The story that broke this week in The New York Times that nine present or former high-ranking members of FIFA, soccer's global governing body, had been arrested in Zurich, Switzerland, after being indicted on corruption charges in the U.S., didn't surprise me in the least.
While the FIFA scandal has made national headlines, allegations of embezzlement and theft in sports organizations, large and small, are an almost every-day occurrence in cities and towns across America.
Here is a quick list of youth sports league theft and embezzlement cases, just from the first three weeks of May alone:
• The ex-treasurer for a youth sports group is found guilty of theft in Ohio.
• A Lansing, MI man is accused of stealing money from a youth sports league.
• The former president of a Fayette County (PA) youth football league is accused of using $24,102 of the nonprofit's money to buy cosmetics, ammunition, groceries and other items.
• A former Kent (WA) Little League treasurer pleads guilty to stealing more than $200,000 from the organization.
• The former treasurer of the Clinton Valley (MI) Little League is placed on five years' probation and ordered to repay $175,000 she admitted stealing from the organization.
• A youth hockey league in Leominster (MA) (about a half hour from where I live) is left with less than $4 in its account after a player's father cashes checks he makes out to himself totaling nearly $30,000
While youth sports organizations pale in size to FIFA, most are run like small - and, in some cases, not-so-small -businesses, with officers, boards of directors, bylaws and annual meetings, and annual budgets running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Yet, most operate with virtually no oversight beyond their volunteer (or, in some cases, paid) boards of directors and staff, and their often lax financial controls can make them easy and tempting targets for thieves. Even local youth sports organizations affiliated with national organizations are often not as accountable to the parents and children they supposedly serve as they should be.
Indeed, in reporting that FIFA critics characterize it as "a small group of officials ... operat[ing] with outsize power [and] ... function[ing] with little oversight and even less transparency," The Times could just as easily been talking about the youth sports organizations I just listed.
So, how can youth sports organizations become more accountable to their "customers" (you and your children)? Here are six ways:
1. Identify decision makers. In order to hold those who run the show accountable for the "product" they produce, challenge the way they do business, and identify problem organizations, begin by finding out about the structure of the organization. Here are some of the questions you should ask:
• Does the group operate as a profit or not-for-profit business?
• Does it fall under a national governing body (NGB) like US Lacrosse, USA Hockey, Pop Warner, etc?
• Who is accountable or responsible for decisions made or actions taken by the organization?
• Is it a corporation or a partnership? (Tip: by going to the website of your state's Secretary of State you can obtain annual reports of profit and not-for-profit corporations, both those incorporated in your state and "foreign" corporations (those registered to do business in your state but incorporated elsewhere) as well as the names of officers and directors. Not-for-profits are also required to register with the state's Attorney General, typically in a division relating to charities, and to file annual reports on their finances and fundraising activities. An organization that hasn't kept current with its annual filings is a red flag that it may be taking short-cuts in other areas, such as player safety, having in place the appropriate insurance in case of negligence etc.)
• Are two signatures required on every check?
2. Parent input. Push for the formation of a Parent Advisory Group (PAC) consisting of parents with children currently playing in the program to provide the Board of Directors with feedback (both negative and positive) from other parents; the input helps to insure that its decisions are reflective of, and responsive to, a broad cross-section of the youth sports community. Run for a seat on the board. Attend meetings.
3. Open meetings. Ask that the mission statement of a youth sports program, its bylaws and the names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of board members and other officers be publicly available and posted on the program's website, and that the time and place of board meetings be advertised and open to any parent or concerned individual to attend (even if only to observe). All coaches, including the middle school and high school coaches in that sport, should be encouraged to attend at least one meeting a year.
4. Term limits. Like politicians, directors, administrators and coaches who become entrenched in a program for years on end tend to put the "blinders" on and may become too comfortable with the status quo. New blood can keep a program fresh and strong. Longtime board members can be given "emeritus" or "ex officio" status.
5. Financial accountability. Public financial disclosure is one way to avoid embezzlement of funds in youth sports organizations. By partnering with credible, well-established online youth sports registration companies, leagues and teams can track where their money is going.
6. Benchmarking. We need to take a public health approach to injury prevention in youth sports. The first step is surveillance: creating a consistent, comparable, and accurate data system that can track the performance of youth sports organizations, their progress in preventing and treating injuries and keeping kids safe.
6. Make safety a budget priority. Instead of fancy new uniforms, or multi-million dollar stadiums, parents should push for more of a program's funds to be spent on keeping kids safe, such as by purchasing automatic external defibrillators and first-aid kits, to pay for reconditioning or replacing used equipment such as helmets, and to pay stipends to trained health care professionals (e.g., certified athletic trainers, nurses, EMTs, physicians) so they can be on the sidelines in case of medical emergencies.
The bottom line: make sure to follow the money so you know it is being spent wisely. We can and we must put our children and their safety first by making sure a youth sports program's scarce resources aren't going into the pockets of thieves