Report — From the November 2017 issue

Pushing the Limit

What the U.S. Olympic Committee can — and can’t — do about sexual abuse

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There are a million easier jobs,” Shellie Pfohl, the CEO of SafeSport, told me when I met her at the organization’s headquarters, in Denver. The office, which sits across from a strip mall, is a few miles from the city’s downtown. One reason that SafeSport is based there, rather than in Colorado Springs — the hometown of the U.S.O.C. and U.S.A. Swimming — is to put seventy miles between it and the organizations it polices. Pfohl explained that if her post is seen as merely an extension of the national governing bodies and the U.S.O.C., it can’t be an effective watchdog. Of course, distance doesn’t guarantee independence.

SafeSport’s décor is spartan, a reflection of its newness. Most of the main room is empty space under the glare of fluorescent lights. Down the hall, there are offices occupied by three full-time investigators, four contract investigators, support staff, and a chief operating officer who previously worked for the U.S.O.C. Pfohl’s office is decorated with photographs of her with the Obama family — mementos from her previous position, as the executive director of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition. Tall and lean, she has short brown hair and a crushing handshake. On the day I visited, even though the temperature hit ninety-four degrees, she was dressed in a gray-and-white suit. She had the diplomatic manner of someone who had chaired quite a few interagency meetings in Washington.

Growing up in Iowa, Pfohl played basketball, softball, and volleyball. Her volleyball team attracted crowds rivaling those at her high school’s football games, she told me. “Playing organized sports helped give me a sense of identity.” In her last job, she had aimed to boost girls’ participation in athletics and prevent them from dropping out of team sports after they hit puberty; she sees protecting them from sexual assault as a natural continuation of that effort. “If individuals are harmed when they dedicate themselves to a sport, that is completely unacceptable,” she said. On a whiteboard by her desk was SafeSport’s motto: champion respect. end abuse.

That may be an unreachable goal. For one thing, SafeSport can’t investigate all claims of misconduct; its jurisdiction extends only to those athletes within the U.S.O.C. system. Hundreds of thousands of children play on teams that fall under the Amateur Athletic Union (A.A.U.) umbrella, which operates independently, with its own rules. Rick Butler, a coach who was suspended by U.S.A. Volleyball for allegedly having sex with underage athletes, today coaches an A.A.U. team of teenage girls. Through a lawyer, Butler denied engaging in sexual conduct with minors; U.S.A. Volleyball had not granted him due process, he said, and later reinstated him — though that was on the condition that he no longer train girls, and the chair of U.S.A. Volleyball’s board later said that the decision to readmit him was “flawed.” Sarah Powers-Barnhard, one of his professed victims, has been vocal about the distress caused by encountering Butler at meets. “Nothing has changed,” she told me. Last year, she filed a suit against the A.A.U., and is hoping to see him kicked out. (The A.A.U. did not respond to requests for comment.)

SafeSport also appears to be limited in its ability to exert control over the programs it’s been tasked with monitoring. Each governing body works with hundreds of private clubs, which historically have determined their own ways of processing sexual assault.

Until recently, for example, U.S.A. Gymnastics fielded queries only from victims or their parents. The board’s headquarters is in Indianapolis; last year, the Indianapolis Star revealed that at least 368 gymnasts had allegedly been abused over a span of two decades. One of the most striking pieces of evidence was a letter from Dan Dickey, who operated a gym in Florida. He wrote to warn U.S.A. Gymnastics about Bill McCabe, a coach formerly in his employ. Dickey had fired McCabe after hearing him boast about developing a relationship with a fifteen-year-old in his gym and molesting girls at other training centers. Not long after, McCabe surfaced at a gym nearby. Dickey appealed to the national board to blacklist McCabe, saying that he “should be locked in a cage before someone is raped.” In response, Dickey received a note thanking him for the heads-up — and explaining that a ban was impossible without “an official letter of complaint from a parent or athlete.” Several years later, McCabe was sentenced to thirty years in prison for molesting female gymnasts, secretly videotaping them changing out of their clothes, and posting naked pictures of them on the internet. (In response to the Star story, U.S.A. Gymnastics launched a policy review, which culminated in a hundred-page report on assault prevention and response.)

SafeSport has introduced two measures that intend to avoid a repeat of that fiasco. First, anyone can report an allegation. “It can be someone unrelated to the victim, someone who witnessed something,” Pfohl explained. “It can be anonymous. We will look into it.” Second, SafeSport has pledged to be a mandatory reporter — if someone comes forward about sexual abuse, a staff member will pass the information on to law enforcement.

Pfohl’s office produced a set of guidelines to be adopted by each governing body; if SafeSport determines that someone has violated its code, the offender’s name is added to a searchable database of banned staff. That list identifies the date of suspension — sometimes “interim” — but provides no details about the case. The rule book itself is filled with jargon, and Hogshead-Makar told me that she is troubled by what she sees as a lack of clarity regarding relationships between coaches and young athletes. “It should be as much a part of the public consciousness as the ban on relationships between a therapist and patient or a lawyer and client,” she said. “Bright lines are important.”

Pfohl said that, as a model of what SafeSport could be at its most effective, she looks to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Like SafeSport, the U.S.A.D.A. was created by the U.S.O.C. as an independent organization; it built its reputation prosecuting Lance Armstrong for doping and has occasionally staked out positions in defiance of U.S.O.C. leadership. But the U.S.A.D.A. managed to establish its autonomy partly because it doesn’t depend on the U.S.O.C. for money — most of its budget, nearly $20 million per year, comes from Congress and outside organizations. In contrast, SafeSport has a five-year, $25 million budget that is almost entirely derived from the U.S.O.C. and its governing bodies. Pfohl is soliciting donations from private companies, individuals, and sports organizations, with the modest aim of raising $1.5 million annually. She has had successes — the N.B.A. and the W.N.B.A. have contributed $300,000 — but corporate America hasn’t been persuaded. “There’s the issue of gaze aversion,” she said.

A small contribution may be coming from the federal government: In June, two senators — John Thune, a Republican of South Dakota, and Bill Nelson, a Democrat of Florida — proposed legislation that would bestow $5 million on SafeSport over five years. The bill would amend the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, which created the U.S.O.C. almost four decades ago; the original law contains no explicit language protecting underage athletes from molestation. To remedy that oversight, the senators want to add a new line about promoting a “safe environment in sports that is free from abuse.” It’s a welcome thought, though activists such as Hogshead-Makar question whether merely inserting the provision without establishing punitive legal measures will make much difference.

The greatest obstacle for SafeSport, however, may be the norms of elite sports, which have been known to enable complicity in sexual violence. Dia Rianda, a swim coach in Salinas, California, told me, “I have gone to conventions and it is always the same thing. In the evenings, the coaches go to strip bars and Hooters.” When I asked Pfohl about confronting unsavory aspects of athletic life, she replied, “Culture is a very hard thing to change. We need to define what is acceptable and what isn’t.”

Blackmun said that he hoped SafeSport will put at ease those athletes who have been reluctant to report abuse to their national governing bodies. “The N.G.B.’s are the ones making decisions about their futures and levels of support,” he explained. And athletes “didn’t want to be in a position where they were bringing issues to N.G.B.’s that were controlling their athletic destinies.” He pleaded long-standing institutional ignorance of the extent of this problem, but said that he was now enlightened. “When I have had those conversations, it makes you wonder why we couldn’t have gotten it reported sooner. That’s the great tragedy in these things, is that we were kept unaware of it for so long.”

His comments were at odds with the ample evidence revealing the scope of sexual assault under the U.S.O.C.’s watch. It seemed that Blackmun and his colleagues tended to overlook the darker implications of top-level training, which, at its essence, tests what the body can bear. Emphasis on pushing limits has always made young athletes vulnerable, in different ways, to the whims of their coaches. When I raised this with Blackmun, he conceded that sports culture encourages athletes to follow their mentors, not to question them. In some cases, he said, “You don’t push back against your coach, and you don’t push back against your national governing body.”

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reported this story as a 2016–17 visiting journalist fellow at the Russell Sage Foundation. Her most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “American Hustle,” which appeared in the April 2015 issue, was included in the 2016 edition of The Best American Sports Writing.

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