U.S. Center for SafeSport's Handling of Sexual Abuse Allegations Criticized in Probe

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured Columnist IVFebruary 23, 2022

The Olympic Rings are illumined during the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Friday, Feb. 4, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

An extensive investigation by ESPN and ABC News revealed the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which is tasked with rooting out and investigating sexual abuse and other misconduct within Olympic sports and at the amateur level, "is still struggling to gain the trust of the community it is designed to protect."

Dan Murphy and Pete Madden of ESPN interviewed athletes, attorneys and lawmakers and discovered concerns about a number of topics over the course of their 18-month investigation, including the organization's transparency, how independent it truly is from those it is investigating and how effective it has been from preventing alleged abusers from returning to their sports.

The organization was created in 2017 with the idea it would serve as an independent body from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) while investigating allegations of abuse.

However, Murphy and Madden reported on a number of findings that have undermined confidence in its ability, including "several instances in which the center's investigators substantiated allegations against prominent coaches, compiling detailed dossiers of alleged sexual misconduct that initially led to lifetime bans from their respective sports, only to see those punishments set aside after appeals to independent arbitrators."

In fact, 42 percent of those who finished appealing a SafeSport ruling saw sanctions changed or even removed entirely.

"In some instances, coaches initially found by the center to have sexually assaulted athletes on multiple occasions were allowed to return to their sports without any official public record of the claims made against them, even as their sports' national governing bodies paid millions of dollars to settle lawsuits related to their alleged sexual misconduct, potentially exposing the federations to additional liability for any future alleged misconduct," Murphy and Madden wrote.

It reached a point where some attorneys advised athletes to go elsewhere when seeking justice thanks to U.S. Center for SafeSport rules preventing them from keeping or publicly sharing reports and findings.

Then there is the question of independence after the investigation revealed a portion of the center's fixed $20 million annual contribution from the USOPC comes from federations in individual sports.

More allegations within those individual sports means more fees paid to the USOPC by the federations, which could, in turn, discourage reports of abuse for financial reasons. It should be noted that SafeSport doesn't control how the USOPC raises such funds that are included in the $20 million annual contribution.

"If you're SafeSport, and you're funded by the organization you're investigating, they're likely not going to do the right thing," Olympic gold medalist gymnast Aly Raisman said while testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September. "It's a complete mess, and the priority doesn't seem to be the safety and well-being of athletes."

Murphy and Madden noted some defenders of the U.S. Center for SafeSport point out how difficult it is to both protect young athletes and provide due process for those who are accused with limited funding.

U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) co-authored a law to increase the center's funding, but even they worry it is more of a "paper tiger" than an effective and independent investigatory body.

"The U.S. Center for SafeSport has a tremendous responsibility," Moran said. "And to date, they have not demonstrated their capabilities to the degree that we need, that would protect athletes."

Moran also encouraged more transparency from the center that has not been particularly forthcoming with the public.

"SafeSport cannot do its job, simply cannot do its job, unless it makes its work public," Moran said. "...I would encourage the U.S. Center for SafeSport to outline what they do, to outline their accomplishments, to admit their faults, their failures."

Blumenthal said "we're going to hold them accountable" if improvements aren't made.