either.

"You hope it would help victims share their stories," said Gardner.

Whatever happens in Syracuse, or in State College, for that matter, the larger story has been around for a while. And it’s not going away anytime soon.