What is done in darkness must come to the light.
The scandal that rocked Pennsylvania State University’s football team over the past year as details emerged that former Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky raped and molested at least 10 young boys between the ages of 10 and 15 — while University officials acquiesced in silence — reflects the tortured nature of dark secrets. This case is important not only because it brings resolution to the victims of a most egregious crime, but because it has forced modern society to confront its own demons on the oft-avoided, hardly discussed topic of child sexual abuse.
Most young boys find it difficult to admit abuse, especially after they’ve achieved adulthood, because of myths we all absorb: the idea that real men are so strong that they’re incapable of being victims. We’ve come to accept the lie that successful men are never vulnerable, either emotionally or physically. But what is lost is a more fundamental truth: young boys are not men. They are children who need and deserve to be protected.
An emphasis on a hyper-masculine ideal of Black manhood has been a way to escape the chains of our past, but it also places a burden on those who would admit to certain kinds of victimization. For you see, in a world in which you are already disadvantaged in education, employment and financial aspiration, it becomes sacrosanct to – at the very least – hold on to an innate sense of pride. How then could young Black boys ever admit to being raped or molested by another man?
As a victim of sexual abuse myself, from the age of 13, I learned very early that the process of revelation is particularly difficult because the conversation is one hardly ever articulated. Adults leave children without adequate language to describe what is happening or has happened to them; and far too often children are either consciously or subconsciously allowed to believe it was somehow their fault. As national statistics reveal as many as 1-in-4 girls and 1-in-6 boys are sexually abused, there are far more among us who suffer in silence, with no recompense, unable to express their pain or give voice to their experience.
The nature of silence around this taboo topic means the victims largely go unnoticed and unknown. But one brave new hero has emerged, and in a wonderfully ironic twist of fates, he is a member of America’s gladiator regiment: the NFL.
Putting to rest the fallacy that a victim cannot be a “real man”, Laveranues Coles — the NFL star wide-receiver, Pro Bowl champion and 2006 MVP — stands in defiance of the myths.
Coles rarely gives interviews; and when it comes to his past and personal life, he has only provided one full-season pass. That was to the iconic Oprah Winfrey in 2005.
At the time Coles was living his dream playing with the New York Jets – the team that had first drafted him in 2000 – and from the outside his life was perfect. Except Coles had a secret, and one he felt was necessary to share. Much like the oft-quoted mantra “with great power comes great responsibility”, Coles became the first NFL player to admit to being sexually abused as a child. For him it had been between the ages of 10 and 13 at the hands of a violent stepfather, who used a gun to his head and threats of doing bodily harm to his mother if he ever dared speak a word.
The news sent shockwaves throughout the sports world, and left many confused: How could this giant of a man—a sports hero—ever have been so vulnerable?
Coles’ truth challenged the nuanced terms of sexual abuse and molestation, by forcing people to see the violent rape at the heart of these experiences. He also provides a rare picture of Black boy victims – and a triumphant example of resilience and survival.In light of the Sandusky conviction I wanted to create a space to discuss child molestation of young Black boys in particular. It was my aim to educate and inform, especially African-American mothers for whom loving and protecting their children is of utmost importance, but is often done with far too little assistance, resource or recourse.
Coles kindly agreed to discuss this important issue with the EBONY community. It turns out this real-life hero is more committed to saving and protecting the innocence of young children, than making touchdowns for glory or fame.
EBONY: Laveranues, children are often paralyzed by the trauma of rape and molestation. Looking back, is there anything that would have helped you during the time when you were being abused? What paths were there that you didn’t recognize at the time?
LC: If others had spoken about it the way I have, that would have helped. As a child you genuinely believe you are the only person in the world this is happening to. Knowing I wasn’t alone would have given me a pathway out.
EBONY: What would you say to young kids who believe the lies? Who think they deserve their own victimization?
LC: That’s what the person tells you. As if you deserve it. And as a child you believe what the abuser is telling you. You believe it’s your fault. Or that you wanted it. It’s sick and twisted, but as a child you believe it, because in your mind what adults say is true. But you are the victim. A child does not have a choice.
What would I tell a kid today? First, I’d say talk about it. Tell a teacher you totally trust. In my situation it was difficult because I feared he would harm my mother. And there are kids like me who are so afraid to speak. But if you can, tell somebody.
EBONY: What did get you through? What was in you? What happened that helped you make it?
LC: Sports was very important in my family. And it was my only outlet. But the most important thing was my drive to be successful despite what happened to me. I didn’t fall into the trap of making excuses for myself. I knew from a very early age that the only way to conquer it was to succeed. And failure was not an option.
EBONY: But what kept you focused? Success is a subjective concept: it’s different for everyone. What gave you that razor-sharp ability to succeed?
LC: The main thing that kept me focused was having kids of my own. Your perceptions change once you’re the parent. It’s why I became friends with Tyler (Perry). He talked to me about not allowing it to keep me from experiencing the life I ought to live. Talking about it with someone who had lived through it gave me a new perspective.
EBONY: How many kids do you have? Are you married?
LC: I have two sons; and sadly, no I’m not married. I think my past has alot to do with that. I went through a phase as a young man where I became promiscuous. I felt I had to prove myself, to show that what had happened to me didn’t define me. And that it hadn’t taken away my manhood.
EBONY: These situations are always difficult to negotiate. And damage is done regardless of how long or how far the abuse goes. What’s the lesson?
LC: Two things: your manhood isn’t affected. It’s a lie I used to believe and so many people believe it to their own detriment. You don’t have anything to prove to anyone. Instead, use it as motivation. Use it to strengthen yourself. You’re not less of man because this happened to you. Everyone has their issues and their own pain, and this for me – or for us – is our burden to bear. But we are strong enough to conquer it.
EBONY: As the father of two sons how do you protect them? How do you create a space of love so that they’d always be able to tell you if something like this ever happened to them?
LC: The relationship I’ve developed with my kids, I know they wouldn’t flinch telling me something like that. The fear many kids have is whether their parents will believe them. That’s not good.
Parents must do their part by creating avenues to trust and honesty, so the child knows they will be believed and that they will be protected.
EBONY: What signs would you tell parents to look for? And what advice would you give to Black mothers in particular?
LC: Look for drastic changes in your child’s behavior. They may become rebellious, but it’s not just puberty. And their grades may change because they’re no longer motivated. What was a close relationship with your kid may start to feel like a distant one. They may want to be around you; they may want to tell you, but are too afraid to speak.
EBONY: Football is such a hyper-masculine sport, driven by testosterone and fueled by anger. Did you ever fear the reactions of fellow NFL players after you were honest about your childhood?
LC: No, not at all. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t reprecussions. Guys on the football field said things to me like “What kind of gay mess is that?” and “Why would you bring that up?”. Afterwards, I remember a girl sending me flowers and guys in the lockerroom laughing and saying they were from my boyfriend.
I knew the sport I was in. I understand the macho culture, so I knew there would be some backlash. But my take is this: you can’t change people’s minds. You can only live your life. If some people want to be ignorant, then so be it.
But one day a man came to the training facility and left a message for me. In his note he said that his son had seen me on Oprah and had gotten the courage up to tell him that his uncle was abusing him. That helped me to see how important it was to tell the truth. This is happening to kids everyday and if my story can help one kid, that’s worth the backlash.
EBONY: What is your opinion on the Jerry Sandusky case?
LC: I think it’s sad. I think the officials were more interested in protecting a multi-million dollar brand. If this were any other situation – if millions in sponsorship dollars weren’t at stake – then Joe Paterno would have told him to go. But the most important thing for the university was Football…and money.
EBONY: What’s next for Pro Bowl champion and MVP player Number 87?
LC: Well I’ve just retired, and I’ll be coaching the NY Jets starting this summer. But I’ve joined an organization called Protect.org. An actor friend of mine named David Keith got me involved. They are bringing attention to child trafficking, prostitution and child sexual abuse. They are lobbying the U.S. government to give more resources to combat these issues. The country spends trillions on wars and barely seven million to stop exploitation and abuse of children. I’m going to do everything I can to bring attention to it. People don’t realize the number of kids that are victimized. They have no idea. So it’s time to give them a name and a face. It’s time to bring an end to all of it.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing regularly on MSNBC, Al Jazeera, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.