How the USOC’s SafeSport policies are tackling athlete abuse and harassmentPaul J. Greene
“All forms of misconduct are intolerable and in direct conflict with the Olympic Ideals” - United States Olympic Committee, SafeSport Policies.1
The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) implemented SafeSport as a way to protect athletes competing under the Olympic umbrella from misconduct.2 Since its initial implementation by the USOC in late 2012, a US Center for SafeSport has been created with an independent advisory council and a new USOC Director of Ethics and SafeSport.3 Earlier this year, in announcing the creation of the National Center for Safe Sport, USOC CEO Scott Blackmun said, “[t]here is no national agency today that is responsible for the safety and well-being of young athletes and we’re in position to lead this important effort."4 Blackmun continued, “[t]he National Center for Safe Sport will help fill that vacuum by providing training and resources, promoting open dialogue and conducting investigations on a national level.”5
The national governing bodies (NGBs) that oversee Olympic sport in the US have each adopted and implemented SafeSport under the USOC’s mandate.
The SafeSport policy applies to all athletes, coaches, staff and other individuals working with U.S. athletes competing in Olympic sports.
SafeSport prohibits six types of misconduct: (1) Sexual misconduct, including child sexual abuse; (2) Emotional Misconduct; (3) Physical Misconduct; (4) Bullying; (5) Harassment; and (6) Hazing.6
A. SafeSport Prohibited Misconduct
1. Sexual misconduct, including child sexual abuse:
Sexual misconduct is defined as sexual assault, sexual harassment, sexual abuse or any other sexual intimacy that exploits an athlete. Intimate relationships between a coach and an athlete are prohibited unless it involves a pre-existing relationship between two spouses or life partners.7
Child sexual abuse includes “any sexual activity with a minor athlete or participant where consent is not or cannot be given.”8 All sexual interaction between an adult and a minor is prohibited. Peer to peer child sexual relationships can also be prohibited depending on circumstances.9
Sexual misconduct includes non-contact sexual acts such as sexually suggestive statements, sexual exposure or voyeurism.10
2. Emotional Misconduct:
Emotional Misconduct is defined as “a pattern of deliberate, non-contact behavior that has the potential to cause emotional or psychological harm to an athlete.”11 These include verbal acts, physical acts and acts that deny attention or support. Examples given are calling someone worthless, fat or disgusting, yelling at someone excessively without purpose, throwing sports equipment or objects at someone or ignoring an athlete for an extended period of time.12
There is an exception to exclude professionally accepted coaching methods like physical conditioning, team building, discipline or improving athletic performance.13 “Professionally accepted coaching methods” are not emotional misconduct.
3. Physical Misconduct:
Physical misconduct is defined as contact (or non-contact) that results in physical harm to an athlete inclusive of conduct that reasonably threatens to cause such harm.14
There is an exception to exclude professionally accepted coaching methods like physical conditioning, team building, discipline or improving athletic performance.15 “Professionally accepted coaching methods” are not physical misconduct. An example given of a professionally accepted coaching method is hitting punching and kicking in a combat sport where they are part of the game. Such conduct, however, has no place in a sport like swimming.16
Physical misconduct could include providing alcohol to an athlete who is a minor, providing illegal drugs to any athlete, encouraging or permitting an athlete to return to play prematurely following serious injury and/or prescribing an unhealthy dieting or weight control method.17
Bullying is defined as an intentional, persistent and repeated pattern of behavior intended to cause fear, humiliation or physical harm in an attempt to socially exclude or isolate the targeted athlete.18
Examples of bullying include “hitting, pushing, punching, beating, biting, striking, kicking, choking, or slapping an athlete.”19 Also, throwing objects at an athlete, teasing, ridiculing, intimidating, spreading rumors about or harassing an athlete is considered bullying. “Cyber bullying” is also prohibited and includes frightening someone through statements made over social media or other online technology.20
There is an exception for team behavior meant to promote cohesion among athletes, which is not considered bullying.21
Harassment is defined as a repeated pattern of physical and/or non-physical behavior intended to cause fear or humiliation, degrade or offend, create a hostile environment or reflect bias to establish superiority over an individual athlete or group based on race, gender, religion, ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, gender expression or mental or physical disability.22
Examples given include actions designed to disparage someone on the grounds outlined including withholding or reducing playing time to an athlete based on his or her sexual orientation.23
Hazing is defined as coercion, force, or willful humiliation as a condition to joining a group or being socially accepted by a group’s members.24
Examples given include forced consumption of alcohol or drugs, physically restraining an athlete, forced sexual acts, sleep or food deprivation, forced illegal conduct, beating paddling or other forms of physical assault and excessive training.25 These are prohibited regardless of whether the athlete willingly participates in them.
There is an exception for team behavior meant to promote cohesion among athletes, which is not considered hazing.26
B. Filing a SafeSport Complaint
A SafeSport complaint can be filed by anyone, it does not need to be filed by the victim of misconduct.27 The complaint must include (at minimum) the name of the complainant, the kind of misconduct alleged and the name of the individual(s) alleged to have committed the misconduct.28
Retaliation against a complainant is prohibited and is grounds for a separate disciplinary action against the person who retaliates.29
SafeSport also prohibits reports of misconduct filed in bad faith. A person who files a SafeSport complaint in bad faith can be disciplined and is subject to civil or criminal proceedings.30
C. SafeSport Investigation and Adjudication
Upon the filing of a SafeSport complaint, the USOC or USOC approved NGB will investigate the allegations made.31 The accused individual can be suspended pending final resolution of the matter where there is a reasonable belief that the misconduct in question was committed.32 An interim suspension pending the final outcome of the matter can be appealed to the American Arbitration Association (AAA) within 14 days of the interim suspension.
If the complaint is deemed credible during the investigation, a hearing will be held.33 The accused is entitled to the following procedural due process guarantees:
- The individual must be informed of the allegations and evidence brought against him or her;
- The individual must be given a reasonable opportunity to respond to the allegations brought against them;
- The individual can be represented by legal counsel at his or her expense;
- The panel must render an unbiased decision; and
- The individual has the right to appeal the panel’s decision.34
A hearing can be held in person or by telephone. A hearing and decision can be expedited.
The allegations must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence.35
D. SafeSport Discipline
If the allegations of misconduct are proven to the Panel, a “proportionate and reasonable” sanction must be imposed.36 Before imposing a sanction, the Panel must consider the following:
- The interest of the USOC/NGB in providing a safe environment for athletes;
- The seriousness of the act committed;
- The age of the accused individual and the victim when the act occurred;
- Whether the individual who committed the act shows they are “rehabilitated”;
- The effect on the USOC/NGB’s reputation;
- Whether the individual poses an ongoing safety concern for other athletes; and
- Any other information that could be relevant to the determination of a proper sanction.37
The sanctions available to a Panel are very broad. They range from a warning to a permanent suspension from sport and expulsion from activities and facilities.38
E. SafeSport Appeal
The sanctioned individual may appeal the Panel’s decision to the AAA within 14 days of the finding.39 The AAA decision is final and binding on all parties.40 The Panel’s decision remains confidential until the appeal’s process is complete.41
SAFESPORT IN PRACTICE
A year after it implemented SafeSport, US Figure Skating issued a report stating that the policy had changed its “coaching business practices.”42 According to US Figure Skating, SafeSport has forever altered the landscape of its athlete-coach relationships. Previously accepted “boundary-violating behavior” such as a coach spending time alone with a minor while traveling (even sharing a hotel room with an athlete who is unrelated) and/or IMing/texting/sharing photos with an athlete are no longer accepted. Such behavior is now prohibited under SafeSport.43
Education has become a key element to prevent future misconduct. The USOC is promoting a series of free online training videos to further publicize the conduct prohibited under SafeSport.44
SafeSport as Groundbreaking Policy
The broad protection provided by SafeSport makes it a model to follow.45
SafeSport’s prohibition on misconduct, its ban on harassment including sexual orientation harassment, along with its ban on hazing methods long considered the norm in the US (like forced consumption of alcohol and paddling) allows the policy to extend into previously uncharted territory in America.
SafeSport’s reach extends into sectors of society where misconduct has long been a scary reality for families. In 1999, Sports Illustrated ran a cover story entitled “Who’s coaching your kid?” that detailed numerous incidents of child molestation in Little League baseball around the country. Faces of coaches who had sexually abused young boys and girls were plastered onto the cover of Sports Illustrated to raise awareness of an issue that had been in the shadows for too long.46 One coach featured in the story estimated he had molested “a couple of hundred” children over three decades.47
Similar sexual molestation scandals have beset Olympic sports like swimming and gymnastics where young children have been sexually abused by adult coaches in alarming numbers. Only recently have these stories of abuse been made public.48 And new allegations of child molestation continue to surface in the US with regularity. Just last month, an Olympic gymnastics coach in Indiana was arrested and charged with having illegal sexual contact with a minor athlete he was coaching.49
The USOC is hoping to prevent the next generation of US Olympic athletes from similar molestation through SafeSport.
The USOC and its NGBs are banking on education as the cornerstone in the fight against misconduct. By training parents and coaches on what is acceptable and what is unacceptable conduct under SafeSport, there is belief that the opportunities for physical and sexual abuse and other types of misconduct will be minimized.50 As one example, the US Figure Skating Travel Guidelines make the formerly common practice of a coach sharing a hotel room with an athlete taboo.51 Even the transport of an athlete by a coach in their personal vehicle is now prohibited.52 Other NGBs in the US are following same script.
As US Figure Skating’s travel policy states, “athletes are most vulnerable to misconduct during travel.”53 By preventing such coach-athlete one-on-one contact, US Figure Skating is confident there will be less misconduct in the future. Stated simply, US Figure Skating makes its clear: “coaches must understand that coach/athlete sexual relations are wrong, and that is it.”54
The impact of SafeSport is still yet to be determined. But by prohibiting misconduct and educating the public on how to prevent abuse in many forms, the new USOC initiated policy is an important step in the right direction.
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- Tags: American Arbitration Association North American Court of Arbitration for Sport (AAA) | Figure Skating | Governance | Harrassment | Olympic | Regulation | SafeSport | SafeSport Policies | United States of America (USA) | United States Olympic Committee (USOC)
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About the Author
Paul J. Greene, Esq. is a U.S. based sports lawyer who protects the rights of athletes in disputes, including those charged in anti-doping proceedings. Paul has been recognized by Chambers USA and Super Lawyers as one of America’s top sports lawyers.