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Background Checks in Youth Sports- Nationwide Survey Results

By Paul Langhorst on 1/27/2016

youth sports background checksToday's headlines are filled with painful instances of youth sports coaches, board members and volunteers being charged with crimes. The offenses include sexual misconduct with players and parents, financial theft, equipment theft, battery, drugs and other crimes. Recovering from a youth sports PR crisis caused by such incidents can be painfully slow and difficult to regain solid community standing. As such, many youth sports organizations are turning to background checks to help prevent such instances from happening in the first place.  

In an attempt to gauge the degree to which youth sports leader background checks are being implemented Engage Sports conducted a non-scientific survey of over 1400 youth sports leaders in the U.S. With a 4% completed survey response rate, the results are valuable from a directional and informational basis. 

Do Background Checks Help Prevent Criminal Behavior?coach background check statistics

The respondents clearly believe that running background checks help prevent criminal behavior. Nearly 44% of the respondents "strongly agreed" that background checks help prevent criminal behavior and just under 32% "agreed" to that question.  Therefore, nearly 75% of respondents agreed that background checks help prevent criminal behavior.

Keeping a person with a criminal past from joining your youth sports organization is clearly the goal of coach background checks. However, the question this point begs, is, does a background check prevent criminal behavior from an individual who may have never committed a crime? The answer to that is no, which is why it is a best practice to require annual background checks to ensure that a person's behavior or background has not dramatically changed since they joined your organization.

Does your Sports Organization Run Background Checks?

The overwhelming response was "yes," with nearly 90% of the respondents indicating they currently run background checks.  Its clear that background checks are now a best practice within youth sports. Interestingly, those respondents who were "neutral" as to whether background checks helped prevent criminal behavior seemed to be hedging their bets, as over half of them also reported that their organizations were in fact running back ground checks.  True to their word, those who disagreed or strongly disagreed that background checks were a prevention measure, were not running background checks at their organization.  I believe the takeaway here is, even if you don't personally believe a background check is a prevention measure, as they saying goes, it may be better to be safe than sorry. 

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If Not Running Now, Are Background Checks Considered for the Future?

We then wanted to know, if an organization was not currently running background checks, were they considering background checks in the future? The majority of those respondents not running checks (57%) reported that they are being considered for the future.  As a follow up to this question we asked under what time frame were they hoping to implement background checks?  25% were looking to implement within 6-months and the remaining 75% were on a 6-month to one-year time frame.   Its clear that if background checks are being considered, those organizations want the checks implemented rather quickly.

On Which Personnel are Background Checks Run? coach background check stats

Clearly the #1 position on which background checks are run are coaches (100%), followed by volunteers (86%), then board members (65%) and lastly paid staff (42%).  Within the "Other" catchall category, referees/umpires were the main candidates for background checks (14%). Conceptually this breakdown seems to make sense from the standpoint of who has the most interaction with the players, however, since board members typically move up the line of command overtime, I believe background checks on board members should be a universal requirement.  It also sets the tone that what is good for the board is good for all concerned.

Are Other Types of Credentials Required?  If So, What?

We also wanted to learn to what degree other types of credentials are required if background checks are required. Here too we found that the majority (63%) of organizations running checks also required some other form of credential, class, or certification. This is significant and shows that the approval process is not solely based on passing a criminal background check. Conversely we found that if an organization was not running checks, 80% reported that they did not require any other form of credentials.  The data suggests that background checks stem from a culture of concern, that is, the leadership not only wishes to prevent criminality but also wants to make sure the people they are engaging are qualified in other ways. 

The most interesting figure to come out of the survey was that fact that 62% of the respondents required some form of training related to maintaining proper coach-player(34%) or coach-parent behavior(28%).  Clearly this human interaction area is a touch point for youth sports organizations and these organizations are trying to prevent situations from happening by training coaches on appropriate behavior with players and parents. The single largest form of credential required (36%) was a certificate relative to the sport being coached.  Some respondents (17%) required the coach take some form of training uniquely developed by the sports organization and 15% of the respondents required a CPR certification. Note: Within the Other Credential category (24.5%), "concussion training" was widely mentioned in the responses and such training may also be part of the sport-specific credential but our survey tool did not dig for that clarification. 


The key takeaways are that the vast majority of youth sports organizations that responded to our survey believed that back ground checks help prevent criminal behavior, and even if there were doubts, the majority still ran checks as a safeguard. It was also clear that many youth sports organizations not yet running checks are looking to do so within the next 12 months. The data suggests that for those requiring background checks, their desire to protect their players, parents and organization does not stop at a criminal check. The results on this point could not be more stark. If background checks were being run, many other forms of credentials were required. If background checks were not being run, virtually nothing else was required to coach or join their organization.  Parents and guardians looking for insight into how well a youth sports organization is run, might consider using evidence of background checks as a guide post. If background checks are not being run, it may signal insufficient operational controls and cause for concern. Lastly, a background check is just one tool at a board's disposal; following best practices for financial control, improving data security and crisis prevention and response measures create a comprehensive environment to protect the well-being of an organization and its participants. 


Paul Langhorst

Co-Founder and Chief Technologist for Engage Sports, providing sports league websites, online registration and league management. Over the years, Rich has coached football, basketball, baseball and fastpitch softball. He has also severed as a board member for football and lacrosse organizations in the St. Louis area.


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