Embezzlers Beware

During the past several months there has been plenty of shocking youth sports stories from around the country--fistfights, assaults and all the other nonsense that takes place among adults. We all cringe upon hearing these tales because it means some innocent group of children had to witness such ridiculous behavior at their games.

And then along comes the jaw-dropping story out of western New York, one so disturbing that it’ll push your blood pressure off the charts.

In brief, a married father of three, who occupied the role of league treasurer for nearly four years for a youth baseball program, drained the organization’s $30,000 bank account. He used the league’s debit card to access adult-dating services and to take his family on vacation to Disney World. And the kicker of the story (that gets worse by the second) is that he used some of the money to purchase child pornography on the Internet.

Whatever punishment is handed down won’t be strong enough.

A Trend

The above story--disgusting on all accounts--is representative of a much larger problem surfacing in youth sports these days: the embezzlement of league funds by volunteers and others who are granted easy--and oftentimes unsupervised--access to financial accounts, bank statements and ATM cards. It occurs more frequently than you may think, and if it hasn’t been on your radar screen, it should be now.

Several months ago, I fielded a call from Zach Tomanelli, a journalism student at Ithaca College in New York, who was writing an article on theft and embezzlement in youth sports. One of the most troublesome aspects that he highlighted is that the embezzler is often the person you’d least expect to be capable of such crimes. After all, he or she may be the person who volunteers to work the concession stand, quietly pocketing chunks of cash that will be extremely difficult to trace. Or maybe a person volunteers to be treasurer because of an accounting background and juggles the numbers while siphoning large amounts of money for personal use.

A woman in California was accused of stealing $170,000 from a youth soccer league to pay credit card bills, her mortgage and a bankruptcy trustee. The long-time treasurer of a Virginia soccer league was convicted of taking a whopping $480,000 that she used to pay for her son’s college tuition, as well as to build an extravagant lifestyle for herself.

The Recreation Professional’s Role

As a recreation professional, your plate is full of responsibilities. But we can all benefit from these awful cases of embezzlement so that they don’t happen in our own communities and jeopardize the youth sports experience.

Start each season by asking youth leagues to pay close attention to how money is handled, tracked and accounted for in their programs.

Let them know what other leagues around the country are doing to prevent programs from being sabotaged by these types of crimes. It could be as simple as requiring checks instead of cash at any fundraiser because it’s next to impossible to track cash thefts, or perhaps hiring an outside audit committee to review the books to ensure that there are no red flags.

The embezzler who purchased the porn put his youth program in serious jeopardy. Luckily for the kids, local businesses stepped forward and made much-needed donations to pay some league bills and purchase uniforms and equipment. The local fire department--in a touching act of kindness--even donated a large sum of money originally intended for purchasing items the station needed.

Another community might not be so lucky, and it would be a real shame if kids were denied the chance to play because of embezzlement.

Let’s all do what we can to make sure that doesn’t happen.

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 Amazon.com. He can be reached via e-mail at fengh@nays.org