Coaches and sports officials initiate predatory sexual relationships with the teenagers in their care so often that the Pennsylvania General Assembly created a new crime in order to try to address it as specifically as possible. HB 112
, which establishes sexual assault by sports official as a third-degree felony, has passed both houses of the Pennsylvania General Assembly and is heading to the governor’s desk.
Rep. Mike Vereb (R-Montgomery), primary sponsor, explained the bill in a memo seeking support:
My legislation targets sports officials, such as coaches, athletic trainers, team attendants and managers by providing that it is unlawful for these individuals to engage in sexual intercourse, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse or indecent contact with a child under 18 years of age who is participating in the sports program.
The new statute applies to offenses ranging from “sexual intercourse” to “indecent contact” and applies whether the sports official volunteers or is a paid employee. Rep. Vereb says his intention is to help protect teenagers older than the state’s age of consent who are still susceptible to a trusted adult’s grooming tactics.
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“[Under current law] if you are a victim, and you are 16 or 17 years of age and your perpetrator, whether it’s a coach [or anyone else involved in the sports program who] assaults you, they cannot be charged with statutory rape,” he told Rewire.
The age of consent in Pennsylvania is 16. Current law also requires that the perpetrator be four years older than the victim for the action to be considered criminal statutory rape.
The bill is modeled on a state statute that criminalized similar situations in institutional settings such as schools. It is believed to be the first in the country to specifically focus on sports officials and young athletes.
There is no national data tracking sexual assault within sports programs. However, a California-based organization called Safe4Athletes is publishing initial results of a survey of competitive and elite athletes regarding sexual abuse. Founded by former British Olympic swimmer Katherine Starr, Safe4Athletes was established to advocate for better treatment of athletes, including raising awareness of sexual assault.
Of 155 female participants surveyed, 27 percent said they experienced sexual abuse. Eight percent (of 12 surveyed) male respondents reported the same. Starr will present her findings next week at the IWG World Conference on Women and Sport in Helsinki, Finland.
Starr says athletes are uniquely vulnerable to a coach’s predatory behavior. “You’re beholden to your coach,” she told Rewire. “Whether [your goal is] pleasing your parents or becoming an Olympian, as soon as you’ve committed to a sport, you become vulnerable and there is no ability to say yes or no. You are now beholden to this person guiding you down that path.”
Starr has spoken out about being sexually abused by her coach as a teenage athlete. “I don’t think I had the words to say, ‘He was raping me,’” Starr told a reporter in 2012. “Every time I resisted, he would retaliate, or he would punish me.”
Starr told Rewire that Vereb’s bill is “a great step.”
“Regardless of age of consent, we need to understand the power dynamic between a coach and an athlete,” she says.
The situation that inspired Rep. Vereb to develop the bill transpired not in a competitive sports environment, but everyday community athletics: A man Vereb knew in the community as a coach and physical trainer initiated a predatory relationship with a teenager.
The coach reportedly sent the teenager a text message indicating that he had “personal feelings” for her, then subsequently “initiated personal contact.”
In 2010, William “Billy” E. Gordon III pleaded guilty to “charges of aggravated indecent assault, statutory sexual assault, endangering the welfare of a child and corruption of a minor in connection with incidents that occurred with a 15-year-old girl between April and November of 2008.”
Gordon was 37 at the time of the assaults.
“It’s a very local case, a very unfortunate case,” Rep. Vereb told Rewire. Statutory rape statutes applied because sexual contact began when the victim was 15 years old. “[Gordon] would never have been … charged with rape if she was 16 [years old], and that was bone chilling to me,” Vereb, a former cop and detective, said. “[This bill is] a lightning bolt of a message: You put your hands on a child, regardless of which age they are now, you’re going to pay the price.”
The bill is now headed to the governor’s desk. Once signed, it will take effect in 60 days.