*Names have been changed to protect privacy of those involved. The facts of this case occured.*
A well-sought after tennis coach of 40 years has worked with thousands of beginners who are interested in learning the correct techniques and rules of the game. Their students span across a wide range of ages from retired seniors to young adults and minors who are covered under the U.S. Center for Safe Sport (“SafeSport”) Code of Conduct.
Some of these tennis enthusiasts have financial means to pay for individual lesson packages, while other students participate in group lessons or watch lessons from the sidelines hoping to pick up some pointers. Many minors and young adults are dropped off and picked up by parents following their lesson and others can ride public transportation or bike to the courts.
One of the coach’s determined students is 19 and bikes to the courts most days to watch lessons with dreams of making it to Wimbledon despite not having the financial means for top training. The coach recognizes this student’s drive and offers a “training apprenticeship” opportunity to the student.
As a training apprentice, the student’s job responsibilities included collecting the tennis balls around the courts, picking up towels in the locker room, collecting garbage around the courts and helping carry equipment when needed, and working out with other students running laps to work on fitness endurance. Occasionally practices would run well past dark and the coach would give the student a ride home rather than letting the student dangerously ride their bike in the dark.
Flash forward several months and this student has vastly improved their on-court performance and a selection for a national tournament is an exciting possibility in the near future.
The qualifying tournament takes place and the coach’s training apprentice is passed over for a player who played well during the selection but had previously been beaten by the student.
Years go by and the coach rises to Olympic tennis notoriety with private clients. The now 30-year-old former student feels their tennis career would have been different if that national team opportunity had happened for them. Personal bitterness takes the form of a SafeSport sexual abuse allegation made in 2020.
The former student claims the coach forced the student to perform belittling activities to gain court time and that the coach was inappropriate in the handful of car rides home when it was too dark to ride a bike. The student claims to have never achieved potential success because of the abuse.
SafeSport takes the report seriously and finds through interviews that the coach was harsh, encouraging students to practice in the heat and was frequently alone with athletes. For the next step, SafeSport confronts the coach with the report and requests an interview.
On advice from the coach’s legal team, the coach denies the interview as it forfeits a person’s Fifth Amendment rights and SafeSport does not allow a transcription or recording of the interview. The coach only receives the initials of their accuser and no information of the alleged transgressions.
SafeSport interprets the decision of the coach to decline an interview 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 the student. They publicly ban the coach for sexual misconduct regarding a young adult covered under the SafeSport Code of Conduct who was 19 and 20 at the time of the alleged accusation.
The coach seeks an arbitration hearing through an attorney to clear their name. It comes at great financial cost as well as public loss of confidence and business because of the public declaration. In addition, the NGB, the US Tennis Association, is required to follow through regarding sanctions involving sexual misconduct and restricts the coach from participating in NGB sanctioned events.
Through this process, SafeSport eventually agrees to a recorded transcript of the interview and the coach and attorney have a fair hearing. Following review of the evidence, SafeSport declares a reversal of their public misconduct decision yet no public statement is made by SafeSport. The coach is quietly removed from the sanction list, yet the majority of the press featuring the coach highlights his permanent ban.
Questions to Consider
Why does SafeSport not take the time necessary in its effort to protect all participants under its jurisdiction to objectively determine the facts in a case prior to making public declarations about SafeSport sanctions against individuals in a specific case?
Why is SafeSport seemingly resistant to permitting recordings of its interviews during investigations which would protect the interests of all parties involved?
What are the measurable damages to the confidence and trust in the SafeSport process?
What are the lasting effects to a coach, their career, and future earning potential? What happens to a person who makes a false accusation?
When the SafeSport disciplinary process lacks sufficient institutional safeguards to prevent sanction decisions that cannot withstand closer scrutiny and investigation, that weakens the important intent and ability of SafeSport to do its job to protect athletes from abuse.
By strengthening the SafeSport hearing process and including the exchange of evidence prior to a public proclamation of wrong doing, confidence in SafeSport is gained and the safety of all in sport is better served.
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