'Nothing about it is easy': Skater's suicide leaves more questions than answers

John Coughlin, a two-time U.S. figure skating pairs champion, died by suicide on Jan. 18, a day after he received an interim suspension from the U.S. Center for SafeSport and U.S. Figure Skating for unspecified conduct. AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

DETROIT -- John Coughlin was hard to miss during his two decades in the world of elite figure skating. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound skater was a two-time national champion, coach, television commentator, skate company representative and active member of several advocacy boards.

His presence was usually announced by the red Kansas City Chiefs hat sitting atop his unusually large frame with its brim facing backward. This past week at the U.S. Championships in Detroit, replicas of that red hat were worn in tribute amid a palpable unease in Coughlin's notable absence.

Coughlin was suspended from his roles in the sport and resigned from his post as a brand representative earlier this month while investigators started to review accusations of sexual misconduct made against him. A day after his suspension, and one week before the U.S. Championships event began, Coughlin died by suicide. He was 33.

The timing of Coughlin's death left the tight-knit figure skating community to grapple with the complicated circumstances surrounding his suicide on one of its largest stages of the year. Some wore discreet, homemade ribbons adorned with a piece of shattered glass in the name of suicide prevention and awareness. The red hats -- which showed up inside Little Caesars Arena, on camera in the kiss-and-cry area, where skaters waited for their scores, and on press conference podiums -- were a clear nod to Coughlin's skating legacy. But other than a few brief comments issued to reporters at the start of the weekend, U.S. Figure Skating made no official mention of Coughlin during the event and expressed some unease with other tributes to his memory.

The members of an image-conscious sport had little time to decide how to proceed. What message did those red hats send? Who gets to decide how they are interpreted? How should Coughlin be remembered in the immediate aftermath of his death? Those questions this past weekend forced the figure skating world to confront a discomforting paradox that resonates far beyond the sport and its close community.

The unknowns in Coughlin's case far outweigh the known, which makes interpreting tributes to him all the more subjective and difficult.

"I don't know what the message is," said Tara Modlin, Coughlin's former agent, who carried a red hat with her and handed out dozens of others. "I think there's a presence that's important to those who love him, and I think we need to start answering some question marks. There hasn't really been time to grieve. There hasn't been time to process. And there are so many question marks."

It's unlikely that any victim of sexual abuse watching from near or afar would see nuance in shows of support for Coughlin, said Champion Women CEO Nancy Hogshead-Makar. A former Olympic swimmer and survivor of sexual assault, Hogshead-Makar and her organization have worked to try to help the sporting world respond better to sexual abuse. She said the red hats could have been offset by some other symbol, such as a teal scarf. The color teal is frequently used to represent sexual abuse awareness.

"It's something that says, 'I support survivors of all stripes.' The message that they're sending is not just to the people that reported him, but to all survivors," Hogshead-Makar told ESPN on Monday. "It's important because, 100 percent of the time, when somebody who is well liked -- and a well-loved coach, in particular -- is reported, the response is to rally behind that coach or the popular person."

Modlin and several others who paid tribute to Coughlin in Detroit said they were not dismissing the allegations of wrongdoing made against their former friend, but part of the problem with shaping a clear message was the lack of information available about the nature of the allegations.

Here is what the public does know. The U.S. Center for SafeSport -- an independent body set up in 2017 to investigate all claims of abuse within the dozens of national sports programs that fall under the purview of the United States Olympic Committee -- received a complaint about Coughlin in December. SafeSport imposed an interim restriction on Coughlin at that time as it began to investigate. Dan Hill, a spokesman for SafeSport, told ESPN last week that an interim restriction is SafeSport's equivalent of a restraining order that prohibits contact between specific parties while an investigation takes place. Under the restriction, Coughlin was still allowed to coach and be present at events sanctioned by U.S. Figure Skating, the sport's governing body.

Coughlin called the allegations against him "unfounded" in a statement he issued to USA Today on Jan. 7. He also said the SafeSport investigation process did not allow him to share any more details or defend himself publicly while the inquiry remained active.

Less than two weeks later, Coughlin's status was updated to an "interim suspension," which prohibited him from being involved in any activities associated with U.S. Figure Skating. USA Today reported on Jan. 20 that two additional individuals, both of whom are minors, had reported Coughlin for misconduct. Hill said this past week he could not confirm any details about a specific unresolved case. He said an interim suspension does not mean investigators had made any type of significant finding, but he would not comment further on why Coughlin's status changed. One day after Coughlin learned he had been suspended, he killed himself.

USFS officials said last week they do not know if the Center for SafeSport will continue to investigate the claims against Coughlin in the wake of his death as victims' rights advocates and the figure skating governing body have urged SafeSport to do. Hill also said SafeSport has not yet decided on the future of the case and that continuing to investigate complaints about Coughlin's behavior after he is no longer capable of causing potential harm presents a problem and may not serve its mission to keep athletes safe from abuse.

"It's a very tough situation," Hill said. "Nothing about it is easy."

U.S. Figure Skating executive director David Raith said his organization does not know if Coughlin spoke to investigators before he died. They do not know with any certainty the nature of the accusations. They do not know the identity of the people who reported Coughlin, their connection to his alleged actions or even how many people have contacted investigators about him.

Christine Binder-Fowler, the president of an association that represents the interest of coaches in figure skating, said she and the leaders of USFS are planning to meet with SafeSport officials later this week to learn more about the investigation and whether it will continue.

Binder-Fowler, along with U.S. Figure Skating president Anne Cammett and Raith, publicly called on SafeSport last week to continue its investigation for the sake of all parties involved. Hogshead-Makar said reaching a conclusion about the reports is also important to inform if or how the sport will recognize Coughlin in the future. She cited the example of two swimming coaches who remain in the sport's hall of fame despite being accused of sexual abuse. She said that type of honor sends a message that the sport is not a safe place.

Hogshead-Makar, Cammett, Raith and Binder-Fowler all agreed that SafeSport needed to do a better job of explaining its investigation and the meaning of different interim measures and distinctions.

"I want there to be a fair and transparent process, and just a little more communication," Binder-Fowler said. "I want to be able to defend SafeSport. ... We would just like to know what's going on."

The void created by all of that uncertainty left many who came to Detroit at a loss for how to mourn a man they knew previously as an energetic ambassador and generous friend. Public memorials posted to social media before the event were met with waves of vitriol and were interpreted as attacks on the credibility of Coughlin's alleged victims. The red hats that dotted the arena did not create any apparent confrontations in Detroit but received the same criticism online.

Some in Detroit criticized the investigative process of SafeSport, an organization whose leadership told the U.S. Olympic Committee and Congress it doesn't have the funding it needs to efficiently examine the thousands of complaints it has received since opening its doors in May 2017.

The current system tightly protects all information about a complaint during an investigation except for the name of the accused. Modlin and others said they recognized the need for that protection in order to create an environment in which victims are encouraged to speak up and feel safe from retaliation when they do. The names of the accused are shared publicly to avoid a threat to other athletes during what can often be long investigations. However, Modlin said that formula creates a vacuum of information that outsiders can fill with potentially harmful speculation.

"There has to be a process that is fair," she said. "There has to be a middle ground."

Allowing for anonymous reports is an important part of fostering an environment that encourages people to come forward with reports of abuse. Pairs skater Danny O'Shea, who wore a backward Chiefs hat after his first day of competition and displayed it during a news conference, said anonymity in this case also makes it hard for skaters to show specific support for anyone other than Coughlin.

"I have 100 percent support for people who go through things like that," O'Shea said. "I don't think any of them have been made public. If they were public, I would probably speak out for them, as well. I knew John personally. He was a friend of mine, and it sucked that he died. That's all I was speaking for."

O'Shea drew a distinction between acknowledging Coughlin's suicide and taking any public stance on the accusations made against him. Others chose not to discuss a raw, emotional subject in its immediate aftermath, and in the absence of information, left room for others to come up with their own interpretations.

On Monday morning, a sizable portion of the skating community packed its bags to travel from Detroit to Kansas City, where Coughlin will be buried on Tuesday. They brought along with them a large collection of red hats -- and a lot more questions than answers.