At about 11:15 Monday morning, head football coach Bill O’Brien spoke briefly and introduced former boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard, one of the key speakers at the conference.
“This is a subject that is near and dear to my heart, to our football program's heart, and to the university,” O'Brien said. “Sugar Ray Leonard is one of the sport icons of the 21st century whose name conjures the image of a champion.”
O’Brien spoke of Leonard’s accomplishments and entrance into boxing after his gold medal in the 1976 Olympics to pay for his father’s medical bills. As a survivor of child sexual abuse, Leonard now participates in a number of other children’s charities including juvenile diabetes charities.
Coming without a prepared speech, Leonard said he has faced some of the “toughest opposition in the world,” but it’s still difficult for him to think about what happened to him more than 40 years ago.
“With social networking, with the way this world is today, our kids need to know more,” he said. “They need to be protected more.”
Though he said he originally couldn’t find reason to speak at the conference, he looked at his kids and knew he had to speak.
Leonard spoke of his shy, introverted nature as a child who was “scared of my own shadow.”
Telling the story of his abusive experiences, Leonard said he put his trust in two coaches. One day at a motel during the 1972 Olympics, his coach told Leonard and his friend to get into the tub and knew something was wrong. Another time he was spending time with one of his coaches and it happened again.
“He said everything, everything that was necessary to gain my attention. And that's when he unzipped my pants and I knew something was wrong. This is not right. This is not appropriate and he did what he did.”
Leonard said he then left the car and ran home, trying to figure out what happened.
“I cried so much it was painful,” he said. “I never told anyone about that.”
A few months later, Leonard said it happened again.
“I could smell his breath right now,” he said. “I said not again. I said God, please, not again.”
When he left this time, Leonard cried again, and once again, he told no one.
He was a fighter, he said. He’s not supposed to cry.
In front of hundreds of people for the Child Sexual Abuse Conference, Leonard spoke out for only the second public appearance about his experiences with child sexual abuse.
Years ago, Leonard said, he never would have become the “poster child” for child sex abuse.
At the conference, Leonard announced that he has been sober for six years. After winning the gold medal in 1976, he began his trek to fame with what came more money and recognition. But he turned to alcohol and drugs to deal with the pain and the memories.
“It numbed me,” he said.
But today he stood before the conference and declared a notion to be that poster child.
“I want to speak out,” he said. “No one deserves this, and if we don’t come together as a community, as citizens, as parents, then it’s a shame.”
And only the night before the conference, Leonard said he spoke about it with his 15-year-old daughter for the first time. Leonard said he has never spoken about it with his 11-year-old son, or even his relatives.
“If I didn’t go back I couldn’t get my point across. I had to painfully go back.”
Leonard spoke out that children need to be more aware of what behavior is appropriate. There need to be more preventive measures, he said, because when he was abused around the age of 13 or 14, there was no manual of how to deal with it.
And now, Leonard said, it’s traumatized his life for almost 47 years.
“There is no one answer that’s going to stop child sexual abuse,” he said.
Despite his fame from his boxing career, and even appearing on the reality show Dancing With the Stars, he said his greatest accomplishment in life would be eradicating child sexual abuse.
“It will never go away until you find it in your heart to speak out about it,” he said. “Speak up and speak out.”