The Iowa Barnstormers youth basketball program is scheduled to play next week in Minneapolis, and that’s a problem.
Coach and program co-director Greg Stephen was sentenced to 180 years in federal prison Thursday for exploiting at least 440 boys. For this man, his amateur youth program was a way to find a “steady, replenishing stream of victims.” Those are the words of U.S. Attorney Marc Krickbaum, not mine.
Amateur basketball is on trial right now in New York for its alleged under-the-table payments to high school athletes and handlers. I guarantee you what happened here within the Barnstormers program is far worse.
That situation in New York has daily national coverage, right now. This?
Where’s the screams for meaningful change after hundreds of boys were victimized by the co-director of one of the top grassroots basketball programs in the Midwest?
Nude photos were taken of them in secret by their coach. The coach posed as a girl and solicited explicit images from boys in other cases. Some of his athletes on Barnstormers’ basketball trips woke up to find Stephen in their bed, touching their privates and himself.
This went on for years.
“My son would have followed you anywhere; he thought you held the keys to the basketball kingdom,” one mother said at Stephen’s sentencing Thursday in Cedar Rapids. “You forced evil on the goodness and sweetness of my son.”
Just read her words and consider the sheer scope of this tragedy. Let that sink in.
It makes you want to scream.
The last time we heard of a horrific case of a trusted adult abusing young athletes, it prompted an outcry that required change. That should happen here, too.
The case of former women’s U.S. gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who’s behind bars for life, led to the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017 becoming law. It also prompted leadership change within USA Gymnastics and Michigan State, where Nassar was on staff.
People had, understandably, lost faith in the people who were supposed to be the adults.
Here so far? Apparently, it’s basketball as usual.
The Barnstormers are still playing the full circuit and Adidas remains listed as their sponsor.
Stephen was a horrific predator. But 400-plus children are not victimized without the structure in place failing them.
“You read these things in the news with (Joe) Paterno and (Larry) Nassar — how bad that stuff is — yet you’re kind of removed from the situation. ‘It’s not happening to me,’” program co-director Jamie Johnson, who knew Stephen for 15-plus years, told the Register in February of 2018 after Stephen’s arrest.
“I’ve never in a million years thought I’d have to answer questions like this. This doesn’t even compute in my mind.”
When you oversee kids, these things must be considered. In fact, it should be among the first things considered.
That’s your job – to look out for the kids, not pretend like nothing bad could ever happen. Want to run a youth program? Well, this comes with the territory.
It’s common sense to know you don’t let youth basketball coaches sleep in the same beds as young children. After the fact, the Barnstomers said coaches were no longer allowed to sleep over with the athletes.
But I go back to this sentence in a previous Register story:
“The Barnstormers’ executive director told The Register that he was unaware Stephen would sleep in the same bed as players or that he allegedly masturbated next to them and touched them.”
Where’s the white-hot concern from state leaders over the years-long failure in oversight from the Barnstormers organization? How were no other adults aware, for many years, that Stephen would sleep in bed with athletes? And who has oversight over this grassroots team?
When an organization that is entrusted with children has a situation where the program founder abused 440 children, they should be shut down. In my book, your organization loses the privilege to look over children when that happens.
Restaurants get shut down over getting customers sick. This, I would say, deserves a response too.
Beyond the Barnstormers, there’s an imbalance of power in grassroots basketball, where athletes may feel scared to speak out due to the power that their coach has over their athletic (and, in many cases, academic) future.
“(Grassroots basketball) is an unregulated subculture,” author George Dohrmann, who wrote the book, “Play Their Hearts Out” on elite grassroots basketball, told the Register last summer. “You have kids who are chasing a dream and see these (coaches) as the dream-makers. So, my goodness, that is a really, really scary combination of factors.”
Or let one of Stephen’s victims, who spoke to the Register last year, explain it:
“I was so young,” he said. “I feel like that’s what his power was against us — we were so young.”
Grassroots basketball coaches are required to do online training and annual background checks, the Register reported last summer. Clearly, that is not good enough when a person who victimizes as many as Stephen did, for as long as he did, goes undetected.
If the shoe companies are not going to do more than that, our state leaders should. For Iowa-based teams, there should be a thorough vetting of youth sports coaches. There should be increased education to coaches and parents on spotting signs of child sexual exploitation. And young athletes should have independent advocates they can seek out to express concerns they have.
“Clearly, there needs to be oversight with regard to the guardianship of players,” ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas told us last summer. “Any young athlete that’s in the charge of any coach needs to be better protected. We can’t just take for granted the fact the someone who has a whistle around his or her neck is going to have the players’ best interest at heart.
“That’s a sad thing to have to say, but I think we’ve seen and heard enough of this to know there has to be substantive change.”
If not for some brave people, Stephen might still be abusing children in Iowa.
To his former brother-in-law, who came across a USB drive at Stephen’s house that had nude images of boys stored on it and turned it over to law enforcement, thank you. You did the right thing.
Thanks to the boys who had the courage to speak up. It had to be more difficult than anyone could ever imagine.
But you protected many from this happening again.
You did what too many adults failed to do here.
You watched out for the kids.
Iowa State columnist Randy Peterson has been with the Register for parts of five decades. Randy writes opinion and analysis about college sports. You can reach Randy at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @RandyPete.