The U.S. Center for SafeSport, a watchdog organization created in 2017 to police issues related to sexual abuse and other misconduct in Olympic sports and its amateur pipeline, is still struggling to gain the trust of the community it is designed to protect.
The center is a relatively small outfit with a big mission: "ending abuse in sport." It is structured to take allegations of abuse and misconduct out of the hands of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) and its national governing bodies, handle them free from the influence of money and medals, and maintain a public database of sanctioned individuals -- a much-needed cure for sporting institutions beset by an epidemic of sexual abuse cases.
But confidential documents obtained by ESPN and ABC News coupled with more than a dozen interviews with athletes, attorneys and lawmakers over the course of an 18-month investigation paint a portrait of an organization hampered by significant legal setbacks, disputes over transparency and lingering questions about its independence.
In some extreme cases, that system has allowed alleged serial abusers to return to their sports with little to no public warning, undermining the faith of some athletes and their advocates in the center's work, which in turn threatens the center's ability to function effectively.
Among the findings:
• Investigative reports and arbitration decisions reveal several instances in which the center's investigators substantiated allegations against prominent coaches, compiling detailed dossiers of alleged sexual misconduct that initially led to lifetime bans from their respective sports, only to see those punishments set aside after appeals to independent arbitrators.
• The center's record in defending its sanctions on appeal has hurt its credibility with some athletes and advocates: Nearly half (42%) of those who have completed an appeal of a SafeSport ruling have had their sanctions modified, reduced or removed. ESPN and ABC News have identified six of those cases, but there are as many as two dozen other individuals the center initially found to have violated their rules who are now either eligible to participate in their sports or might become eligible to do so after their reduced sanctions expire.
• In some instances, coaches initially found by the center to have sexually assaulted athletes on multiple occasions were allowed to return to their sports without any official public record of the claims made against them, even as their sports' national governing bodies paid millions of dollars to settle lawsuits related to their alleged sexual misconduct, potentially exposing the federations to additional liability for any future alleged misconduct. Leaders of those federations say they are concerned that the center's rules prevent them from taking their own measures to protect athletes from some individuals that they consider to be a risk.
• Athletes and others who have made allegations of abuse are prevented by the center from keeping investigative reports and findings about their case and prohibited from sharing SafeSport documents about their cases publicly. The center also has declined to share data with some prominent experts in the field of child protection seeking to collaborate on education and training efforts.
• Several prominent attorneys who represent athletes say that doubts about the center's motivations and efficacy have led them to advise their clients to decline to participate in its proceedings and seek justice elsewhere, limiting the center's access to cooperating witnesses and jeopardizing its ability to uphold sanctions.
• The center's largest source of funding is a fixed $20 million annual contribution from the USOPC. But ESPN and ABC News have learned that the USOPC raises part of that money from individual sports federations, which pay fees based on the number of allegations reported to the center and the amount of work required to resolve them. This funding model concerns some observers who believe it could incentivize federations to discourage reports of abuse because a higher number of reports would cost them more money. SafeSport officials, who have no control over how the USOPC raises those funds, are concerned about that perception as well, but the USOPC continues to charge the federations for reported allegations.
SafeSport officials say the organization is trying to strike a delicate balance between fairness and safety, between privacy and transparency, between an individual's desire to compete or coach and a community's demand for protection. That it has been simultaneously criticized at times for being either too aggressive or not aggressive enough is evidence to some that it is navigating that difficult terrain effectively.
Its defenders often argue that the center is doing critically important work with limited resources under exceedingly difficult circumstances. It is not a law enforcement agency, though it is structured like one, but rather a sports investigative body. To maintain its legitimacy in that community, the center needs to be perceived as fair: tenacious in protecting young athletes while providing due process to those who face reputation-ruining allegations that might prevent them from competing or coaching.
Since its inception, the center has struggled to build a reputation for being effective and trustworthy. That challenge continues as the organization approaches its fifth anniversary, with two key legislators in Congress wondering whether the center is capable of solving the problem it has been entrusted to address.
In an exclusive interview with ESPN and ABC News conducted over the summer and confirmed last week, U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who co-authored a law that increased the center's annual funding in an attempt to fortify its independence, said they feared their efforts to make the center more than "a paper tiger" might have fallen short.
"The U.S. Center for SafeSport has a tremendous responsibility," Moran said. "And to date, they have not demonstrated their capabilities to the degree that we need, that would protect athletes."
IN THE WAKE of the disturbing revelations surrounding disgraced USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, Blumenthal and Moran launched a sweeping investigation in 2018 into systemic abuse in amateur sports and later spearheaded the effort to retool the U.S. Center for SafeSport, an agency previously empowered by Congress to adjudicate abuse cases, in an effort to provide more protection to American athletes.
In October 2020, then-President Donald Trump signed the legislation they co-authored directing the USOPC to provide the Denver-based organization with $20 million in additional annual funding, more than doubling its budget. That money represents the vast majority of the center's funding, with other contributions coming from federal grants and donations. (ESPN, through its corporate citizenship department, has awarded grants to the center; additionally, when ESPN awards grants to youth sports leagues and entities, it requires recipients to take SafeSport training.)
The center has the power to ban, suspend or otherwise limit an offender's participation in sport for violations of the SafeSport Code through a variety of sanctions ranging in severity from "permanent ineligibility" to probation. While the offender's penalty is in effect, the names of adults who are sanctioned by the center are listed on its public "Centralized Disciplinary Database," a resource for concerned members of the public and the parents of young athletes searching for a safe place for their children to train.
Even after legislative reviews and additional funding, many athletes and advocates continue to question the center's efficacy and the motivation behind its work. Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman, who has emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of the USOPC over its handling of the alleged culture of abuse and impunity in its ranks, is one of them.
"If you're SafeSport, and you're funded by the organization you're investigating, they're likely not going to do the right thing," Raisman told lawmakers during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September. "It's a complete mess, and the priority doesn't seem to be the safety and well-being of athletes."
And in a recent report published by Child USA, a national child protection think tank, authors examined the USOPC's response to the Nassar case and determined that its current policies and systems, including the U.S. Center for SafeSport, remain "woefully lacking in the basics needed to protect children from abuse and exploitation."
Dan Hill, who operates a Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm and serves as a spokesperson for the center, praised Raisman and other athletes who have spoken out about abuse and said the organization was "motivated to earn their trust."
Hill initially agreed to make Ju'Riese Colon, a longtime child safety advocate who took over as CEO of the center in 2019, available for an on-camera interview to answer questions from ESPN and ABC News about the state of the center's operation and the challenges it faces. Hill later canceled the interview on Colon's behalf, citing COVID-19 concerns, and over the next several months, rebuffed multiple requests to reschedule before canceling the interview altogether.
In a series of responses to dozens of written questions, Hill accused the networks of bias. He also defended the organization and its track record, conceding that the center is "not perfect" and "constantly changing" but touting the more than 1,000 sanctions it has issued to date.
"It is a first of its kind [organization] in the world, and it's four years in and taking on a massive challenge," Hill said. "There are growing pains. But the fact of the matter is it's an incredible success story."
Blumenthal and Moran, however, who were described by Hill as "real champions" of the center's mission, disagree, saying the organization has, so far, been a failure. "There is simply no way that SafeSport can be given a passing grade for how it has acted in the past," Blumenthal said. "It was a shell of what it should have been."
HEIDI GILBERT WAS eager to talk to SafeSport investigators when they took over her case in 2017. The former taekwondo champion recalled being "excited" and "confident" that a new watchdog organization was going to take charge of what was then an ongoing investigation being conducted by USA Taekwondo -- the sport's national governing body -- into sexual abuse allegations made against Olympic coach Jean Lopez.
Gilbert was 20 years old in 2002 when she won a gold medal at the Pan American Games in Ecuador. Her future in the sport was bright under Lopez, who is the oldest sibling of American taekwondo's most prominent and powerful family. But while celebrating her victory later that night, Gilbert said, Lopez sexually assaulted her in his hotel room. He sexually assaulted her again, she said, a year later at another competition in Germany.
Lopez denied any wrongdoing, but according to confidential documents obtained by ESPN and ABC News, SafeSport investigators found evidence of a "decades long pattern of sexual misconduct" in which Lopez abused his power to "groom, manipulate and, ultimately, sexually abuse younger female athletes." Gilbert was one of three female fighters who accused Lopez of misconduct and provided testimony to SafeSport investigators. In April 2018, the center banned Lopez from the sport for life.
"I made myself vulnerable. I had talked to these interviewers, I had shared my story with them, and I was like, 'Finally, this is going to come to light and there's going to be some sort of repercussion for their awful behavior,'" Gilbert said. "I felt like we were changing things and we were kind of the trailblazers for sexual misconduct that was happening in our sport."
But Lopez appealed the decision, so Gilbert's decadelong pursuit of accountability wasn't over.
Just as an individual sanctioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency can appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, individuals sanctioned by the center can appeal the center's rulings through an arbitration process. Independent arbitrators are provided by JAMS, an alternative dispute resolution service, and they review the case and issue a final, binding decision. In the appeal process, an attorney hired by the center argues via virtual videoconference to defend the organization's ruling, while the individual who has been sanctioned, usually with the help of an attorney, argues to have their punishment reduced or revoked. The initial claimant, someone like Gilbert, can testify as a witness and have a personal attorney present at the hearing, but only the center's attorney takes an active role in presenting a case to uphold a ruling or a sanction.
In December 2018, in a confidential arbitration hearing, an attorney for Lopez successfully argued to have his lifetime ban overturned, which cleared the way for his return to coaching and the removal of his name from the center's public database. No official record of the evidence SafeSport investigators gathered or explanation of the arbitrator's decision is available to the public. He remains suspended by World Taekwondo, the sport's international governing body, pending the outcome of its own investigation into his conduct, but according to his attorney he "remains free to participate in any taekwondo activity that does not require that he have an active license from World Taekwondo."
Gilbert, who also sued USA Taekwondo with four other women and recently reached a $6 million settlement, said she was shocked when she first learned about the outcome.
"I don't even think that there are words to describe my feelings. Furious? Disbelief?" Gilbert said. "How can you call yourself the Center for SafeSport?"
Gilbert is not alone. Critics point to several high-profile cases in which independent arbitrators overturned or significantly reduced sanctions against allegedly abusive coaches, devastating their accusers and undermining their faith in the center's ability to protect athletes. In an effort to provide due process to the accused, the center created rules for its arbitration process that some believe are creating an unfair path to overturn legitimate sanctions.
Figure skater-turned-coach Craig Maurizi first accused Olympic coach Richard Callaghan in 1999 of sexually abusing him when he was a young skater in the 1970s, but Callaghan issued adamant denials, and the skating federation dismissed the allegations without investigation, saying the allegations were time-barred. Nearly two decades later, in 2018, Maurizi submitted his allegations against Callaghan and the evidence he had collected to the center.
Callaghan continued to deny any wrongdoing, but confidential documents show that SafeSport investigators found that "over the course of two decades, [Callaghan] engaged in grooming behavior, non-contact behavior of a sexual nature, inappropriate physical contact, and sexual contact and intercourse, physical and emotional misconduct, and a pattern of exploitative and abusive conduct with young athletes he coached." In August 2019, he, too, was given a lifetime ban from the sport.
But Callaghan appealed, and four months later an independent arbitrator overturned the ban, instead imposing a three-year suspension related to allegations of physical and emotional abuse of other skaters he coached. Callaghan will be eligible to return to the ice later this year, when his name will also disappear from the center's database, despite U.S. Figure Skating having agreed to pay $1.45 million in 2021 to settle a lawsuit brought by one of his former skaters. U.S. Figure Skating is still facing a lawsuit filed by Maurizi. Attorneys for Callaghan did not respond to questions about his plans for the future. Maurizi said any lingering sense of vindication has evaporated, leaving little in its place.
"I'm not as mad as I should be," Maurizi told ABC News. "If I think about it for a moment, it's more because I just feel kind of hopeless, like there is no recourse for me, and there's really nowhere I can truly get justice."
Former equestrian rider KD, who asked to be identified by only her initials, said prominent riding coach Bob McDonald sexually abused her when she was a teenager working in his stable in the 1970s. After reading media accounts of other cases in the sport, she submitted her allegations to the center in 2019. McDonald denied any wrongdoing, but documents show that SafeSport investigators found that McDonald "engaged in sexual intercourse" with two minor athletes that "resulted in lasting, physical pain." As with Lopez and Callaghan, the center banned him from the sport for life.
But McDonald appealed, and the center issued an "administrative closure" of the case after learning that KD did not plan to participate in an arbitration hearing on the advice of her attorney. The closure meant McDonald's sanctions were lifted, his name was removed from the center's database and he was allowed to resume coaching. The administrative closure gave the center the option to reopen the case in the future. McDonald's attorney said after the closure that "he is free to participate fully in equestrian sport, and it is my understanding that he is doing so."
KD said the sudden reversal was a shock, but not a surprise.
"I was completely appalled," KD said. "However, by this time, I had read [about] several other instances of SafeSport doing this type of thing. So I wasn't completely surprised."
Confidential documents obtained by ESPN and ABC News reveal that the rationale behind those reversals did not resolve questions about whether those coaches continue to pose a safety risk to young athletes.
In Lopez's case, a panel of arbitrators wrote that they were "unable to [assess] the credibility" of the three witnesses who accused him of wrongdoing because they declined to testify at the hearing after their previous interviews with a SafeSport investigator "left numerous questions unanswered." Gilbert and her attorney say she offered to submit written testimony in lieu of telling her story in person again, an experience that can often be traumatizing for people who have been subjected to abuse.
In Callaghan's case, the arbitrator "acknowledge[d] and agree[d] that [Maurizi's] testimony confirms the sexual abuse occurred as described," but determined that he was bound to apply an "absurd and draconian" standard of corroborating evidence that was required by law at the time of the alleged abuse, which the center failed to meet.
The center reopened McDonald's case earlier this year after learning that KD, who had hired a new attorney, was now willing to participate in the arbitration hearing. According to the U.S. Equestrian Federation, arbitrators did not find sufficient evidence to uphold the sanctions against McDonald despite KD's willingness to participate. His initial ban was overturned this month.
"Per the federal law, USEF is bound by the arbitrator's decision," a spokesperson for the federation said. "We must abide by it."
KD died of cancer earlier this month before she was able to comment on the arbitrator's decision.
Those decisions put the center, the federations, athletes and their parents in a difficult position. Both USA Taekwondo and U.S. Figure Skating already have settled civil claims (without admitting wrongdoing) related to Lopez's and Callaghan's alleged abuse for millions of dollars. Under the center's rules, those federations are obliged to permit Lopez and Callaghan to continue coaching once their sanctions are lifted, possibly exposing future athletes to the risk of harm and the federations to additional liability.
Steve McNally, the executive director of USA Taekwondo, said the policy has left him with grave concerns about his ability to protect young athletes in his care.
"USA Taekwondo does not have any authority to act in a case where SafeSport has yet to take action, decides not to take action for any reason, or in which SafeSport has been unsuccessful in maintaining an imposed suspension," McNally told ESPN and ABC News. "USA Taekwondo is not permitted to investigate, adjudicate or in any way influence the outcome of any proceedings, and is legally bound by the result, however vulnerable a position that may leave the organization in."
U.S. Figure Skating officials did not respond to a request for comment.
ATTORNEYS REPRESENTING THE accused are adept at using the center's policies to their clients' advantage, especially when confronting older allegations of abuse. The center places no statute of limitations on reporting claims of misconduct. They issue sanctions based on a lower standard of proof than what would be used in a criminal case (a "preponderance of the evidence," or "more likely than not" vs. "beyond a reasonable doubt") and tout other trauma-informed policies and procedures designed to encourage athletes who make allegations of sexual abuse to participate in the process. But those victim-friendly thresholds have in some instances failed to hold up when a case is challenged in arbitration, especially when the alleged misconduct occurred before the establishment of the center in 2017.
Howard Jacobs, an attorney who specializes in defending sports figures in disciplinary proceedings, says he has represented dozens of clients accused of sexual misconduct, including Lopez and McDonald, and claims that he has navigated the center's process more than anyone outside the center itself.
In an interview with ESPN and ABC News, Jacobs said he tells his clients to expect a "one-sided" investigation and to assume the center will find a violation that leads to sanctions. They should expect to appeal to an independent arbitrator, he said, with whom their odds of success "switch dramatically" as arbitrators apply old standards created at a time when sexual abuse and misconduct was poorly understood.
"So there's no statute of limitations in the sense that there's [no] time bar in bringing the case, but if you have these old cases, then they have to prove essentially that there's a violation of the criminal law that was applicable at the time," Jacobs said. "That's where you can get into some kind of strange rules that have to be applied today, looking at standards from a long time ago."
His record, he said, speaks for itself. He has appealed 17 sanctions to arbitration on behalf of his clients, he said, and six have been fully reversed, five more have been "significantly" reduced, which leaves just six that were fully upheld by the arbitrator.
"These SafeSport cases, they're generally 'he said, she said' cases, and the rules don't provide a whole lot of guidance to the arbitrator as to what an appropriate sanction is," Jacobs said. "So the defense strategy in the majority of cases is kind of twofold: one, contesting that there was a violation, and then two, if there is a violation, contesting the severity of the sanction. There are some cases where the athlete or the coach says, 'Yes, I did this, but the penalty that you've imposed is crazy.' And so in those cases, there is a mechanism to just challenge the length of the sanction."
Hill, the center's spokesperson, acknowledged that cases like these are "frustrating," among the "tougher ones" the center handles, because the center is hamstrung by the rules it created in the interest of "fundamental fairness and notice" that require independent arbitrators to apply laws and policies in place at the time of the alleged misconduct.
"Given that there is no legal manner in which the center can retroactively enforce the SafeSport Code prior to its existence," Hill said, "it applies whatever rules, regulations and laws were on the books at the time, from sport policies to state and federal law."
He argued that the center is walking a legal tightrope, being as aggressive as it can be without violating a respondent's right to due process. Fundamentally altering those rules, he said, could lead to lawsuits from sanctioned individuals that would threaten the center's ability to continue doing its work.
"Federal law requires the center to provide respondents a hearing or arbitration to challenge the center's decision and sanction(s)," Hill said. "The center vigorously defends its decisions and sanctions at arbitration and is always disappointed when an arbitrator reduces or lifts our decision or sanction."
The individual who has presented the center's case in many of its arbitration hearings and helped to write the rules of the process is a Denver-based personal injury attorney named Joe Zonies. According to Hill, Zonies and his firm "played a critical role in the formation of the center, including the creation of the SafeSport Code," and "they continue to be a vital part of our organization."
The center paid Zonies' firm, which is located near the center's headquarters in Denver, more than $1.5 million in its first years of adjudicating cases, tax documents show, making him and his associates one of the organization's largest contractors to date. But the extent of his legal experience handling abuse cases remains unclear.
His website notes that "after spending several years acting and producing and directing music videos," he attended the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and later developed an expertise in mass tort litigation, particularly product liability cases involving pharmaceutical drugs and medical devices.
The website briefly mentions a "sports law" practice, including their representation of "a national sports organization regarding the creation and enforcement of codes of conduct to protect United States athletes," but highlights no previous work as a prosecutor or track record of litigation involving child sexual abuse, the center's primary jurisdiction.
Zonies did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Hill said the center hired Zonies after searching for a local firm with "well-rounded experience to handle all the issues that go along with launching a new nonprofit and developing one as unique as SafeSport." He said Zonies' experience with child abuse and sexual abuse cases includes a "favorable outcome" for a minor student against a teacher "more than 20 years ago," a "positive outcome" for an intern against an employer in a sexual harassment case, and other sexual harassment matters in employment settings "on both sides of the equation." He did not provide any further details about specific cases.
In response to questions from ESPN and ABC News, Hill suggested that there is perhaps some misunderstanding about the center's "premise," which is to be a "fair process" for all participants in sport, one that balances competing interests and ensures, for example, that an athlete's "right to compete wouldn't be interfered with by someone making a false allegation."
"SafeSport is not a D.A.'s office," Hill said. "And there are people who want to judge it by D.A. standards. ... The center's role is not to be a prosecutor. It's to be an arbiter -- a fair, objective one, that enforces its code, and holds people accountable, which it has."
The appeals process, however, requires SafeSport's attorneys to argue for the merits of its sanctions in front of an arbitrator much like a prosecutor arguing criminal charges in front of a judge and jury. Blumenthal, a former federal prosecutor and state attorney general, suggested that the center's role when defending its sanctions in arbitration is indeed an adversarial one, and the right to due process is no excuse for the failure to remove dangerous individuals from sport.
"A prosecutor who loses based on a technicality has lost one way or another," Blumenthal said. "There's no point in being a paper tiger here. ... The point here is that these abusers need to be ridden from the system, and they need to do it in a way that comports with due process, but that's the job of SafeSport to do it right."
The center noted that reversals of its decisions in arbitration are rare, outliers among the hundreds of sanctions it has issued in the past four-plus years. Hill initially told ESPN and ABC News that of more than 900 sanctions eligible for appeal, less than 1% of sanctions have been reversed in arbitration.
But most of the center's sanctions follow some form of law enforcement action. At the time Hill provided those statistics, the center's public database listed a total of 854 sanctions adjudicated by the center; of those listed, 628 cases, or 73.5%, include some type of "criminal disposition," which means that the sanctioned individual had been found to have violated the law, triggering near-automatic discipline by the center that would be difficult to appeal.
When pressed for more specific data, Hill said a total of 75 individuals had appealed their sanctions, and in 31 of the 73 cases that have been resolved, or 42%, either an independent arbitrator overturned or modified them or the center issued an "administrative closure" before the arbitrator's decision was issued.
Ten sanctions had been fully reversed, Hill said, while 18 were modified, and three were withdrawn "because a claimant did not participate, and the center could not prove the case without the claimant." Modified sanctions can include significant reductions in penalties, as was the case with Callaghan's lifetime ban being replaced by a three-year suspension; they also can include changes to penalties that leave a lifetime ban intact, as was the case with an arbitrator reportedly dismissing a less serious violation against Alberto Salazar but upholding other more serious violations. Two of the appeals remain in progress. The remaining 42 sanctions were upheld or the appeal was withdrawn by the responding party.
Hill touted this record as a success but acknowledged that "many" of the cases that were overturned involve the most egregious forms of misconduct in the center's purview.
"The center has been extremely successful at arbitration, " Hill said, "especially considering that often the cases that go to arbitration are the most difficult, including many involving allegations that are decades-old allegations of child sexual abuse."
But arbitrators overturned sanctions in at least one more recent case, in which the center did not have to meet the standards of outdated laws.
In July, arbitrators removed the two-year suspension of figure skating coach John Zimmerman, who was accused of discouraging a 13-year-old female skater from reporting illicit photos she allegedly received from French Olympian Morgan Cipres while he was training at a rink in Florida. (Cipres, who has declined to discuss the case, cannot be sanctioned by the center because he is not a member of U.S. Figure Skating.)
During the investigation, Zimmerman conceded that he failed to report the allegations to the center and to law enforcement, according to confidential documents obtained by ESPN and ABC News, but denied allegations that he tried to persuade the young skater to remain quiet by threatening her career.
Arbitrators found that the center's monthslong investigation did not find sufficient evidence to uphold their findings, and his punishment was reduced to one year of probation due to his failure to report the incident. His name was immediately removed from the center's database, and he was permitted to return to coaching. An attorney for Zimmerman declined to comment on the case.
Andrea Lewis, a former Florida prosecutor who represented the young female skater in the case, said her client went through the center's process with hopes of protecting others from the same treatment she allegedly received. She said the organization's policies, which prohibit participants from keeping or sharing any of SafeSport's case files, made a painful process feel unproductive.
"It was really kind of shameful to be frank with you," Lewis said. "I don't blame people for not wanting to participate if this is going to be the outcome."
When the center's decisions are overturned or sanctions modified, the center's rules keep investigative findings and independent arbitration decisions confidential, which effectively shields both the details of any underlying misconduct and the rationale behind a reversal or reduction of sanctions from public view.
Those documents are initially shared with the involved parties, but the files become inaccessible to anyone outside the center after 10 days. Sharing them with third parties would constitute a violation of the center's rules, subject to its own penalties.
In some cases, that has allowed accused parties to use the confidentiality of the process to mischaracterize the nature of the evidence. Following the center's administrative closure of his case, for example, McDonald stated publicly that the allegations against him were "proven false," prompting a rare public statement from the center refuting that claim.
"I think the lack of transparency is terrible," KD, the former equestrian, said. "With the court system, people would have the benefit of knowledge of what the case involved, whereas with SafeSport, that anonymity, it's not helping the victims."
Even some of the center's apparent victories raise questions about its policies. In one of the most high-profile cases the organization has handled, the center banned famed running coach Alberto Salazar from the sport for life and later convinced an arbitrator to uphold the sanction despite Salazar's appeal. But the categories of misconduct listed on the center's public database are broad -- sexual, physical, emotional -- so until the details of Salazar's arbitration decision were leaked to The New York Times, the public was unaware that he had faced multiple allegations of sexual assault, which he has denied, in addition to making sexually inappropriate comments.
Hill, the center's spokesperson, declined to comment on the Lopez, Callaghan, McDonald or Zimmerman matters, and rejected a request to identify other individuals who SafeSport investigators believed present a danger to young athletes but are nevertheless permitted to return to competition, citing the center's policy of not discussing specific cases.
ESPN and ABC News have identified media reports of three additional cases in which arbitrators overturned sanctions against taekwondo fighter Steven Lopez (Jean's brother), weightlifter Colin Burns and an unidentified cycling coach, which leaves about two dozen such cases completely outside the public view. Steven Lopez has denied wrongdoing, while Burns has declined to comment on the matter.
Lewis, the former prosecutor, said she did not understand why the center does not make redacted copies of their findings available to the public or give claimants an option to share some of that information if they want to do so.
"Your heart is in the right place. You're trying to stop abuse," she said. "But you can't do it under a shroud of secrecy."
HILL, THE CENTER'S spokesperson, said the center's policies and procedures reflect its efforts to "balance the need for providing information with the requirement to protect the privacy and safety of persons involved in its processes."
Strict confidentiality, he said, primarily benefits reporting parties, many of whom are members of a tight-knit sporting community who simply do not want to share their stories publicly or fear that doing so could make them vulnerable to some form of retaliation. Anything less, he said, could chill reports of abuse.
Hill suggested that releasing an underlying report to the public, as is often done in the criminal and civil court systems, could violate a victim's expectation of privacy or even endanger a witness who supported an allegation even if their personal information was redacted. He said the policies were intentionally designed to be different from civil and criminal courts in an effort to provide an additional, trauma-informed option for victims to report abuse.
The center's public database, he said, which is limited to providing the offender's name, the length of his or her sanction and the category of the offense only while the sanction is in effect, offers enough information to serve as a warning to the public.
"The center's centralized disciplinary database (CDD) is a first-of-its-kind public resource aimed at improving safety and accountability," Hill said. "It includes certain temporary measures and sanctions involving adult participants, including those with lifetime bans (permanently ineligible) from participation in sport. This level of transparency and accountability is not common in most other administrative systems."
But when a lifetime ban is lifted or a lesser sanction has run its course, the individual's name is removed from the center's public database, often leaving no public record that an allegation had even been made. If not for leaks to the media, many of the underlying findings supporting sanctions against these coaches might have remained hidden from their prospective athletes and their parents.
In those cases, the severity of the alleged misconduct, the evidence gathered by investigators and whatever aggravating or mitigating factors might have influenced the independent arbitrator's decision remain unknown and unavailable to anyone but the involved parties and the center.
Moran called on the center to be more "public in their process" to fulfill its basic obligations to young athletes and let them and their parents "know who they need to be wary of."
"Once the decision is made, then the public, all of us, Congress and the American people, moms and dads, need to know the result so we can protect our kids," Moran said. "Silence does not meet the needs of the American young athlete and the mom and dad who want to protect their son or daughter. It allows the bad behavior to continue."
The lack of transparency, Moran said, undermines the organization's core functions. Engagement with the public, he added, is the best way to build public trust in the organization and its capabilities.
"SafeSport cannot do its job, simply cannot do its job, unless it makes its work public," Moran said. "...I would encourage the U.S. Center for SafeSport to outline what they do, to outline their accomplishments, to admit their faults, their failures."
Frustration about the center's approach to sharing information extends beyond athletes and their attorneys. According to several experts at the intersection of sports and child protection, the center does not exhibit the type of collaboration typically seen by groups that are earnestly working to end abuse in sports. Hill refuted this claim, saying the center is involved in ongoing conversations with other countries, "many of which reached out to the center on their own to better understand our model and learn from our experience."
Sandra Kirby is a professor emerita at the University of Winnipeg who has studied sexual harassment and safeguarding in sports for more than three decades and was part of the research group that might have first coined the term "SafeSport." She also serves as an adviser to SafeSport International, an abuse prevention agency that is not affiliated with the U.S. Center for SafeSport but is seeking to influence policy and promote research on the global stage. She said she believes the key to keeping sports safe is that all entities have to be working together "under the same tent."
The U.S. Center for SafeSport, she said, has not engaged with that collective effort.
"They're not very transparent. You can't really see how the case has progressed through, and whether the athletes feel like they get justice at the end," Kirby said. "I don't have any knowledge inside, but I think the potential for the U.S. Center for SafeSport is so much greater. They could be really doing great work and instead it looks to me like it's not transparent."
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an attorney and Olympic gold medalist who is a leading advocate for the protection of women and girls in sports, said she has been frustrated with a lack of transparency from the center's leaders since its inception. Hogshead-Makar said she and Marci Hamilton, CEO of the child abuse and neglect think tank Child USA, have tried on multiple occasions to offer insights about potential changes to its rules or exchange information for research purposes with SafeSport executives without success.
She tried for months, she said, to obtain the center's data about the gender and the role -- coach, athlete, administrator -- of individuals accused of abuse or misconduct. She believes this is vital information that would be helpful in determining the greatest risks to athletes and tailoring education and prevention efforts accordingly. She says Colon, SafeSport's CEO, responded to her but did not provide the information she wanted. Hogshead-Makar said she doesn't believe SafeSport made sufficient efforts to consult with experts in victim advocacy when designing its rules, resulting in a "defendant-friendly" posture that makes it unnecessarily difficult to defend some of its sanctions.
"I would love to be able to work collaboratively with them," Hogshead-Makar said. "But I can't get answers to very simple questions."
Colon took over as CEO of the U.S. Center for SafeSport in 2019, having previously served as the national vice president for child and club safety at the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and an executive at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. One of her biggest challenges is overcoming the long-standing doubts about the center's independence from the USOPC and combating distrust of the organization among athletes and their advocates. In her tenure, she has rarely spoken publicly about the center's efforts or answered questions about its work.
In March, after rescinding the scheduled interview with Colon, Hill took issue with ESPN and ABC News' ongoing reporting, calling it "inaccurate and unfair," and criticized reporters for interviewing a handful of prominent attorneys who represent athletes in civil litigation against the USOPC and its national governing bodies and are highly critical of SafeSport, suggesting that reporters should investigate them instead.
"If ABC truly cares about the victims and [in] doing its part to cover these sensitive issues," Hill said, "it will direct its investigative efforts on those who seek to undermine accountability while perpetuating their business interests."
ONE OF THE center's most prominent and vocal critics is John Manly, a Southern California-based attorney who has worked with hundreds of victims of sexual abuse. Manly's firm has represented athletes in multiple multimillion-dollar settlements with their sports' national governing bodies. Most notably, it was part of a group of attorneys who negotiated for a total of $880 million from USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University on behalf of clients who were abused by former doctor Larry Nassar.
Manly is one of several attorneys who believe the center and its investigators operate within the confines of a system that was set up chiefly to promote a positive public image of the USOPC's efforts to curb abuse and to limit its legal liability. As a result, he strongly recommends to his clients that they decline to participate in the center's process and seek justice or accountability through the criminal and civil court system.
"I believe SafeSport is there for one reason, which is to protect the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and its governing bodies," Manly said. "... It's a process designed for secrecy, and it's a process designed to fail survivors. And that's not an accident."
Hill calls these claims baseless and self-serving, and cited a report produced by the Government Accountability Office last summer that certifies the center is meeting all of its requirements to be considered an independent body.
"When individuals, particularly attorneys, actively speak out against the center while refusing to play a role in informing its approach or engaging in constructive dialogue," Hill said, "they are recklessly undermining the mission of the center."
Manly said he thinks other avenues to justice are more effective than the center and is therefore unconcerned about whether his recommendations to clients disrupts the center's ability to uphold sanctions.
"I'm not going to entrust my client's well-being to a bunch of bozos at SafeSport who don't necessarily have my client's best interests at heart," he said. "I'll entrust them to law enforcement and I'll entrust them to the professionals there, but not them."
The center's leadership has reached out to some attorneys, Hill said, who discourage their clients from participating in its process, seeking to "engage in thoughtful discussion," but "unfortunately some refuse."
The seeds of their misgivings come, in part, from the center's early connections with the USOPC and the way it was initially funded.
Some of the center's early leaders had close ties to the USOPC. Its first chief operating officer, Malia Arrington, previously served as the first director of ethics and safe sport for the then-USOC, and its first chairman of the board of directors, Frank Marshall, previously served as a USOC vice president and was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.
The law written by Blumenthal and Moran seeks to address those concerns. The legislation prohibits the center from employing or electing to their board of trustees anyone who has worked for the USOPC or a national governing body (NGB) of an individual sport within the previous two years. Arrington left the center in 2018, while Marshall sent his resignation letter to the Center's board in November 2020, shortly after the bill was signed into law.
Nonetheless, skepticism about the center's independence remains, even among high-ranking officials within at least one national governing body. Attorney Jonathan Little, another prominent victims' attorney and SafeSport critic who also serves as the general counsel of USA Badminton, advised his colleagues at the federation this September that "the policy of USA Badminton should be" to report any allegations of abuse to local law enforcement and then ask them for their "blessing" before reporting them to the center.
"I have seen Safe Sport intentionally ruin at least one criminal case and compromise another case," Little wrote in an email obtained by ESPN and ABC News. "I do not think we should be reporting to them without the blessing of law enforcement."
That deep distrust has blurred the lines between advocacy and obstruction, and in this case, might have even broken the law requiring federation officials to report all claims of abuse to the center.
A whistleblower from within the federation reported concerns with the proposed policy to both Congress and the center, sparking a Congressional inquiry into "potential criminal violations." Officials from the center have notified USA Badminton that they anticipate pursuing legal action.
In response to questions from ESPN and ABC News, Little doubled down, saying that the proposed policy has already been put into "practice," and he hopes to codify it when the federation next revises its bylaws. All allegations received by the federation, he said, have since been reported to the center.
The new law also attempted to eliminate the possibilities of conflicts of interest that could arise from how the center was raising funds. In the organization's first three years in operation, the USOPC decided how much money it would provide to the center on an annual basis. Critics were concerned that the yearly dependence on the USOPC's continued support might discourage the center from pursuing cases that would damage the reputation of individuals or federations that were valuable to the Olympic movement.
Blumenthal and Moran's law sought to address that concern by mandating that the USOPC provide $20 million in funds to the center every year. Hill said that section of the law "eliminat[es] the need for the center to annually request funding from the USOPC and national governing bodies and further increasing the center's independence from these organizations."
But the legislation also allows the USOPC to "use funds received from 1 or more national governing bodies to make [the] mandatory payment" to the center, so in order to offset that cost, the USOPC has begun to charge national governing bodies thousands of dollars in fees for cases opened by the center.
ESPN and ABC News obtained screenshots of an internal presentation describing the funding model that, sources familiar with its contents said, was delivered last year via videoconference to federation officials representing various sports throughout the Olympic movement. The presentation appears to have been shared from the screen of Rocky Harris, the CEO of USA Triathlon, who also serves on the USOPC's SafeSport funding task force.
According to the presentation, beginning in 2021 and continuing into 2022, each national governing body was charged a "baseline contribution," based on the size of its membership and assessed "risk profile," in addition to "case costs," broken into three categories based on the eventual outcome of an allegation reported to the center, and potential "high usage fees" if case costs surpass a certain threshold.
"Low cost" cases, in which the center declines jurisdiction to pursue an investigation, cost a national governing body $150; "medium cost" cases, in which the center administratively closes a case, cost $1,500; and "high cost" cases, in which the center investigates and either finds a violation or no violation, cost $3,000.
The model, according to the presentation, projects to raise $2.6 million for the USOPC for the national governing bodies in 2021 and 2022 but "will work up to $4 million," or 20% of the USOPC's mandatory annual funding of the center. Some sports officials fear the model creates a financial disincentive to report abuse allegations.
"The more you report, the more you pay. The more severe the report, the more you pay," said a federation official responsible for SafeSport compliance who asked to remain anonymous because the official was not authorized to speak publicly. "This is broken. This defeats the objective."
In response to a request for comment from Harris, USA Triathlon referred ESPN and ABC News to the National Governing Bodies Council, which is the group that created and implemented the funding model.
The council "completely rejects" the idea that it creates a disincentive for reporting, according to Max Cobb, who was chairman of the group when this model was adopted. Cobb said that officials who do not report possible claims to the center face the threat of breaking a federal law and putting their NGB's certification in jeopardy, which he says would far outweigh any concerns about adding costs to their organization's budget.
If a national governing body does discourage reporting or interfere in the SafeSport process in any way, it can be reported to Congress. SafeSport has lodged such complaints about two NGBs in recent months: USA Badminton and USA Hockey.
Cobb said some sports federations use the center's services far more frequently than others, and the group wanted to find a way to share the costs proportionately.
"Every sport is contributing based on their size, but beyond that, there are a handful of NGBs that are having a larger number of reports submitted," Cobb said. "This was a way to balance some of that proportionality."
Jon Mason, a spokesperson for the USOPC, said the USOPC "facilitates collection and payment calculations to preserve privacy of case data among [the governing bodies]" and creates "proportionate payments that account for the differences in the [governing bodies]."
"The USOPC pays the center $20M annually," Mason said, "and [a council composed of leaders from the national governing bodies] determines how the [governing body] portion is divided fairly ... using factors including revenue, minor and adult membership, audit results and center usage."
Hill said the center has no control over how the USOPC collects the funds, but suggested that the center's leaders might have shared concerns with the funding model with the USOPC.
"While we are not a party to the decision-making process on the funding model, we have reiterated many times to USOPC and NGB leaders that we strongly recommend an approach that incentivizes positive outcomes that drive culture change and enhance athlete safety," Hill said. "Furthermore, we have continued to discourage any financial model that might be perceived as disincentivizing the reporting of any and all allegations of abuse and misconduct."
Cobb said the council he chaired discussed the center's concerns with the organization before reaching its final decision.
"Nobody at the center has any NGB experience," Cobb said. "... Their thoughts were not really well-grounded in the reality of NGB perspective. We appreciate their suggestions, but we came up with our own methodology."
According to Blumenthal and Moran, the responsibility to rebuild trust with athletes, advocates and sports federations lies with the center. In speaking with a variety of athletes during their 2018 investigation, Moran and Blumenthal say they found many had "little or no faith" in the center's ability to serve as an independent watchdog.
"They saw SafeSport as an arm of the U.S. Olympic structure," Moran said. "They saw it as just one more U.S. Olympic entity that would fail us again."
They hope the additional funding and new measures of independence will give the center what it needs to succeed, but they recognize that it's impossible to legislate goodwill.
"SafeSport has to rebuild confidence and trust," Blumenthal said. "SafeSport doesn't have my confidence and trust right now. But it can if it shows results."
"What's at stake here is the confidence and credibility of SafeSport, which should be a beacon of hope, not of disillusionment and despair, which it has been all too often," he added. "And that's why it has to open a new chapter, turn the page in its history."
The center reviews its code and other policies on an annual basis in an effort to improve an organization that is still navigating uncharted waters.
"We're also committed to continuous improvement," Hill said, "and will always consider modifications to best practice or adjustments needed considering our experience and data, if they comply with all applicable laws."
The U.S. Center for SafeSport remains a relatively young organization, one that even some of its critics see as an integral part of the solution moving forward. The center is "moving in the right direction," Moran said, but it needs to make changes. Otherwise, the senators will make changes for them.
"We know they have to do better," Blumenthal said. "The burden is on them to show they can do better. If not, we'll change the leadership. We'll provide more resources, we'll alter the rules. But the point is the burden is on SafeSport to show they can do the job, which so far they haven't. The jury's still out, and we're going to hold them accountable."
ABC News' Tracy J. Wholf, David Scott and Kate Holland and ESPN's John Mastroberardino contributed to this report.