Small steps toward making kids safer

Innocent until proven guilty.

I have to keep repeating that sentence to myself over and over again as I read about the testimony given during the Jerry Sandusky trial. It's hard to do as the details are nothing short of horrific. And eerily similar.

Build trust.

Offer gifts.

Do this for kids with an absent father.

It's the last one that gets me the most. The former Penn State coach was supposed to protect and defend those in his care, not hunt and exploit them. Again, we don't know if Sandusky is guilty of the things he's being accused of, but we do know the young men taking the stand this week started their contact with him as children looking for a father figure, someone who would look after them.

If nothing else, this scandal has opened a running national dialogue about how we're doing just that: looking after our kids.

Earlier this week the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), the country's oldest organization dedicated to youth athletics, announced it will conduct mandatory background checks on anyone who comes in contact with the 500,000 children in its programs, including coaches and volunteers. It also published a list of other procedures to help ensure safety.

Also this week, Pop Warner became the first national league on any level in football to restrict player contact. Starting this fall, contact drills will be limited to a third of practice time, and there will be a ban on full-speed head blocking and tackling drills beyond 3 yards. In other words, coaches can no longer instruct kids to get a running start and smash into each other. Given what we are learning about concussions and brain damage, I'd say this change is a good thing.

Two separate measures, neither grabbing big headlines but both instituted to look after our kids -- especially AAU's background checks.

On one hand, I am glad to see the organization being more proactive. On the other, I cannot believe this is the first time it is taking this step in its 124-year history. And the step comes only after sex abuse allegations surfaced regarding Bobby Dodd, the organization's former president. The two men accusing Dodd of misconduct in the 1980s said they felt compelled to share their story after the Sandusky news broke. No charges have been filed against Dodd.

Present AAU president Louis Stout said the new background checks and other new procedures will help foster a "culture of safety" for the kids.

It is sad to think that a "culture of safety" isn't inherent but has to be created, and that dropping our kids off at practice is no longer a worry-free proposition.

Of course, coaches in a variety of programs have been accused and convicted of abusing young people. Even high schools -- which have been doing background checks for years -- are hardly a completely safe zone.

Sports used to be something parents would encourage kids to participate in to keep them out of trouble. How hard is it not to be paranoid about every single coach who comes into your child's life and needs to spend a lot of time with him or her for training? Headlines like these create such a conundrum.

And the decisions don't get easier as we become more cognizant of the physical toll sports can take. Football provides its own set of stressors, given the growing body of research about concussions and stories of kids collapsing, some dying from the intense practices in the heat. It's the most-watched game in the country so it would only be natural that our youngsters want to play. But it is also among the most dangerous and, well, that should give any loving parent pause.

At least Pop Warner and AAU have taken some steps this week to show parents they recognize the concern and are willing to do what they can to ease our nerves.

Now, before dismissing these moves as PC overkill or part of the wussification of America, I encourage you to think about the long-term implications of abuse and injuries.

Read about the testimony from the Sandusky trial. And try to remember, he's innocent until proven guilty.

Remember that we're all responsible for the young athletes in our lives.

If we don't do all we can to protect our children from harm, we may not be guilty of any wrongdoing but we're hardly innocent.