A college basketball player hatched the idea after seeing a discrimination case nearly implode his own team, then wondering why nobody had done anything about it sooner.
Ten years later, that player has developed the idea into a key tool for fixing a sports landscape teeming with cases of sexual abuse, along with examples of racism and sexism in the workplace, discrimination, harassment and doping cheats at virtually every level.
The player, David Chadwick, has transformed his idea into a company called RealResponse, which provides customers - mainly university athletic departments and other sports organizations - technology to give athletes and employees a chance to initiate real-time, anonymous complaints by sending a simple text.
On Monday, RealResponse announced a deal with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which will use the platform as one of its many resources for whistleblowers to report their concerns about possible doping cases.
In a sign of the company's breadth, which also illustrates the wide range of possibilities and problems that abound through sports, RealResponse already has deals in place with USA Gymnastics, the NFL Players Association, the National Women's Soccer League and more than 100 university sports programs. It is also looking to partner with some of thousands of youth and club-sports organizations around the United States.
"I wanted to come up with something that would solve a direct challenge - the lack of confidential, anonymous, real-time ways for athletes and others to share concerns and feedback with administration," Chadwick said.
The technology is designed to be as simple as possible, specifically for a generation of athletes used to doing almost everything on their cell phones.
It allows athletes or employees to start a report about workplace discrimination, doping violations, sex abuse and other concerns with a simple text. It skips the intake forms and drop-down menus that populate many reporting apps, and has privacy features that allow administrators to gather more information from whistleblowers while allowing those people to maintain their anonymity.
The NFLPA initially bought the service to give players a chance to report inconsistencies in COVID-19 testing protocols. It has since expanded use of the service to, according to a news release, "anonymously and securely report any and all issues ... for everything from training camp issues, drug policy infractions, social injustice concerns, medical issues, COVID-19 policy violations, misconduct, hazing, harassment, and more."
The germ of the thought for Chadwick came when he played at Rice, where a pair of players left after accusing administrators of discrimination.
"I found myself in the crosshairs of not knowing what was going on, and wondering, if they were going on, why they weren't uncovered and addressed sooner?" Chadwick said.
He transferred to Valparaiso, and started the research. He contacted more than 200 administrators in university athletic departments, asking them what systems they had in place to receive complaints or concerns from athletes.
"I heard a theme of lots of informal forms of contact, things like 'I have an open-door policy,' and 'I get to know my kids,'" Chadwick said. "But there was no consistency. Some did it non-anonymously, some did it anonymously, some did it with pen and paper, some did it electronically. Overall, there was terrible participation."
Chadwick's first iteration of his system allowed athletic departments to conduct end-of-season surveys from players. The feedback the ADs received was jarring: Tales of NCAA violations, drug use, hazing, sexual assault.
"The players very much bought into this and were willing to put very confidential and serious things into the system" Chadwick said. "I thought, we can't wait for end-of-year surveys to get some of this information."
RealResponse expanded its technology to include ways for athletes to initiate contact through a simple text.
The company also offers a way for organizations to keep a record of how they respond to complaints. Some of the biggest scandals in the Olympic sex-abuse cases have involved trying to figure out what authorities did when they received information; these programs keep track.
USADA's sign-on to the platform marks another milestone for the company. One long-running problem in the anti-doping world has been the ability to protect the whistleblowers after they share their information.
"The connection with RealResponse helps remove potential barriers for whistleblowers in communicating with our investigation team," USADA CEO Travis Tygart said.
Chadwick said the ultimate goal is to make that easier in all aspects of sports. Another hurdle to clear is getting organizations to buy in to gathering and more efficiently using the information that, for decades, has often been mishandled or not handled at all.
"In years past, there's been a reluctance to implement a system like ours because of the question 'Do we want to know?'" Chadwick said. "And that's a point of emphasis for us. If you want to know, you should put systems and people in place to not only uncover the issues but to address them."