Athletes for Equity in Sport works diligently in seeking a just and equitable process for all athletes, trainers and community members under the jurisdiction of SafeSport. With the recent SafeSport actions involving swimming and equestrian community members, AES would like to take this opportunity to evaluate particular concerns in the SafeSport procedures that must be addressed.
Since 2018, there have been multiple cases from cycling, swimming, and equestrian rulings, where SafeSport procedures rush to public statements of serious sanctions or bans only to have the cases reversed and the athlete or coach reinstated after SafeSport thoroughly reviews all the facts in a hearing. By understanding how SafeSport’s procedures can be enhanced, AES seeks to work with SafeSport and Congress to enhance oversight and transparency of SafeSport operations and make improvements to the SafeSport investigation and resolution process which will enable SafeSport to more credibly fulfill its mission.
SafeSport frequently denies requests by persons accused of violating the SafeSport Code to record initial SafeSport interviews. Respondents often decline the initial interview until an accurate recording of the interview is permitted. SafeSport interprets the decision by a Respondent to decline an interview without an audio record as a decision to not participate in the process and proceeds to make a final decision without a thorough investigation, utilizing only statements or evidence provided by a Complainant.
Additionally, prior to interviewing Respondents, SafeSport does not provide sufficient information to enable persons accused of violating the SafeSport Code to fairly and adequately respond to allegations made against them. One might ask, “How can a Respondent come to SafeSport with their defense and rebuttal evidence if they walk into the interview process blind?”
Further, the publishing of Respondents’ names on the sanction list results in expansive news coverage around the world and the Congressional mandate requires NGB’s to discipline the Respondent by suspending their membership and participation rights in their sport’s events. When errors take place in SafeSport’s “sanctions first, hearing second”resolution process, irreversible damage is done to stakeholders, the individual and the future of their livelihood. This flaw in the SafeSport process has a remedy: hearing first, sanctions second. Withholding a permanent ban ruling until all the evidence is collected and analyzed first in an interview or hearing would establish a more credible resolution process for SafeSport.
Protecting youth from any abuse or misconduct is crucial and SafeSport’s timeline of their investigatory process needs to be rectified. With each faulty investigation, the value of SafeSport weakens and erodes trust for all sides of a SafeSport case.
AES would also like to note that any alleged SafeSport violation outside of sexual misconduct is typically passed on to the respective National Governor Body (NGB) rather than handled by SafeSport. These alleged violations reviewed directly by the NGB are addressed with a full hearing before a panel after the exchange of evidence, and they are not announced unless there is a ruling against the Respondent.
In the past months AES has become aware of additional reversals and a dismissal involving a USA Swimming athlete from an alleged SafeSport code violation. During the arbitration hearing which took place after SafeSport banned the athletes, the athlete’s legal counsel, Dean Groulx, provided a full set of facts regarding his client’s case in an arbitration and the sanctions were lifted. In this particular case, and others previously, had the SafeSport process gone in a manner advocated by AES it is reasonable to believe no ban by SafeSport would have occurred.
This pattern of SafeSport case reversals is cause for concern because it ultimately undermines SafeSport’s ability to do its job. If stakeholders subject to Safe Sport jurisdiction don’t have confidence in Safe Sport to fairly and competently fulfill its mission, that undermines the ability of Safe Sport to achieve the objectives Congress intended which is to improve safety for athletes.
AES will continue to advocate for a SafeSport process that is fair and equitable for all parties under SafeSport’s jurisdiction which includes examining all of the evidence in a case, in an interview, or in a hearing before a sanction is published to the public at large unless there is an immediate risk of danger to minors.
Without changes and improvements to the SafeSport process, there is the continued potential for innocent athletes, owners, and trainers to be unjustly accused and removed from competition by those manipulating the SafeSport process. A fair and equitable process is particularly essential because an incorrect SafeSport decision has the potential to cause great and irreversible damage to not only innocent Respondents but also to minor athletes who have suffered at the hands of abuse in sport and may become hesitant to speak up due to the mishandling of a case or waiting months or years in some cases for a SafeSport investigation to be conducted. Such decisions will certainly erode the confidence of those participating in sport under SafeSport’s jurisdiction.
AES will continue to seek and suggest improvements in SafeSport processes, including a review of its investigators qualifications and background to ensure SafeSport investigators understand how to fairly and impartially conduct the investigations to which they are assigned. AES believes these reforms will strengthen SafeSport and will benefit all participants in Olympic sports under its jurisdiction.