Formed to combat Olympic sex abuse, SafeSport center is struggling 6 years after opening
Jul 27, 2023, 7:34 AM
(AP Photo/John C. Clark)
DENVER (AP) — The case involves almost everything a victim of sexual harassment would be desperate to avoid.
Dozens of emails and multiple requests for follow-up interviews about a traumatizing episode. Bickering over legal fees. Documents with dense legalese and no conclusive answers about the outcome of the three-year-long case.
“At the end of the day, they didn’t even investigate,” the female curler said of her 2020 complaint about sexual harassment at her Colorado curling club filed with the U.S. Center for SafeSport.
Established six years ago to create accountability in the aftermath of sex-abuse scandals in Olympic sports that landed USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar in prison, the SafeSport center’s mandate covers not only the elite facilities molding the nation’s top athletes but also grassroots clubs like the one where the woman trained, which form the backbone of the Olympic system.
The woman’s case, which she shared with The Associated Press on condition she and her sports facility not be named to protect her privacy, was one of five examined by the AP that exposed deep flaws in an overwhelmed agency criticized by athletes, Olympic leaders and investigators with Washington connections.
“What came out of it was feeling that SafeSport is woefully under-equipped for their mission,” said rugby referee Gray Montrose of her own 2021 complaint that she was groped by another referee while driving him to a college tournament in Virginia.
The male referee was given six-months probation, but after Montrose expressed concern about his return to the sport, the center turned around and opened a case against her.
Because of outcomes like this, athletes are often reluctant to criticize SafeSport for “fear of retaliation from the center itself if you have too strong of an opinion,” said Steve McNally, executive director of USA Taekwondo.
Max Cobb, the former president of US Biathlon who was a key leader in U.S. Olympic sports, said the problems go deeper.
“Too often, the investigations take months or years to begin, and in the end are too slow to be effective within the real-life timeframe in which our athletes and sports happen,” Cobb said. “This creates a long period of inaction that in many cases is worse or nearly as bad as the initial offense.”
A congressionally appointed committee charged with investigating the U.S. Olympic system has received numerous complaints about SafeSport. “Over and over again, we’re hearing that athlete safety and the SafeSport process must be a top priority” for reform, said Han Xiao, a retired table tennis player who co-chairs the committee.
Last week, the U.S. Soccer Athletes Council sent a letter to Congress signed by 100 national team players, including the entire U.S. Women’s World Cup team, imploring lawmakers to fix SafeSport.
“SafeSport was created with noble and important intentions, but we believe that as it stands today, SafeSport is failing in what it was meant to achieve,” the letter said.
The Denver-based center has about 1,000 open cases, a quarter of which are more than a year old, SafeSport spokesman Dan Hill said. With only about 60 full-time investigators it gets around 150 new complaints each week.
According to the center’s 2022 annual report, less than 15% of the 12,751 cases it investigated from March 2017 through 2022 ended with a formal resolution. Another nearly 38% were “administratively closed,” meaning SafeSport made no findings, imposed no sanctions and there was no public record of the allegations. The agency declined to pursue virtually all the rest, saying they fell outside its mandate of sexual misconduct in sports.
“We have come a long way but we also get complaints and we also get feedback,” SafeSport CEO Ju’Riese Colon told the AP. “There’s a lot of work for us to do, but all things considered. I think the organization is doing quite well.”
In the wake of the Nassar abuse case, Congress held hearings and authorized studies that led to legislation creating SafeSport. The idea was to form an independently run agency, much like the successful U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, to decide cases without interference from the entities it oversees.
But while the government provides more than half of the anti-doping agency’s $28.5 million budget, in 2022 it gave just $2.3 million to SafeSport, placing the onus for the rest of its $23 million budget on the organizations it regulates — the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the 50-plus individual sports organizations it oversees.
Colon said today’s budget was created when the center was receiving just 2,700 complaints a year, not the 8,000 a year it gets now. “If I was to look into the future about what we really need, we need at least double what we have today,” she said.
Critics say there’s no way SafeSport can be effective if the bulk of its funding comes from those it polices.
“Going to SafeSport is like your local diocese saying ’Hey, got a problem with a local priest? Call us,’” said attorney Jon Little, who represented USA Badminton in a long-running case involving a teen athlete who, in 2012, accused a coach of forcing her to have sex.
“There’s no way the way it’s set up was ever going to work,” Little said.
On any given day, SafeSport is as likely to receive calls from a member of a local sports training club or the parents of a kid taking taekwondo classes as from an Olympic gymnast or other elite competitor.
Among the conclusions drawn by former U.S. attorney general Sally Yates in a report on abusive behavior and sexual misconduct in U.S. professional soccer was that SafeSport, which covers nearly 11 million athletes, was overwhelmed.
“It does not have the resources necessary to promptly address the volume of complaints it receives,” Yates wrote in her 2022 report.
Colon defended SafeSport’s broad mandate.
“If the center were to only focus on elite athletes, that would leave around 10 million people in a place where they had no recourse,” she said of the vast number of grassroots athletes.
The five cases the AP examined illustrate how the center’s system has led to an overload of work for a staff that often gave contradictory, confusing and incomplete information to complainants that sometimes didn’t even align with the center’s own rules for handling investigations.
The curler’s case involved allegations that a club worker had harassed her in 2017 and 2018, including sending pornographic photos and videos to her cellphone. The woman also expressed concerns others were being harassed.
SafeSport sent the man a “letter of admonishment,” and though he stopped working at the club, he continued to show up as a volunteer. The woman reached out again to SafeSport and was urged to contact leaders at USA Curling, the Olympic committee and SafeSport itself.
“I know your experience has not been ideal,” Colon wrote in response to the woman’s email. “Please know that we continue to make improvements to our process and communications with all those involved.”
The woman also took her case to the Olympic committee’s head of athlete safety, Nicole Deal, who filed her own complaint against the curling club for its failure to report the harassment allegations to SafeSport.
That led to multiple SafeSport interview requests. The woman refused, saying she would not repeat the draining hours of questioning she underwent after filing her first complaint. The woman was never informed about the outcome of Deal’s complaint, though she was billed nearly $4,000 in unexpected legal fees.
SafeSport’s handling of the other cases the AP examined, in badminton, snowboarding and weightlifting, were filled with contradictions and confusion that led to a lack of trust in the center from the athletes alleging abuse.
— Earlier this year, SafeSport’s former interim CEO, Regis Becker, was placed on temporary suspension and a weightlifting meet director was reprimanded for their handling of a sexual-misconduct complaint. The Pennsylvania meet organizer — who shared details with AP on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic — asked Becker what to do about a coach seen smacking the behinds of his female athletes at the meet. Becker told the director she should give him a warning to cease the offensive behavior.
Later, photos the coach posted on social media of him spotting female lifters in inappropriate and suggestive positions were turned into SafeSport. The center responded by reprimanding the meet director for not immediately filing a complaint with it. Becker was suspended for six months for “abuse of process” and failing to report the misconduct.
“When you apply rules that way, that arbitrarily, and don’t think about situations individually, it lends itself to these wastes of resources and prosecutions that you see from SafeSport,” Little, the lawyer, said.
— A long-running case in which snowboarding coach Peter Foley was accused of sexual assault and harassment led US Ski & Snowboarding to open its own investigation that led to Foley’s dismissal in March 2022. SafeSport, which was slow to open a case on Foley, complained to Sen. Chuck Grassley, a supporter, that the snowboard federation had meddled in its process. One athlete in the case said she didn’t want to involve SafeSport because of the “extensive and challenging” reporting process.
— The USA Badminton case involved tense exchanges between SafeSport center Vice President Bobby Click and Little, who advocated taking sexual abuse cases to police before going to the center.
“The bottom line is, you should never call SafeSport, you should call the police,” Little said. “Then, if the police say it’s OK, you should call SafeSport. The reason I say that is, it’s the law.”
While the center tries to get a grasp on its massive mission, the stakes involved are hard to miss.
A 2021 survey by the global advocacy group World Players found 13% of 297 athletes surveyed worldwide had reported experiencing sexual abuse at least once as a child in sports.
Research center director David Finkelhor said most youth-serving organizations – including church groups, Boy and Girl Scouts and sporting organizations — have one thing in common when it comes to preventing abuse.
“They don’t necessarily have the skills that most need to be applied,” he said. “They don’t necessarily have the funds to support the things that need to be done. There aren’t programs and practices that can be adopted from other places that necessarily fit their environment.”
Cobb gave credit to SafeSport for the job it does educating athletes, coaches and administrators about how to keep sports safe.
Ultimately, though, he said SafeSport needs a more collaborative approach “that brings athletes and their families together” with sports leaders and the center to set policy.
“We’ve lost too much time,” Cobb said. “It’s time for a fundamental reset.”
AP Sports Writer Will Graves contributed to this report.