Hold the backpage
Compiled by PHILIP REID
Gavagan's cautionary tale for all times
The documentary is only a work in progress; but, on the evidence of his contribution to a conference in New York last week, Christopher Gavagan’s story – for he is the filmmaker with the guts and courage to delve into his own past – should make for a harrowing tale. It should also serve as a lesson, not just to other young sportsmen with their eyes on pursuing the dream of sporting excellence, but to many families and to society at large.
Gavagan’s story is an American one, but it could be from anywhere. Britain. Australia. Or here in Ireland.
The issue is worldwide. A wannabe ice hockey player in his teens, Gavagan – now aged 38 – was speaking to the MaleSurvivor 13th International Conference about young athletes who have been sexually assaulted or abused by their coaches.
The telling of his story and the making of the documentary seems particularly apt, given the high-profile trial and conviction of collegiate football coach Jerry Sandusky who was sentenced last month to 30 to 60 years in jail for child molestation crimes whilst an assistant at Penn State.
The Sandusky case was not a stand-alone affair in the USA: the boxer Sugar Ray Leonard wrote in his autobiography – The Big Fight – published last year that he was the victim of sexual abuse from an Olympic trainer and has since declared himself a “poster child” in encouraging other victims to report their abuse. Closer to home, journalist and author Justine McCarthy graphically outlined the history of sexual abuse in Irish swimming in her book, Deep Deceptions.
To that end, men like Gary O’Toole and Chalkie White – Irish Olympian swimmers who refused to remain silent – have become “poster men” in their own right for exposing what went on and become an inspiration to others.
In Gavagan’s case, his dream to excel as an ice hockey player led him – as a 13-year-old – to the door of a coach who had been recommended to him by a couple of female acquaintances. Gavagan told the New York Times that his thoughts of future glory were embodied in the trophy room of the coach’s house. There were pictures of hockey teams the man had coached and workout equipment which promised him the chance to get bigger and stronger.
“To a skinny 13-year-old, it was like winning the lottery,” recalled Gavagan, adding: “The entire grooming process was so subtle. It’s not like when I first went into his house that he tried to grope me.”
The step-by-step process involved a situation where he was first allowed to use swear words in the coach’s house, then to drink beer and then on to looking at Playboy magazine and ultimately on to harder pornography. It was six months before the coach laid an explicitly sexual hand on him, Gavagan said. It was four years before he escaped his abuser’s influence.
“At the time I had no idea of how it would impact my life, but the unhealthy lessons about relations, trust and the truth set a time bomb that would detonate my relationships for the next 10 years,” Gavagan told the conference.