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Keeping Youth Athletes Safe in a Virtual World During COVID-19

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As CEO of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, Ju’Riese Colón quickly mobilized her team’s mission to keep young athletes safe, supported, and strengthened when COVID-19 started to end sporting events and even entire seasons.

The focus moved away from coach and administrator protocols at public gyms, courts, and fields and into a harder-to-regulate space: On privately-protected mobile devices and computers.

“Coach sessions and team meetings were going virtual, and we fully support people still engaging,” Colón says. “But the shift brings a whole host of potential issues, and we wanted to remind everyone of parameters and ensure athletes were still safe and protected.”

Colón is uniquely qualified to lead such an important endeavor — and she knows all too well the risks of not being informed and proactive. 

She spent 15 years at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, where, among many different roles, Colón led efforts in shaping online safety measures. 

"I saw a lot of bad things,” she says. “It was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had. Not because of the work itself, but the talks to survivors of abuse or parents whose children were missing. Their stories will forever impact me.”

Colón recognizes that many parents are busy, juggling jobs and their families. But she stresses the importance of parents outlining online behaviors and expectations and asking their children questions about their online interactions with peers and adults. 

“Even though sports aren’t happening, we know abuse is still happening,” she says, noting online being the most likely.

Trish Sylvia is the mother of two and co-founder of the National Center for Safety Initiatives, a SportsEngine subsidiary, which provides background screening for youth sports organizations across the country. With leagues and governing bodies seeking NCSI’s expertise, Sylvia developed a webinar titled, “How Technology Can Reshape The Way We Look at Safety in Youth Sports.” 

Sylvia says parents must acknowledge how much more everyone is relying on cyber tools to communicate and that they are compelled to be involved in that process. 

“Have conversations with your kids about safety, maybe from a different view than in the past,” Sylvia says. “Interaction between adults and children should be different.”

Early in her webinar, Sylvia shares with viewers sobering statistics about sexual abuse and a child’s familiarity with his or her abuser. 

“One thing that’s very important to keep in mind, there’s a grooming process,” Sylvia says. “Oftentimes, in the online world, what’s going on in (a student-athlete’s) private account creates an opportunity for someone who is ill-intentioned to enter in.”

To that end, just as is the recommendation at practices, coaches should not interact one-on-one with athletes, Sylvia says.

“One-on-one communication is still one-on-one communication,” she says.

SafeSport tapped its experts to develop recommendations for coaches, parents and young athletes. 

Here is one of the tips for each: 

Coaches — Make sure you have parent/guardian permission for each type of electronic communication you use. If you already have permission to use one app with athletes, you still need permission for each additional app you use. 

Parents — Have your child use webcams (especially during private lessons) in a common area or a room with the door open. Bedrooms or bathrooms are discouraged. Make sure they are aware of what and who is visible in the webcam or video shot. Cameras should also be covered when not in use. 

Athletes — Say something to your coach, parents, or another trusted adult if you notice someone being cyberbullied, harassed, or sexually exploited. 

Colón says it’s important to be mindful of the toll COVID-19 is having on everyone. 

“Kids are looking for emotional support,” she says, “and you don’t want them to find it in the wrong place.”


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Safety, Healthy at Home Parent, Coach NCSI