Established in March of 2017, the U.S. Center for SafeSport is the new national authority for investigating and prosecuting abuses within Olympic and Paralympic sport. But how exactly does this new system work?
We reached out to the Center to clarify some of the important details of this system:
The U.S. Center for SafeSport has “exclusive authority” in investigating and punishing allegations of sexual abuse – that means that individual National Governing Bodies (NGBS – for example, USA Swimming or USA Diving) no longer make their own investigations and decisions on abuse allegations.
A law passed earlier this year requires that amateur sporting federations report abuse allegations to law enforcement, and that same law set up the Center for SafeSport as the organization in charge of NGBs in this area.
The law also makes it a crime for “covered individuals” to fail to report potential sexual abuse to the Center. The requirement in the official SafeSport Code is quite broad:
“Covered Adults must report to the Office conduct of which they become aware that could constitute
- (a) sexual misconduct,
- (b) misconduct that is reasonably related to the underlying allegation of sexual misconduct and
- (c) retaliation related to an allegation of sexual misconduct”
The Code goes on to note that allegations don’t have to be assessed for credibility or validity before being reported to the Center – the rule is that allegations about conduct that “if true, would violate the code” should be automatically reported, leaving the Center to assess and investigate the complaint.
The scope of this rule hinges on the definition of “covered adult” or “covered individual” – the ones under the SafeSport Code required to report. Here is the full, unedited definition of “covered individual” from the SafeSport Code:
Any individual who: (a) currently is, or was at the time of a possible violation of the Code, within the governance or disciplinary jurisdiction of an NGB or who is seeking to be within the governance or disciplinary jurisdiction of an NGB (e.g., through application for membership), (b) is an Athlete or Non-athlete Participant that an NGB or the USOC formally authorizes, approves or appoints to a position of authority over Athletes or to have frequent contact with Athletes or (c) an NGB identifies as being within the Office’s jurisdiction.
Who Does The Investigating?
With investigations and hearings out of the hands of NGBs, it is mostly full-time U.S. Center for SafeSport employees who investigate complaints and dole out punishments. The Center says it looks for investigators who are “familiar with these forms of cases and types of abuse” but don’t have a prior relationship with any National Governing Body. The Center says its investigators include former law enforcement and Title IX investigators, and that the Center does contract with independent investigators from time to time.
Here’s a brief overview of what the investigative process looks like, based on the SafeSport Code’s Practices and Procedures section:
Advisors: both the accuser and accused are given a right to an “advisor” during all hearings. That advisor can be a “friend, mentor, family member, attorney or any other supporter.” However, those advisors aren’t allowed to “present on behalf of their advisee during a meeting,” meaning it’s not exactly a courtroom situation with two opposing attorneys presenting their cases.
1. Preliminary Inquiry
When the Center receives a complaint, it must meet three requirements to move on to a hearing – roughly based on evidence, jurisdiction and the specifics of the Code. The Center must determine if:
- (a) there is reason to believe
- (b) a covered individual
- (c) violated the SafeSport Code.
2. Formal Resolution – Full Investigation
From there, if the three conditions are met, the Center will appoint a team of investigators to dig deeper into the allegations. At this point, the accusing party and the accused are both informed of the ongoing investigation.
The team of investigators complete a report that determines whether evidence suggests the accused party violated SafeSport Code. If it does, the report also includes a recommended sanction.
3. Director’s Decision
After that, a Director of Investigations will make a final decision based on the investigative report. The Director also hands down the punishment, if there is one.
If either side disagrees with the Director’s decision, they can request arbitration, and appeal process where an independent arbiter (or team of arbiters) hold hearings to make a final decision on the matter. The Center for SafeSport has a full set of rules for arbitration here.
The U.S. Center for SafeSport is a nonprofit, but still does need funding to continue to carry out operations. The Center says most of its funding currently comes from the USOC and NGBs, which cover the cost of investigations and resolutions. Money does tend to equal influence, though, and while the Center says it still operates independently of its revenue sources, it’s also working to diversify funding.
The NBA (professional basketball) and NCAA (college athletics) have already contributed funds, and there are are also some working to get federal funding for the Center to lessen any potential conflicts of interest.
Other Important Details
No statute of limitations: The Center can investigate complaints about alleged abuse that occurred at any time – there is no amount of time that can pass to make abuse no longer actionable. That also means that the Center can re-open cases that were previously closed by NGBs like USA Swimming. That appears to also include alleged abuse that occurred before the founding of NGBs, based on blogger and critic Chris DeSantis‘s reporting of swim coach Paul Bergen, who is accused of abusing future Olympian Deena Deardurff Schmidt before USA Swimming was founded. DeSantis writes that he re-reported Bergen to the Center for SafeSport recently and was contacted by an investigator.
No official accusation needed: The Center can also open an investigation without a formal report. That could, in theory, allow the Center to continue investigating in cases where the alleged victim denies that abuse occurred, as was the case with USA Swimming’s short-lived investigation into Sean Hutchison and Ariana Kukors in 2010.
Criminal Conviction can yield immediate ban: a conviction in a criminal court can allow the Center to end its own investigation and hand down an immediate sanction, though the Center could still continue to carry out its own investigation.
Bans are extended across all sports: A swim coach banned by the Center will also be banned in all other Olympic and Paralympic sports.
No public list of banned coaches, only searchable database: The Center for SafeSport doesn’t publish a full list of banned individuals, and there doesn’t appear to be a way to keep track of new individuals added to the list. Instead, the Center has a searchable database which will return disciplinary records if you search the name of a banned coach. The Center does still link out to banned lists for individual NGBs, which appear to include newly-banned names within that sport, and said it was looking to “roll out updates” that may include changes to the searchable database.