U.S. Olympic Committee Forms Center for SafeSport
On the heels of a sexual abuse scandal at USA Gymnastics, there appears to be another brewing in the world of taekwondo. Brothers and fellow Olympians, Steven and Jean Lopez are accused of sexually assaulting multiple women. According to a report in the Washington Post, “the brothers were first accused of sexual misconduct more than two years ago.” USA Taekwondo, the National Governing Body (NGB) for the sport, had begun an inquiry, but for unexplained reasons it was put on hold allowing the brothers to participate in last summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero.
The inquiry was led by attorney Donald Alperstein who earlier this year contacted the FBI “because so much of the misconduct occurred in multiple jurisdictions.” At the time, Alperstein reportedly advised the FBI that “he felt the Lopez brothers needed to be removed from the sport.” While the brothers deny the allegations, one accuser believes that the abuse within USA Taekwondo continues today.
In a related development, the LA Times and other media outlets have reported that three taekwondo female athletes have been awarded $60 million in a sexual abuse case against a former coach. The women had sued their former taekwondo instructor for sexually assaulting them while they were minors. Each have been awarded $20 million in damages by a California court. The lawsuit had alleged that the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) and USA Taekwondo had failed to protect the athletes but a judge dismissed the organizations as defendants. The women are now appealing that ruling.
The scandals at USA Taekwondo and USA Gymnastics were preceded by similar scandals over the past several years at USA Swimming and US Speedskating. These four national governing bodies are among 47 federations which fall under the umbrella of the USOC.
The USOC has taken a positive step in creating the U.S. Center for SafeSport which became operational in March. The Center has announced the launch of a 24-hour victim services helpline which is operated in partnership with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization.
The SafeSport Helpline provides crisis intervention, referrals, and emotional support specifically designed for athletes, staff, and other sport participants affected by sexual assault. In addition to providing victim support services, the Center’s mission is to investigate and resolve allegations of sexual misconduct for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic movement’s 47 member NGBs. To report suspected misconduct within one of these organizations, individuals are encouraged to contact the Center by phone or submit an online report form.
While the USOC’s establishment of the Center for SafeSport is a welcome step in response to the scandals at four of the NGBs, it comes only after the individual federations failed to address the abuse many athletes have suffered, in many instances over decades.
The ugly truth, however, is that sexual abuse has been largely ignored in the U.S Olympic sports of swimming, gymnastics, taekwondo, and speed skating for many years. What is needed now is for each of the NGBs to internally review and update its code of conduct, its compliance training program, and its policies and procedures relative to wrongdoing within its ranks.
Each of the NGBs should adopt a clear non-retaliation, non-retribution policy to encourage athletes, coaches, and others to report allegations and instances of sexual abuse. Without such a policy, and assurance that their identity will be protected to the extent possible, individuals wishing to report such wrongdoing will be reluctant to do so.