The surprise phone call both humbled and emboldened Rob Connor, the Babe Ruth League’s national commissioner.
Earlier this year, the National Council of Youth Sports (NCYS) contacted him because the league had won its STRIVE (Sports Teach Respect, Initiative, Values and Excellence) Organization of the Year award, based on Babe Ruth’s implementation of “promising practices and policies to protect young athletes.”
The award, given in conjunction with American International Group, Inc. (AIG), validated Babe Ruth’s aggressive effort to reevaluate its background check process and implementation of abuse prevention training program among its 60,000 teams in 11,000 leagues.
“There was a sense of pride at headquarters,” Connor says, referring to Babe Ruth’s home base in Hamilton, N.J.
In 2019, 132 people were denied participation out of 31,000 background checks processed, Connor says. More alarming, though, is the fact that 58 of those people had not been flagged in previous background checks.
And while league commissioners have lots of challenges and responsibilities, Connor insists that safety should always be at the top of their list.
“Field condition, equipment,” Connor says, citing some of the dominant concerns for league leaders. “But what about the volunteers who are around the kids three to five or even seven nights a week during a season?”
Making a commitment
The impetus for Babe Ruth was the Safe Sport Act, which was passed in February 2018. Babe Ruth partnered with SportsEngine to provide a complete safety solution that included comprehensive background checks through SportsEngine’s subsidiary, National Center for Safety Initiatives (NCSI), implemented abuse prevention training, increased safety resources and revamped its coaching education, among other changes.
NCSI is a youth safety advocacy group and leading background screening provider that serves youth sports organizations and national governing bodies across the country.
Charles DeChristopher of Cherry Hills, N.J., started in the Cherry Hills National Athletic League by coaching his kids. Now, he’s the president, and he is thankful for the strong relationship his own league has with local police. But since abiding by Babe Ruth’s standards, DeChristopher says the new background check already has worked.
An individual with a serious offense was flagged.
“It’s a great idea,” DeChristopher says of the increased effort to upgrade the background check process. “Anytime you’re dealing with children, you want to make sure that only people who would create a safe environment for kids are involved. I was flabbergasted to hear some of the things that were missed (in other leagues). That was enlightening to me.”
The STRIVE Award and Babe Ruth’s emphasis on improving background checks is something that DeChristopher uses as a marketing tool.
“We are one of the most vigorously background checked programs (in the area),” he says.
Pressing into the future
In a statement, the NCYS calls Babe Ruth League “a shining example of how to keep young people safe,” citing its financial and educational commitment to better serve children.
Connors says a significant award like the NCYS’s brings even more attention to how vigorous Babe Ruth League is in vetting the adults connected to its one million athletes.
“We took it upon ourselves to evaluate the differences between background checks and we learned that while many companies offer them and leagues may require them, not all background checks are created equal,” says Connor. “We wanted to require the highest standard to let our families know that Babe Ruth League stands for something vitally important - player safety.”
But Connor is sensitive that Babe Ruth League is largely volunteer-driven, which means he doesn’t want to create more work for people. His goal is to have him and his team be more “hands-on” in helping leagues implement the background check process. Besides, there’s another big benefit to that.
“The local league (leader) doesn’t have to review and make the determinations,” Connor says. “Then they don’t have to see these people at the parks and have that unsettling feeling that someone knows more (information).”
In fact, there have even been a few instances when someone who was flagged after completing their background check protested that result.
“We actually talk to those people who were flagged and explain, ‘This is what we’ve got,’ ” Connor says. “Sometimes, people are surprised we have that information.”
Which is precisely the point.
Babe Ruth League was planning to formally accept the STRIVE award this summer at the Opening Ceremony of the Softball World Series in Jensen Beach, Florida but an official awards presentation has been postponed due to the pandemic.
“We’re honored to be recognized for doing something that we inherently believe is the right thing to do,” Connor says. “We hope that this helps continue to shine a light on the importance of leagues stepping up to do more to protect youth athletes.”