In November of 2011, a grand jury in Pennsylvania indicted former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky on charges that he had sexually abused young boys from his Second Mile foundation for at-risk youth. The lurid accusations made front-page headlines and shocked the entire nation. All except for one group: past victims of such abuse.
As a teen, Chris Gavagan was an aspiring hockey player who was looking forward to trying out for his high school team in New York City. But from the moment his youth coach targeted him at age 14, Gavagan said, his life was changed forever. He told nobody what had happened and, instead, became an angry “time-bomb” unleashed into the world.
After high school, Gavagan studied film while attending New York University. In November of 2009, or about two years before the charges involving Jerry Sandusky were revealed publicly, Gavagan began shooting a documentary film about sexual abuse involving male coaches and male youth athletes.
The film, titled “Coached into Silence,” includes interviews with anonymous athletes, with professional hockey player Sheldon Kennedy, and with his former coach. It is a work-in-progress that Gavagan hopes to have completed by the end of this summer.
SportsLetter spoke to Gavagan by phone from his home in Brooklyn, where he and his wife recently celebrated the birth of their first child.
— David Davis
Editor’s Note: This interview contains language of a graphic nature.
SportsLetter: For people who don’t know the details of your story, can you tell about what happened to you?
Chris Gavagan: I was sexually abused by a roller hockey coach in Brooklyn starting at the age of 14. It started the summer before I went to high school. I was a 14-year-old who probably looked 11 and probably acted 10. All I wanted to do was to make my high school ice hockey team. That summer, all I did was skate up and down every block in the neighborhood, doing dry-land training and thinking I was well on my way. Then I skated down the wrong block.
I met some girls who I had never seen before and started talking with them. They said, “Hey, if you want to play hockey, you have to talk with this guy. He’s a hockey coach.” While I was talking to them, he returned home and he invited me in for one moment. I never would have gone into a stranger’s house, but with the blessing of those girls, it felt safe. I know now that that’s something that often happens: these manipulators get other kids to let a child know, “Oh, it’s okay here.”
He showed me this workout room that he had and all the trophies and team pictures. He started the manipulation right away. He said, “They don’t play freshman on the ice hockey team. Come play roller hockey with me and you’ll play immediately and you’ll log all these minutes and you’ll always be improving.” And that was all I wanted in the world: to be a better hockey player. So, I was in the web. I left but I was sold.
From that point it was a very methodical grooming process. Again, the entrée was another teammate: he had another teammate invite me in saying, “Hey, he has a hockey goal in the backyard and you can shoot on the weekends and you can always be improving.” My parents had asked me: will there be other people there? The answer was yes. The next weekend, he stopped inviting the other player.
It didn’t take any sexual turn at first. Under the guise of going over and working out, it became about him teaching me what it meant to be a man. It was, “It’s okay to curse here.” It was, “After the game you can celebrate with a beer here.” Eventually, there was more and more alcohol; then came the Playboy Channel on TV, which became pornography, which became him masturbating. By the time I knew anything was wrong, I felt so complicit just by the fact that I’d done things there that I knew my parents wouldn’t approve of. By the time I had that first sip of beer, I felt like I had already let them down.
SL: How long did this last?
CG: It lasted between three and four years.
SL: During this time, did you ever feel comfortable talking about what was happening to anyone?
CG: No. I’m someone who had, and now continues to have after a lot of work on my part, a wonderful relationship with my parents. But there was the feeling that I had let them down, by doing what I knew was wrong, starting with a sip of beer or cursing.
He built in these secrets. He’d say, “You can have this here, but don’t tell anybody.” It was the kind of thing that you’re so indoctrinated into and so intentionally isolated that it felt like there was nobody to tell, even among my teammates.
SL: Why is there such silence by victims?
CG: Shame and stigma are the biggest parts of it, especially when it’s male-on-male. It is this attack on your manhood and what it means to be a man: you’re weak and you can be hurt. Beyond that, if you’re a 13-year-old boy, one of the most shameful things someone can say about you is, “He’s gay.” Because that’s what you think it is at that point.
SL: How did you deal with this?
CG: It was, unfortunately, in typical ways. I became a very angry young man, a very frustrated young man who felt powerless. I was somebody who was on a self-destructive path. I became almost a daily drinker, supplied by him. I became a fighter with a terrible temper. I also became a liar. Once someone asks you if you’re okay, and you’ve said, “Yes,” you’ve lied — and about something really important. You’re unable to address the fundamental truth. That affected every relationship I had, including my girlfriends and a lot of people that I hurt.
He had created this little time bomb: he wound me up and sent me into the world, all the while saying that everything he did was for my betterment. He corrupted me not just physically, but my view of the world for a long time. This is how the world works: you can lie, you can cheat, you can use people, and they’ll use you. It was this incredibly negative force to send out into the world.
SL: When did it end?
CG: I played for him for the duration until I was preparing for college. The reason that it ended then was two-fold. One, as I was preparing for college, the world expanded for me. I saw there was more and that I wasn’t stuck. That’s the positive side.
The other side of it was I was aging out of his interest range. He is apparently a serial predator whose preferred protégés, as he called them, are 13- and 14-year-old boys. By the time I was 17, I no longer fit the bill for him.
SL: Is there something different about the coach-athlete dynamic when it comes to sexual abuse?
CG: When it comes to coaches, there seems to be an aspirational element involved. The coach is often the person who holds the keys to your sports future, who can teach you to be like Mike. You’ve probably heard of some professional athletes who’ve come out about this, like Sheldon Kennedy and Theo Fleury in hockey. They were farm boys. They were young, talented athletes with amazing dreams, for whom hockey was going to be their life. But they needed the tutelage of someone with a particular expertise to get them there, so there was this power imbalance. Their aspirations — the purest dreams that a child could have — were used against them by somebody who was coaching for the wrong reasons.
I don’t want to tar the entire coaching ranks. The vast majority of people are there for all the best reasons. I’ve met so many better ones from doing this film than I ever had as a player.
SL: Are there any statistics about the extent of this problem?
CG: There’s no definitive, large-scale study regarding sexual abuse of youth athletes by coaches. What usually happens is coaches are placed in the category of acquaintances, as someone who’s known to the child, as opposed to the stranger-danger category, which is a very small percentage [of sexual abuse cases]. The vast majority of sexual abuse occurs within the family, and then you get to coaches, baby sitters, and people who are in the next circle.
SL: Has the popularity of youth sports in America increased the problem?
CG: It’s not to say that coaching is worse than any other profession. It’s just that, in any field where there’s access to children, you will have a higher percentage of people who will prey on children than where there are no children. If parents are entrusting their kid to seven different coaches in seven different sports, it ups the risk factor and requires more vigilance on their part.
SL: Does the problem transcend race and class?
CG: Absolutely. In researching the film, we wanted to include representation from all different backgrounds. It wasn’t hard to find. Whether you’re a student at the poorest inner-city public school or you’re at the most elite prep school, both are at risk. One may not have the resources in place to protect children, while the other has a cash flow that requires an unblemished reputation.
SL: What made you decide to speak out about what happened? Was there any one incident that made you decide to come out with the story?
CG: More than anything, it was meeting other people who had experienced this. But I would never state it as, “I want to do this.” It felt like a responsibility at a certain point: I had to do this if I was asking them about it. As I began the process of making the film, people would tell me that just having that conversation with them helped them. Just knowing that they were not alone helped them. So, every bit of that was positive reinforcement. For all the negatives of this, something good was happening here.
SL: Has it helped you to be able to talk about this?
CG: Absolutely. It’s been its own reward. I’ve had people write to me and say, “I’m 50 years old. I’ve been married for 34 years, and I’ve never said a word to my wife about this until I read your quote in the New York Times.” It’s just the reinforcement that it’s working, that talking about it has a ripple effect outward every time. You see it when a criminal case comes up; there’s one person who comes forward, and then there’s ten people who come forward.
SL: What was the reaction when you told your family?
CG: That was the biggest reservation that I had. But it turned out that my mother actually figured it out herself. Several years ago, when I was doing research on this, I found this Sports Illustrated cover story from 1999 called “Every Parent’s Nightmare: Who’s Coaching Your Kid?” by William Nack and Don Yaeger. I made a photocopy of it. When I moved out of my parents’ home, I left this stuff behind. My mom came across this article on top of a box, and everything seemed to click for her. She called me and said, “I found this article. Did this happen to you?”
Miraculously, even though I was thinking that I was going to go to my grave with this secret, the opportunity presented itself and I didn’t even think about it. I said, “Yes.” When that happened, every brick and every wall came down, and everything made sense. She understood every change that she had seen in me. I got my mom back and she got her son back.
We decided together that my father could never know about this. We were worried that he might actually try to kill my former coach. Although the walls were coming down and I was able to integrate aspects of my life and become a whole person again, there was still this one person, my dad, who I felt could never know about this. But then, when I started doing the documentary and started getting a little bit of press, I said, “I can’t do this anymore. He’s going to find out.” So, my mother and I had the briefest conversation with my father, just broad strokes. I told him that some things weren’t right with the relationship with my former coach, and that it was similar to what was going on at Penn State. It was my not quite courageous way of saying it, but it felt like enough. From that point on I was able to share what was going on.
SL: Why did you decide to make a documentary on this subject instead of, say, writing a memoir or even making a fiction feature film?
CG: There was a part of me that was certain that I would never say a word about this to anyone; that I would go to my grave with this inside of me. The one positive that I always had going for me was that I was a writer. Having that tool, I always had that pressure release valve. I was always writing about it. I didn’t hide it from myself, which can also happen to victims of sexual abuse. Some people can never look at it. They lock it in a box and pretend it doesn’t affect the rest of their lives.
By the time I got to college, I was funneling my writing into screenwriting. This became the safest way to approach the topic, where I could hide behind the safety of a fictional character, where I didn’t have to take a stand and say, “This happened to me.” It started off almost like a suicide note, like a poison purge. Just getting it out. As I revised it and revised it, and as the writing got truer, I was forced to write not just my surrogate character, but the other characters, to look at the impact that my behavior was having on the lives of people around me and at some point to write from the perspective of the perpetrator.
For nearly ten years it was a fictional story. All the while, I was working on movie crews and doing every type of job; casting one day and script supervisor another day. One week, I got involved in a documentary film, doing low-level production coordinator work for Brett Morgen, the director of “The Kid Stays in the Picture” and “Chicago 10.” They were shooting “One Train Later” — about the band The Police — and I got a chance to see how the documentary sausage is made.
Documentary films had never been my genre, but I thought that this was another opportunity to tell the story without coming forward myself. I had the idea that it was going to be this detached, journalistic film. But as I started to talk with some of the survivors who were brave enough to talk to me abut the worst moments of their lives, I was embarrassed. I felt like a fraud. I knew at that point that I had to include the story that I knew best. So, that was like a ten-year evolution from, “I’m going to tell this with made-up characters” to “Yes, this happened to me, too.”
SL: In the film, you concentrate exclusively on male coaches who abuse male youth athletes. Why did you decide to limit it to that?
CG: That is a question that we really had to think about. The statistics of child sexual abuse in the general population indicate that approximately one in six boys falls victim before the age of 18 and as many as one in four girls. It’s just staggering. But in trying to do justice to the issue, I felt like the male-on-male coaching part went even more undiscussed. So, the film just concentrates on that. I felt like to try and do too much would not do justice to either aspect. I didn’t want to gloss over, or give the Cliffs Notes version of something that should be its own documentary.
SL: You interviewed Sheldon Kennedy for the film. How many athletes have you interviewed?
CG: Sheldon Kennedy was my inspiration, so it was important to interview him for the film. He’s the one who gave me that language. Knowing that I wasn’t alone and having someone who’s a big, strong hockey player come out and say, “This happened to me, too.” I know that, from him doing that on such a public stage, lives have been saved.
We interviewed athletes from every level, from Olympians to professional athletes from all four of the major sports to people who played Little League. There are some high profile names that have agreed to be interviewed, and we will be shooting them over the next couple of months. Then there are a lot of athletes you’ve never heard of, but it’s important to tell their stories, for their voices to be heard.
SL: When you approached your former coach to interview him for the documentary, were you surprised that he agreed to do it?
CG: I hoped that he would do it, but overall I was pretty shocked. But I also understood, with the wisdom of distance and time, that there was a part of him that was so ego-based that he might say yes. I sent him a letter that was very carefully worded and offered him a chance to be part of a documentary about the biggest male influences on our lives growing up. He left me a voice mail saying that it would be the honor of his life. From there we set a date for me to go back to the house where everything occurred.
SL: How was it like for you to go back there?
CG: It took a lot of work ahead of time to get my head right. I didn’t feel as if I was going to be overwhelmed. I felt like I had a good foundation and that I was doing this for the right reasons. The most important thing was, the power dynamic had changed. I was not an undersized 14-year-old boy, and he was not a 50-something-year-old man. I was a 35-year-old man, and he was a feeble, nearly 80-year-old man. And, I had two things on my side: I had a camera and the truth.
I prepared for the sensory overload of going back there and seeing the bad paneling and smelling the stale cigarette smoke, even though I knew it was going to be jarring. I also tried to anticipate what tactic he might take when I sat down to interview him. He could attack me, he could blame me, he could say, “You wanted it,” or any number of things.
SL: Did you go with a sound-man or a camera-man?
CG: That was the plan. I was going to go with one camera operator and a sound mixer. In talking about it beforehand with my fiancée, in war-gaming how this could go, there was some concern. People didn’t want me there alone. But I also thought he would talk much more freely if it was just me. So, I went in alone. I set up two cameras myself. I set one running and operated the other myself.
I do think that freed him up to speak because he picked up like I had been there yesterday. Like, “Hey, wasn’t it a good time when we got drunk?” and “Didn’t we have some parties?” He was reluctant to curse at one point. In an echo of what he said to me nearly verbatim years ago, I told him, “We’re all grownups here. You can curse.”
Part of that was me trying to make him feel comfortable enough to talk, setting him at ease, talking to him in a way that was not judgmental, which required shutting off a portion of my brain that wanted to scream, “What, are you insane? How can you justify this?”
SL: In the interview, did he admit to doing this?
CG: The interview was set up such that, I was going to ask him about his role models growing up and how he got into coaching and how he chose the players that needed special attention. I knew that, at some point, I would have to confront him. There was a red line on my paper of questions. Below that red line was the question: “When it comes to your philosophy of coaching and mentorship, where does performing oral sex on boys fit in?”
I told myself, get everything in ahead of time because when you say this, all hell could break loose. I was thinking that I could be physically attacked or that he might just clam up. When I asked him the question, he looked at me and then he laughed a maniacal laugh. “What are you talking about?” he said. And I said, “You know what I’m talking about.”
After trying to laugh it off, he explained that it was all about being unembarrassed and unashamed, that he was teaching me the birds and the bees, and that the age of 14 is the magical age when a boy wants to learn what it takes to be a man. Basically, the story that he told himself is that he had been a net positive in the lives of young boys.
He said, “Well, everything turned out okay. You were a boy when I met you, and you were a man when you left.” It was clear to me that this was a man who didn’t think he did anything wrong. Very soon after that I left.
SL: Did you speak to him again after that?
CG: I did one follow-up interview with him because he was so willing to talk. Instead of being in his creepy, ’70s-paneled den, we were out in the park, in broad daylight, with Little League games in the background. This time, I didn’t hold my tongue. I went into everything: the pornography, the alcohol, the things that parents try to protect their children from. I said, “This is what you did. You may call it a lesson, but I call it sexual abuse. And, this is the effect it had on my life.”
SL: The statute of limitations allowed your coach to avoid criminal charges in New York. Do you think that law should be changed in cases of sexual abuse involving children?
CG: This has become a large part of the documentary. It’s estimated that 50 percent of men will never say a word to anyone [about the abuse they suffered]. The average age of those men who do come forward is in their 30s and 40s, oftentimes because by then they have their own children and they’re forced to look at the thing that they were trying to get away from their whole life. Unfortunately, because of the statute of limitations, these people are then told by a detective who wants nothing more than to take a predator off the street, “There’s nothing I can do.”
I’m all for abolition of the statute of limitations. In New York state, the age limit [to report sexual abuse] is 23. Why 23 and not 33 or 43? It’s an arbitrary number — as if the numbers mean anything. The effects of this on your life have no time limit. The effects can be felt forever. The result is, those who know can’t say what they know.
The other thing is, different states have different laws regarding the statute of limitations. Bob Oliva, the coach of Lamar Odom and Ron Artest when they were growing up, was prosecuted and convicted of child rape recently because, years ago, he had crossed the state line into Massachusetts with a child. He was brought to trial in Massachusetts, which was something he avoided in New York.
SL: What was your immediate reaction when the sexual abuse story involving former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky broke?
CG: When the story broke, myself, my crew, my research team, advocates, and survivors were the least shocked people in the world. Where everybody said, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this happened,” we said, “Of course.” Not that we’re jaded, but knowing what we know, Jerry Sandusky felt like a textbook abuser who created his own pipeline of access to youth.
We’ve also seen how powerful organizations with deep pockets try to make these cases go away as quietly as possible. We’ve found that there is a “Penn State” in practically every town — a school, an institution, a league that has chosen to try and make it go away rather than deal with it.
SL: Why do you think the Penn State scandal became such a major news story?
CG: Penn State was this gleaming example of everything that’s right about sports. They had an absolute living legend in Joe Paterno who did everything right in a place called Happy Valley. Not to imply that he was complicit in any way, but it was definitely the fact that this was Joe Pa’s program that made everybody look at this story.
SL: Is there a positive to the Penn State story in terms of awareness of this issue?
CG: Absolutely. There’s no doubt that the needle moved on this issue in a very important way. All of these stories are of a graphic nature, but nobody would ever have sat down and read a 23-page grand jury presentment about the rape of a child except for the fact that it involved Penn State and Joe Paterno. And, because of the high-profile nature of it, because it was ubiquitous with people around the water cooler for a couple of weeks, people were forced for the first time to look directly at this issue and confront it.
SL: Was there any downside to the media coverage?
CG: Sometimes the media can be irresponsible when they discuss sexual abuse involving youth. In those cases in Southern California involving female gymnasts [and accused coaches Don Peters and Doug Boger], articles mentioned that, “Boger had sex with her when she was a teen-ager.” There’s no such thing. It’s called rape, and you must call it that.
SL: What about the issue of false accusations: does that undermine other cases?
CG: It can be devastating on both sides. To be falsely accused is horrible; it’s like they hang a scarlet letter on you. Once you attach the words “child molester” to somebody, the damage is often done. People feel that it’s impossible to defend against.
On the other side, what a false accusation does to someone who’s actually been abused is that charges of ulterior motives immediately come up, that they’re doing it for the money.
SL: What solutions do you advocate to make youth sports safer for kids? Strict background checks for coaches? Legislation?
CG: There is no one magic bullet that is going to solve all this. It takes a village for change to occur, and it requires awareness on all levels. Background checks can help, but there are holes in the system, just like the sex offenders’ registry. They can create a false sense of security. My coach would pass any background check in America because he had never been prosecuted or convicted.
There can’t be just one boilerplate policy. There needs to be a mindset change. There has to be an enlightened look at this, sport by sport and level to level, from clubs and leagues to school boards and national groups. What may be acceptable, in terms of physical contact, with a baseball coach might be very different with gymnastics, which requires spotting somebody and catching somebody.
Some leagues and clubs have implemented the two-adult policy, where you limit one-on-one contact between coaches and athletes below certain ages. I understand that one-on-one contact is extremely important for an athlete to learn, but limiting that type of contact limits the opportunity for abuse. Having the two-adult policy protects the coaches from false accusations, where it’s one person’s word against another.
I’m a fan of Respect in Sport, a non-profit organization in Canada. They’ve put together a curriculum that trains caregivers — including coaches — about harassment and abuse and teaches them how to create a safe atmosphere for youth athletes.
SL: What measures should parents take before entrusting their child to a youth coach?
CG: There’s usually not one warning sign that is going to set off alarm bells. But if there is a confluence of factors, they should be concerned. If there’s an adult coach who spends more time with children than he does with adults, who wants to be with your child more than you do and creates access and one-on-one opportunities to do so, that’s a major warning sign. If a coach is always volunteering to give your child a ride to and from practice or giving him gifts or taking him out for meals or texting him, that’s a major warning sign.
Parents have to trust their instincts. They have to take the time to educate their children to know what is and what is not acceptable behavior, and to know they have a safe place where they can report abuse.
SL: You began a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the documentary. What’s the status of that campaign and what’s the status of the film?
CG: The Kickstarter campaign has expired and was unsuccessful. But we’ve had some private investors step up after the exposure we got from the media, and I have professional editors lined up to help me in post-production who have agreed to defer some money. It’s looking like we’ll be done shooting in July. The hope is that we can edit through the summer, and by the fall it should be finished.
SL: Then where will you go with the film — to the festival circuit?
CG: If I had done this film years ago, my dream would have been to get it into a few theaters and do the festival circuit. But now, it’s not about getting it into a few art-house theaters. It’s about getting it in front of the most eyeballs possible and where it can make the most difference. If there is some place on cable television that it could live, if I can get it in 60 million homes, if parents and children and victims and everybody else can learn from this and know that they’re not alone, then maybe this film can make a difference. There’s a lot of good that can be done.
SL: What have you learned about yourself in making this film?
CG: I saw how this had affected every aspect of my life in ways that I had not been aware of. A lot of the bad ten years of my life made sense in retrospect. There were times where I said, “That’s just me,” and then I saw the same story over and over again with other victims.
I learned that I am not alone in having gone through this. And, surviving the darkest times has enabled me to give back in some way. What seemed impossible back then is what’s enabling me to now do the most important things I’ve ever done.