Last Friday night, Pat Smith, a former semi-pro baseball player, was out to dinner with his family. Suddenly, his phone lit up with messages from friends and former teammates, many of whom he hadn’t spoken to in years, telling him to turn on CBC News at 11:00.
Dan Bleiwas, the coach of the Ontario Blue Jays, an elite youth baseball team in Canada that Smith had played on 15 years ago, had been suspended from the team following allegations of “inappropriate sexual conduct” from a former player.
When Smith heard the news, he was immediately reminded of his time on the team — a time that he told ThinkProgress turned him into “a dark, different person because of how much I was holding in.”
Smith wasn’t sexually abused by Bleiwas, but certainly recalls an environment filled with mistreatment that was actively encouraged by the coach. Based on the timeline presented by CBC, he knew it was possible that the player who made the allegations was a former teammate of his, and he instantly felt compelled to reach out to that victim, and to anyone else who had been subjected to similar abuse. And so, the next morning he decided to make a Facebook video.
“This is the toughest video I’ve ever had to make,” he opens. “It was important for me to put my face to this, in support of players at the Ontario Blue Jays, present and past.”
ONTARIO BLUE JAYS – Video of Support
In light of recent sexual abuse allegations of a former coach of mine on the Ontario Blue Jays, I felt compelled to create this video and discuss the topic, the culture, my experiences as well as offer support to those who may be victims of the abuse. If anyone needs to talk, I'm here for you. The whole community is. It's my belief that an honest discourse here could be very healthy for all involved and the baseball community as a whole. Cheers. Pat.
Posted by Pat Smith on Saturday, February 20, 2016
In the video, Smith talks candidly about the culture of abuse he experienced on the team. Players pissed in their teammates’ water bottles. Coaches verbally harassed players who were overweight — “Why don’t you kill yourself, fat fuck?” — and during one out of town trip, Smith returned to his hotel room to find out that his teammates had broken in and jerked off into his clothes. Bleiwas had given them access to the room.
Back then, Smith didn’t talk about the abuse because the Blue Jays were an elite program that was regularly scouted by MLB teams and NCAA coaches, and he was hesitant to rock the boat. He was also ashamed, carrying the attitude that, “I’m 6’4″, 220 pounds, a clean-up hitter. I’m not anyone’s bitch, and damn if I’m going to talk about that, certainly not at 17 years old.” But now Smith can recognize the years of darkness and mistrust he experienced as a result of that environment.
So Smith encouraged players who are currently experiencing abuse to reach out to him and others in the baseball community:
I want any players who are seeing this to know, if you had a tough time, we as a baseball community are here for you. All of the alumni are here for you… Nobody is going to think that you’re weak or think any less of you because your were a victim of something awful. I encourage you to come forward. reach out to me, reach out to any of your teammates, we’re here for you, we’ll talk to you, we’ll hug you, we’ll hold your hand; there’s no room for physical, mental, sexual abuse in life, let alone in a culture where you have somebody who seems to be holding the key to your future, a future that you want so bad.
Smith assumed that just a few people in his Facebook network would watch the video — maybe 50, 100 people. But since he posted it on Saturday, the video has been viewed over 60,000 times. And the response has been overwhelming. His inbox has been flooded with messages, with hundreds of former teammates and strangers alike sharing horrific tales of abuse in youth sports.
Many of the messages detailed subsequent struggles with depression, addiction, or anxiety.
“It spreads to all aspects of their lives, they’ve just been sitting in this baggage,” Smith said. “These guys feel like that’s just a part of sports, and it’s had a lasting impact on their self-worth. We need to start identifying things that are red flags.”
Smith has been moved by this response to continue to advance the conversation about abuse and mental health in sports. He knows that this is no longer simply about Bleiwas — the decorated coach, who has worked with many MLB players, is currently under investigation by the police, and has been declared ineligible by Baseball Ontario. Rather, this is about addressing the toxic culture of masculinity that is so often fostered in sports.
The ripple effects of this culture are clearly evident throughout all levels of sports. A study by Alfred University found that about 80 percent of NCAA athletes have experienced hazing, most of which was categorized as “humiliating.” Indirect abuse in sports has been described as a “particularly prevalent issue,” and the atmosphere of youth sports is said to “present an ideal opportunity for abusers.”
In the mid-1990s, Graham James, a Canadian junior hockey coach plead guilty to 350 counts of sexual assault involving two players. Former Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) president Bobby Dodd was fired in 2011 after he was accused of molesting two former players. Former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky is currently in jail after being found guilty on 45 of 48 counts of sexual abuse of young boys.
Abuse is common on the high school level too. In 2014, seven stars of a New Jersey high school football team were charged with the sexual assault and hazing of four teammates. Just this year, players on a high school basketball team in Ooltewah, Tennessee were accused of sodomizing a younger teammate with a pool cue while coaches made no attempt to report the incident to authorities.
Men who were abused as children often suffer from substance abuse and mental health problems — something that men in general are less adept at dealing with. Although men and women are equally susceptible to depression, nearly four in five suicides are by men. Unfortunately, the “boys will be boys” mentality that surrounds men’s sports perpetuates a cycle of violence, silence, and shame.
With that in mind, Smith is encouraging anyone — current or former baseball players, coaches, athletes from other sports, family members, fans — to send him a video message offering support for any players who want to speak up about abuse or mental health struggles they’ve experienced. He thinks that putting faces to this problem can help change the conversation and culture for good.
“There is a huge problem with the culture in which we’re raising our sons,” Smith said. “Why are we teaching them to suppress emotion, why are we not letting them feel nurtured instead of forcing them to play from a place of fear? We can’t pretend that these guys don’t have emotion.”
While the response to his initial video has been overwhelmingly positive, Smith has already noticed that many are hesitant to make a video themselves. He certainly understands the fear — even before posting his original video, he was afraid that his former teammates would watch it and call him a “pussy.” But he recognized that fear as left-over baggage from when he was 17, and knew he had to speak up for himself. Now he just hopes others will do the same.
“If I’ve learned one thing over the last couple of days, it’s that too many men are suffering in silence,” he wrote. “We need to make this a safe space. They don’t have to carry this forever.”