High price of opportunity

The California girl got a call in her hotel room. It was her club basketball coach. Come by, he said. She hurried to the coach's room and knocked. He let her in, and she noticed the coach's roommate had gone into the shower. The coach looked at his player for a long moment. Then he leaned in and kissed her.

The girl felt a wave swell through her. It was her first real kiss. The coach lifted up her shirt. This is so wrong, she thought. The coach was much older, and married. The girl was 12.

Title IX has revolutionized sports and opened up a world of thrilling possibilities for women athletes, but it also has had a terrifying and underestimated side effect: sexual abuse by coaches. In the past two years, widely respected and accomplished girls' basketball coaches in Portland, Ore., Seattle, Wash., Denver, Colo., and Berkeley, Calif., have faced accusations of abuse from current or former players. A Seattle Times investigation from 2003 found 159 coaches reprimanded or fired for sexual misconduct in the past decade in Washington state alone. Of those 159, the Times reported, 98 continued to coach or teach at schools.

In the first extensive study of its kind, sociology professor Sandra Kirby of the University of Winnipeg found that 22.8 percent of respondents in a Canadian sample had sexual intercourse with a coach or other person in position of authority within their sport. The epidemic spawned from a combination of controlling coaches, enabling parents, precocious girls and a stunning lack of oversight of youth sports. "The numbers are staggering," says Kirby, who wrote her book, "The Dome of Silence," in 2000. "The coach is one of the barriers between athletes and the brass ring, and to them that's the only road. There's no other way."

The problem has worsened in the United States with the relatively new promise of fame and success in women's basketball. "We're following the men right down this road of kids playing 12 months a year, 80 to 100 games," Stanford women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer says. "The club coaches can be powerful brokers. Girls live in a more emotional world. The chemistry, the camaraderie. So much is about being accepted. Then you have a male coach with a 14-year-old girl wanting to please this person. Girls are really motivated by being pleasers. Are they more vulnerable? Yes, I think they are."

A worst-case-scenario developed in Denver, where in the past decade, Colorado Hoopsters coach Rick Lopez produced hundreds of tournament victories and dozens of Division I players. That track record allowed Lopez the benefit of the doubt when rumors of inappropriate behavior surfaced, even when he verbally abused or physically intimidated girls on his team. Lopez's credibility only grew when Nike endorsed his team and developed close working relationships with respected college coaches like Connecticut's Geno Auriemma.

Lopez had no oversight from high schools, the AAU or the NCAA. He made all the team rules. Only paying parents, thrilled to see their daughters successful and seemingly happy, held any disciplinary power over the coach. If worried parents pulled their daughters out of the Hoopsters program -- and few did -- dozens of other Denver girls stood ready to take the empty roster spots. If parents did a background check on Lopez -- and one did -- only traffic violations surfaced.

Then, last summer -- more than a decade after the first rumors began -- three former players accused Lopez of having sexual relationships with them. All say they were underage; one said the relationship started when she was 12. All three now play at major colleges.

Lopez was arrested in July and charged with 59 counts of physical and sexual assault. But he already had coached through three separate police investigations and a front-page Denver Post article reporting several accusations of sex abuse by former players. In each case, no current players confessed to relationships with the coach, and the questions stopped.

That's because the suspicion often ceases when players insist nothing inappropriate happened. Lopez's accusers came forward years after their alleged relationships began, and only after they found out about each other's similar experiences.

The girl from California -- who had never heard of Rick Lopez or the Colorado Hoopsters -- kept her secret from friends and family for years, thinking her relationship with her coach would eventually evolve into a long-term commitment. She says the coach explained his wife's pregnancy as a way to keep people from asking too many questions. "When you're going through it," she says, "you think your relationship is different. [He] made me believe we would end up being together when I was 18 or 20. I was protecting him, but when I was 12 I didn't realize I could say something. I had to keep my mouth shut."

So parents often have a difficult time determining what is really going on. "The job the parents are doing is a really complex job," VanDerveer says. "It's hard to tell a 13-year-old she can't play with a club team. It's a responsibility to know what situations you can put your children in. Maybe the NCAA needs to step in and be the policeman on the block. These are young boys and girls. We need to protect our kids. This should not be the thorn that comes with the rose."

The California girl recently told her high school boyfriend about her four-year relationship, and charges have been brought against the coach. The girl, who got recruiting interest from Stanford, Princeton and several other top schools, has decided to quit basketball altogether.

"I never really liked it to begin with," she says.

Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.