Three years after it formed with the promise of protecting young athletes from sexual abuse, the United States Center for SafeSport is facing increased criticism from individuals in sports due to its process of investigating and banning athletes from Olympic sports.
The organization, created in 2017 to address abuse in sport, in particular forms of sexual abuse, was supposed to ease worries about athlete safety. Dedicated to protecting athletes and federally authorized by Congress, the nonprofit initially was touted as a positive way to improve safety and address the significant problems facing many U.S. Olympic sports, most publicly gymnastics.
Earlier that year, Larry Nassar, who had previously worked as a doctor with gymnasts and other athletes, was convicted of federal child pornography charges and state criminal sexual conduct charges. Hundreds of his victims—including Olympic medalists—delivered impact statements in court, describing the abuse they endured under his care as a doctor and in personal settings.
As a result of his convictions, Nassar will spend the rest of his life in prison. While the trial led to Nasser's imprisonment, it also shed light on an environment that allowed abuse to happen even as athletes succeeded at the highest levels.
SafeSport was established in the midst of this trial, in March 2017. In responding to allegations of abuse, however, it has faced a backlash from the supporters of banned athletes, coaches, and attorneys who believe that the organization operates outside of the justice system and does not provide adequate due process to the accused. This pushback has clouded the organization as it works to effectively carry out its mission of protecting athletes from abuse.
“In my view, SafeSport was never intended to actually do what [the United States Olympic Committee] says that it is meant to do,” says Sarah Klein, an attorney who has represented clients in cases against abusive coaches. Klein, a former gymnast, was a victim of Nassar and accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award on behalf of herself and other survivors of Nassar.
The Center for SafeSport was chartered by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC). The USOPC oversees Olympic and Paralympic sports and is the National Organizing Committee for these sports in the United States. The USOPC created the Center as an independent body to investigate and enforce the SafeSport Code. This is the code of conduct that outlines appropriate behavior in all U.S. Olympic sporting bodies, such as interactions between coaches and athletes and appropriate team behavior.
The Center was meant to streamline the reporting and investigatory process within USOPC sports, and to standardize the SafeSport Code for all participants across all sports. Further, SafeSport was tasked with educating and conducting outreach with the community to prevent abuse, which has included creating education and training materials.
The Center also has received the support of the federal government, as the U.S. Congress passed the bipartisan Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017. The Act grants the Center with exclusive jurisdiction to address reports of abuse within the USOPC and the National Governing Bodies (NGBs) of Olympic sports, meaning that the Center is the only body responsible for deciding whether or not an individual is eligible to participate in sport. The NGBs are required to comply with the Center’s decisions in order to continue their status as a sports implementer.
“There are growing pains, which every organization experiences. It takes time and energy to create a great program,” says Abby Howard, Associate Counsel and Director of Safe Sport at USA Swimming, one of the NGBs. “[SafeSport] is the next step forward, and we will support it and will make every effort to make sure it succeeds.”
Anyone can make a report to SafeSport via phone or their website. The Center handles cases that involve USOPC sports and violations of the SafeSport code. Although the Center focuses on sexual abuse cases, it may handle emotional and/or physical abuse cases or work with the NGBs to resolve them.
After reporting, the case may be referred for a formal investigation which can result in an official SafeSport sanction. These sanctions can take many different forms, including a lifetime ban from the relevant sport. Sanctioned individuals may pursue arbitration, but the decision of the designated SafeSport arbitrators is final and cannot be appealed by either the sanctioned individual or the Center.
The Center maintains the Centralized Disciplinary Database of sanctioned individuals, which is available on its website. As of February 2020, the Center had received almost 5,000 reports from the time it opened in March 2017 and has sanctioned 627 individuals. It is unclear in particular public informational materials, such as congressional testimony, how many of those individuals were banned for sexual abuse and how many were banned for other infractions of the Code, such as bullying or hazing. However, it is possible to see specific reasons for bans on the national database.
SafeSport is able to investigate cases that would otherwise be closed because the Center is not bound by statutes of limitations. Avery Gahagan, a Canadian who works in the equestrian community, views the Center as a positive step forward especially because of its ability to investigate older cases.
“SafeSport is a system and structure designed to bring some accountability to acts that are no longer possible to go through the courts,” she says.
The mission of the Center has received widespread support, given its focus on stopping the abuse. The problems, however, lie in how the Center carries out investigations, as many details of investigations are kept private in order to protect the anonymity of accusers. The limited amount of publicly-available information about SafeSport investigations has resulted in accusations of a lack of due process afforded to accused individuals.
Despite this criticism, Center for SafeSport CEO Ju’Riese Colón described during a February 2020 Senate hearing some of the measures in place to ensure that the accused are protected. “The Center also has multiple internal safeguards in place before any person is sanctioned or suspended," Colón said. “For instance, we guarantee hearings on temporary suspensions within 72 hours, if a Respondent requests, so that those individuals who think we got it wrong can challenge our decision before an independent arbitrator.”
Criticism of the Center has become particularly heated in equestrian sports, where the backlash has come from defenders of the banned athletes and coaches. A beloved and celebrated champion of the sport, George Morris, was permanently banned by the Center in 2019 due to his alleged abuse of young equestrians during his coaching career. Morris was initially banned in August 2019 after the Center concluded an investigation about Morris’s conduct.
Details of the investigation were kept private in order to protect the anonymity of Morris’s accusers. Afterwards, Morris requested an arbitration. It was conducted before an independent arbitrator who upheld the ban.
The response was quick and furious. A Facebook group called I STAND WITH GEORGE was created in August for supporters of Morris. As of March 2020, the group has almost 8,000 members who share articles about Morris and express their individual support for the equestrian.
One member of the group, Diane Carney, has taken steps beyond the Facebook page to address what she perceives as SafeSport’s shortcomings. Carney, herself an avid equestrian, is the President of Athletes for Equity in Sport, a group whose mission is to ensure that every participant in a SafeSport investigation is treated fairly.
“Athletes for Equity in Sport believes in the intent of SafeSport, but urgently demands due process in their procedure,” says Carney. Despite the organization’s focus on due process, Carney insists that Athletes for Equity supports the mission of SafeSport, “Yes of course, abuse should be dealt with, no one should be against SafeSport... What we want is a stronger, better SafeSport.”
Not all of the criticism against the Center has come from defenders of the accused such as Carney. Some is coming from those who think the organization is not doing enough to protect victims, including attorneys like Klein. She believes that the Center “was a marketing response to a rampant sexual abuse problem that the [USOPC] wanted to ignore. There was never any authentic intention for it to be something that regulates safety in sport. It was a reactive creation. When the [USOPC] and the NGBs saw the train coming for them, they created this farce of an entity.”
Other criticism comes from those who think the Center is unable to complete its mandate and effectively protect victims.
“Either SafeSport is a puppet of the [USOPC] and they do what the [USOPC] wants them to do and make sure they protect our coach system, or SafeSport is fairly incompetent. I tend to believe that they’re just a new organization,” says Stephen Estey, an attorney who represents women who have accused Tae Kwon Do athletes and coaches of abuse.
On this point, Colón said in the hearing that “there is still much work to be done.” She points to an expanded Response and Resolution team as well as the tripling of the size of the audit and compliance team, as measures the Center has taken “to meet the growing needs of our athletes, and the rapid growing caseload.” Colón notes that the Center started with only one staff investigator, but also only received 39 reports a month, a small fraction of the 200 plus reports it currently receives on a monthly basis.
Although Klein and Estey disagree on the exact nature of SafeSport’s perceived inadequacy, they agree that proceedings related to SafeSport issues should be handled by law enforcement and in a court of law.
“The biggest problem I see with SafeSport is that, when there’s an allegation of sexual abuse, it should go to the trained, third-party professionals, which is the police,” says Estey. “The police have detectives who are specially trained how to investigate allegations of sexual assault, sexual abuse, and there are techniques that you need to employ when you’re dealing with victims of sexual assault, sexual abuse because the victims, the survivors, are often-times confused, they feel ashamed, they blame themselves and unless you’re trauma-informed and trained in this area, you’re not going to do an effective job.”
Klein expressed a similar sentiment. “They’re not a court of law. They want to operate as though they’re a court of law. I really don’t understand the purpose.”
However, Colón lauded the investigative staff of the Center in her testimony. “We pride ourselves on conducting thorough, neutral, trauma-informed, and unbiased investigations. Our investigative staff includes retired FBI and NCIS agents, retired sex crimes detectives, former JAG prosecutors, former public defenders, a former federal administrative law judge, and child protective services investigators, many of whom have spent their entire careers investigating sexual abuse”
Despite the criticism of the Center, not all responses have been negative, with some individuals like Avery Gahagan, a Canadian who works in the equestrian community, defending the Center’s actions thus far. Gahagan is an in-gate manager who is essentially the “air-traffic controller of horse shows.” She is responsible for smoothly planning and executing the different events in horse shows by organizing time schedules and directing participants to their locations at specified times.
In August, Gahagan wrote an op-ed in The Chronicle of the Horse titled “Enough: A SafeSport Perspective from the In-Gate” in which she expressed her disappointment at the criticism against the Center from within the equestrian community.
In an interview, Gahagan discussed the culture of inappropriate behavior in equestrian sports. At a horse show, “a male trainer came up to me and he said that [someone] in our sport told me that I couldn’t give a girl a leg up onto the horse anymore.” Giving a leg up, to help someone onto a horse, is a common practice. But, Gahagan continues, “with barely a beat, finishing that sentence, [he said] I’m still mad I’m not allowed to give them a pat on the ass for good luck.”
In addition to discussing this culture, Gahagan expressed her frustration with SafeSport’s perception. In particular, she was surprised by the number of people who have criticized SafeSport’s perceived lack of due process. In Gahagan’s eyes, the Center’s role is as an enforcer of a private code of conduct, not necessarily akin to a court of law.
“There is a general misunderstanding about how the system is designed to work... I was sort of startled by the number of people who seemed to misunderstand a court of law and a private club,” she says. “But no one is owed membership to a private institution.”
Carney acknowledges that sport participation is technically akin to participating in a private club, and that SafeSport is enforcing the rules of that club. However, she thinks that—given the stakes—this explanation is not strong enough to justify the Center’s actions.
“This issue is so serious and so important,” she says. “When you’re talking about people’s lives, I think you ought to have something better than codes... In America, we can do better.”