Background Checks: Do they really get the job done?

When it comes to protecting children in youth sports, some suggest that conducting background checks on volunteer coaches is a waste of time and money. Is it?

If recreation professionals around the country were polled, their opinions would be as divided on the topic as who they’re voting for in the presidential election--with good reason, too.

The problem with background checks--one many folks tend to overlook--is that they don’t work for the twisted individuals who have never been caught.

Also, factor in that a background check doesn’t always nab a predator who has committed crimes in another state, or under an alias.

Several years ago, Sports Illustrated addressed the subject with a bone-chilling cover story on the frightening truth about child molestation in youth sports; it should be required reading for anyone who provides facilities funded by local taxpayers and leased to independent youth leagues.

The article notes that the average molester victimizes about 120 children before he is caught, and for every child who reports being molested, at least 10 more keep their secrets hidden.

Close Encounter

While I have many great memories of my seven kids playing sports, there is one incident that still burns deep inside me more than 30 years later, and is one of the reasons I feel so strongly about this issue.

I was sitting in the kitchen with my wife when one of our sons--10 at the time--returned home from baseball practice with a new glove.

When questioned, he said the coach gave it to him. We were understandably concerned, and it became worse a moment later when we learned that the coach insisted on driving our son home--alone.

I immediately contacted the coach and informed him that under no circumstance was he to ever drive my son home without my permission, or give him any type of gift.

Years later this individual was apprehended as a child predator, and while I’m thankful no harm came to my son, I’m disgusted and deeply saddened at how many lives he might have destroyed along the way.

Would a background check have caught him? It’s not very likely.

A few years ago in Greeley, Colo., a longtime volunteer soccer coach was convicted of horrific sex crimes against several teenage girls on his team. Investigators called it the most disgusting case they had ever seen.

Would a background check have flagged this person? Nope. As the recreation supervisor said at the time, “Even if we would have done a background check, nothing would have showed up because he had never been convicted of anything in his life--ever.”

Making a Difference

So the big question is, What needs to be done?

For starters, let’s keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of people who volunteer to coach youth sports are some of the nicest, most caring and trustworthy individuals you’ll ever meet. They donate their time freely and really do make a big difference in a child’s development.

Those are the folks we applaud--and are not concerned about.

It is the few in the minority who slip through the cracks and prey on youngsters on whom we must focus our attention.

Have you ever asked--before simply giving permits to local youth leagues--what steps they have taken to ensure young participants aren’t scarred for life?

Do you educate staff on instructing local youth leagues what to watch out for with their coaches that may signal a problem and warrant further inspection?

How about educating parents in the community about warning signs of abuse, or providing tips to ensure that their child is never in a position--such as in a car alone with a coach after a practice--where they could be harmed?

Background checks are just one component of the entire screening armor. The more layers of protection in place, the less likely the lives of children in your program will be forever ruined.

This year at the annual International Youth Sports Congress in San Antonio, Texas, Dec. 3-6, several of the sessions will be devoted to this topic. There will also be plenty of opportunities for recreation professionals to share their ideas and insights on what has worked in their communities.

It’s a must that you, or one of your staff, fit the Congress into your schedule to gain valuable knowledge on a truly important issue, and also share your expertise with hundreds of other recreation professionals who can use that information to strengthen their own programs.

It’s up to each of us to do everything in our power to safeguard every youth sports participant--no matter what it takes.

Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla., which has been advocating positive and safe sports for children since 1981. He is also the author of Why Johnny Hates Sports, which is available on He can be reached via e-mail at