Sexual Grooming of Athletes
These are the red flags that sexual predators use to lure young victims
It used to be the word “grooming” meant brushing or cleaning the coat of an animal. However, in recent years the word grooming has taken on a more insidious meaning: it’s now used to describe the process pedophiles use to gain children’s trust and to ultimately accept their sexual advances.
Sexual abuse doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, victims say they were led to it by perpetrators who befriended them.
The abuser is often someone who is a trusted authority figure, including teachers, clergy, family members and sports coaches.
It’s no secret: pedophiles look for opportunities that give them easy access to kids.
A 2017 report, “Sexual Violence Against Children in Sports and Exercise,” identifies four stages of grooming that lead to sexual abuse: targeting the victim, building trust, developing isolation, and the initiation of sexual abuse and securing secrecy.
The story of two-time world champion taekwondo fighter Mandy Meloon provides a textbook example of how pedophiles groom children.
Mandy was a rising 13-year-old taekwondo star when she arrived at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to train full-time in the sport. Mandy’s parents sent her there with the understanding that Olympic authorities would train, educate and protect her.
One of the first people to befriend Mandy in Colorado Springs was then-trainer Jean Lopez. His seduction of Mandy began slowly, with Lopez talking about his sex life, asking questions about hers and calling her his “girlfriend.”
Several years passed before Mandy complained about the sexual abuse. But instead of supporting her, USA Taekwondo authorities attempted to blackmail her, saying she could only join the 2008 Olympic team if she withdrew her complaints against Lopez.
“They said I could go to the Olympics if I’d sign a contract saying I was mentally ill and made up the allegations against Jean,” Mandy recalled.
Sexual abuse attorney Stephen Estey, who is one of the attorneys representing Mandy in a civil suit against the US Olympic Committee and USA Taekwondo, said that since Lopez was a huge money-maker, Olympic officials ignored the complaints.
“It’s clear that Olympic gold was more important than athlete safety and the money generated by medals resulted in the USOC turning a blind eye to Lopez’s criminal behavior,” Mr. Estey said. “Worse still, to tell a young girl that she has to say she’s mentally ill is a traumatizing criminal act in and of itself.”
Another civil lawsuit, filed in March 2020, shows us how San Francisco Bay Area tennis coach Normandie Burgos used his authority as a coach to abuse a freshman player known anonymously as “A.H.”
Immediately after joining the tennis team in spring 2001, Burgos began grooming A.H. by complimenting him on his body, spending time alone with him on campus, giving him gifts and even asking about his libido.
In spring 2002, Burgos stuck his hand down A.H.’s boxer shorts and touched his penis.
So, Burgos groomed A.H. for almost precisely one year before sexually assaulting him.
Pedophiles enlist unwitting parents to their cause
“They’ll tell mom and dad their son or daughter is going to be a star gymnast or Olympic swimmer, so it’s OK to go to an overnight meet,” sexual abuse attorney Robert Allard said. “That’s why we’ll often hear parents say they’re ‘shocked’ that a favorite teacher or coach is really a child molester – they’ve been groomed, too.”
So, parents need to have their antennae on alert whenever their children are around adults.
Research shows that pedophiles try to isolate their victims from family and friends and they’ll promise them rewards like the lead role in a play, a starting position on the team or an “A” in class. That’s why parents should never allow their children to be alone with any adult – always, always make sure a second adult is on hand to supervise.
“Unsupervised rides home from school or extracurricular activities is yet another red flag and the friendly “way to go” swat on the bum could be a warning of things to come.
The Burgos case demonstrates how background checks are a tool that parents can use to protect their children.
“In 2010, Burgos was tried for child sexual abuse in a highly publicized trial that ended with a hung jury,” Mr. Allard said. “Burgos then launched a private tennis clinic for youths and was granted membership in the United States Tennis Association. But no one from USTA or USTA NorCal checked Burgos’ background, so the trial wasn’t flagged and parents believed his clinic was adhering to USTA’s Safe Play policy prohibiting child abuse and sexual misconduct.”
Eventually, Burgos’ sexual abuse caught up to him: he is behind bars, serving a 255-year prison sentence.
The Rape, Abuse & incest National Network, RAINN, estimates that one in nine girls and one in 53 boys under age 18 are sexually abused by an adult.
“Those numbers offer little comfort to the victims of sexual abuse, who often feel the abuse is their fault,” Mr. Estey said. “We know that just isn’t true and that responsible adults need to stand vigilant against serial sexual predators.”
Former Santa Clara County sex crimes prosecutor Ray Mendoza offers this advice to parents: