Mounting criticism of the U.S. Center for SafeSport is reaching a boiling point.
Created in 2017 to address abuse in Olympic sports, the Denver-based organization is overwhelmed with 150 new complaints each week piling on top of 1,000 open cases — a quarter of which are more than a year old. Fewer than 15% of SafeSport investigations have resulted in formal resolutions, while almost 38% were “administratively closed” with no findings, sanctions or even allegations released.
“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,” former U.S. Biathlon president Max Cobb told the Associated Press last week. “This creates a long period of inaction that in many cases is worse or nearly as bad as the initial offense.”
Two weeks ago, the entire U.S. women’s World Cup team lobbied Congress for reform, writing that “SafeSport is failing in what it was meant to achieve.” Last year, former U.S. attorney general Sally Yates concluded in a report that SafeSport “does not have the resources necessary to promptly address the volume of complaint it receives.”
SafeSport is currently operating with about 60 full-time investigators on an annual budget of $23 million. The government funds just $2.3 million of that budget — compared to more than half of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s $28.5 million budget — with the rest coming from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC).
Last year, ESPN and ABC News learned that the USOPC raises part of its $20 million portion by making individual sports federations pay fees based on the number of allegations reported to SafeSport and the amount of work required to resolve them.
Some have questioned whether SafeSport can accomplish its mission of ending abuse in sport if the organization is funded so heavily by the organizations it is supposed to regulate.
“Going to SafeSport is like your local diocese saying ’Hey, got a problem with a local priest? Call us,’” said attorney Jon Little. “There’s no way the way it’s set up was ever going to work.”
SafeSport CEO Ju’Riese Colon said the organization’s budget was calculated back when about 2,700 complaints were coming in; now that number has ballooned to 8,000. “All things considered,” Colon said, she thinks SafeSport is doing “quite well.” But more resources are a must.
“If I was to look into the future about what we really need, we need at least double what we have today,” Colon said.
SafeSport has also been granted a level of legal immunity. Last August, U.S. Paralympic gold medalist swimmer Robert Griswold was given a temporary suspension for unspecified allegations of misconduct, his second appearance in the SafeSport database after an entry in September of 2020. SwimSwam uncovered those allegations of misconduct in the coming months as fellow para swimmer Parker Egbert filed a lawsuit against Griswold, USA Swimming, and SafeSport for failing to protect him from alleged abuse.
“SafeSport had actual knowledge of multiple prior instances, or at a minimum credible allegations, of physical, verbal, and sexual abuse perpetrated by Griswold, yet turned a blind eye and/or conspired to cover-up such allegations, on each occasion,” the lawsuit read.
However, nearly a full year later, SafeSport has yet to release any updates. SafeSport has since been dropped from Egbert’s lawsuit because legal precedent has determined that the organization has absolute immunity from lawsuits challenging its eligibility decisions: “SafeSport simply cannot serve its purpose of protecting amateur athletes if it subject to the threat of liability for every eligibility decision it makes.”
SafeSport cited the number of complaints it receives as an argument for absolute legal immunity in the Griswold case.
“Given the sheer volume of cases handled by the Center, allowing lawsuits like this — when someone disagrees with how the Center adjudicated allegations of misconduct — would effectively bury the Center in lawsuits and end its ability to function,” SafeSport wrote in its motion to dismiss.
Colon defended SafeSport’s system, saying that only focusing on elite athletes would leave “around 10 million people in a place where they had no recourse.” In response to the letter from the U.S. Soccer Athletes Council, she commented that “there is no way to satisfy every party in a Response and Resolution outcome, but the Center is deeply committed to continuous improvement.”