Accusations and Investigations

This is a post that I really didn’t want to write, but now I feel I have to.

It’s a very difficult time in my sport of figure skating. In mid-December, an allegation of misconduct by a skater was filed with the US Centre for SafeSport. SafeSport is an independent regulatory organization, funded by sport federations; its mandate includes training, education, and outreach, but it is also responsible for investigating complaints of sexual misconduct against athletes in Olympic and Paralympic sports. SafeSport can’t charge someone with a crime – although it does require any reports of criminal acts to also be reported to police – but if it believes, after an investigation, that the allegations are accurate, there are several types of penalties it can impose, including banning the abuser from the sport.

The allegation filed with SafeSport involved John Coughlin, a coach, broadcast commentator, and two-time US champion in pairs skating. As a result of the allegation, SafeSport temporarily restricted Coughlin’s “ability to participate in the sport”. In early January, according to USA Today reporter Christine Brennan, two more allegations against Coughlin were filed with SafeSport, and on January 17, SafeSport imposed an interim suspension on Coughlin. An interim suspension, according to SafeSport’s definitions, means that the “covered individual” (the subject of the allegations) cannot “participate in any activity or competition” authorized by or sanctioned by the US Olympic Committee or the sport’s governing body, “pending final resolution of the matter”. On January 18, Coughlin took his own life.

This very sad series of events has led to a lot of discussion about norms and cultures within the sport of skating, the rights of the accuser and the accused during investigations of alleged abuse, and the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the processes that are supposed to protect athletes. After Coughlin passed away, the US Figure Skating Association asked SafeSport to continue with its investigation of the three allegations. SafeSport subsequently announced that while it does not comment on individual cases, it “cannot advance an investigation when no potential threat exists”, and ended its investigation. While I can understand why SafeSport made that choice – I’ll explain why in a while – abandoning the investigation may onlyadd fuel to the fire of suspicion that sport organizations are not truly committed to fighting abuse of athletes.

The complaint process that SafeSport administers is very similar to processes that address allegations of harassment or abuse in workplaces. A complaint is filed, a third party conducts an investigation – during which interim measures may be put into place, such as moving someone into a different job or temporarily suspending them – and the results of that investigation determine whether there should be a penalty or punishment. Investigations of harassment or abuse are difficult, because often there aren’t witnesses to the alleged events, and the accuser and the accused may have very different versions of what happened. And unfortunately other factors, such as the accuser’s or accused’s status or connections within the organization, may unfairly influence the outcomes of the complaint.

However, as the horrific Larry Nassar case demonstrated, abuse involving athletes and coaches may be even more difficult to address than workplace harassment. For one thing, coaches have a great deal of control over an athlete’s career, not only in using their technical skills to develop the athlete’s capabilities, but also in their knowledge of how the sport works and their ability to lobby administrators, officials and judges. The coach’s ability to advocate for their skater is particularly significant in a judged sport such as gymnastics or skating, in which there are only so many opportunities for athletes to be chosen to compete nationally or internationally. (Think of it this way: Skate Canada, the largest figure skating federation in the world, has 180,000 members; there were only 17 Canadian figure skaters at the 2018 Olympics.) An athlete may fear repercussions to their own career or reputation if they file a complaint against a well-respected coach, trainer, or official.

A screenshot from January 17 of the “disciplinary records” page on the SafeSport website, showing the status of the complaints against John Coughlin. (credit: The Sports Examiner)

For another thing, young athletes may not be taken seriously when they complain, because of their supposed inexperience or simply because of their age. If the athlete’s parents have invested large amounts of time, effort and money in supporting the athlete’s training – as is often the case in skating – the athlete may not want to disappoint their parents by throwing all of that away, even if they know that what is happening to them is abusive. And then there is the problem of policies being designed and implemented at the national level but carried out at the local level, where clubs are run by volunteers who may not be trained in how to identify or investigate abuse.

It’s difficult to reliably estimate how much abuse of athletes goes on in sports. But one indication that there’s a lot of it is that SafeSport is overworked. It has more complaints than it has investigators, and it can only spend part of its budget on dealing with the complaints it receives. With those very significant constraints on its resources, SafeSport likely has to be selective about which complaints it chooses to investigate. After Coughlin’s passing, investigating the complaints against him is impossible, because his side of the story cannot be told. So SafeSport may have decided to end its investigation of the complaints against Coughlin and focus on complaints that have some chance of resolution.

SafeSport also has another constraint on what it can investigate, in that its reporting structure is based on individual incidents. SafeSport’s investigative procedures allow it to address complaints of sexual misconduct or, at its discretion, complaints of emotional and physical misconduct. But it apparently has no mandate to investigate systemic factors that could allow incidents of abuse to occur. A complaint-driven system may uncover ongoing patterns of abuse – for example, a coach who commits abuse and then moves to another facility or club and commits abuse there as well. But by focusing only on specific incidents, the investigation may not fully address larger contextual problems, such as why policies or reporting systems did not stop the abuse after the first incident.

Also, a complaint-driven system will not discourage or prevent abuse if complaints are not made. If athletes, their parents, or others involved in the sport are too intimidated to make a complaint, or don’t believe the complaint will result in any change, or don’t know where or how to complain, abusive behaviour in the sport will keep happening. Creating an environment in which athletes truly are safe, or in which complaints are investigated fully and fairly, can only happen if there are ways to address the complaints and to address the contexts in which the incidents happened.

I honestly don’t know where the sport of skating goes from here. This is an incredibly tragic set of circumstances, but there are still three skaters who were allegedly abused, and who now will not have any official resolution to their allegations. Continuing the investigation of those allegations will not change what happened to those skaters, but it may uncover larger problems that could be addressed so as to protect others. The decision not to proceed with this investigation speaks to a fundamental flaw in how abuse is understood and dealt with in my sport, and in other sports. It’s easy to say that abuse is unacceptable. We all know that it’s wrong. But it isn’t good enough any more to say that abuse is wrong without providing effective ways to identify and stop the abuse.

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