The 2020 US Equestrian Annual Meeting is well underway in West Palm Beach, Florida, where it will continue through Saturday. We would like to share this report from yesterday’s panel discussion, Safe Sport – What’s New to Know, as it addressed many of the misconceptions that have proliferated about SafeSport procedures.
Since its inception in 2017, the U.S. Center for SafeSport has received over 4,600 reports of alleged abuse in sport and the center continues to work diligently to provide resources and resolution for survivors of abuse across the 52 sports embodied by the Olympic movement and the United Stated Olympic and Paralympic Committee. There is a rough estimate that more than 18+ million people are involved in sports that fall under Safe Sport’s jurisdictional umbrella and that number only continues to increase over time, making the support, understanding, and education surrounding the U.S. Center for Safe Sport’s purpose and mission more important than ever.
The informational session and discussion included updates and explanation from Michael Henry, Chief Officer of Response & Resolution at the U.S. Center for SafeSport, and Sonja Keating, General Counsel for US Equestrian, as well as testimony and a first-hand account of the SafeSport process from survivor Hillary Ridland, while moderation of the panel was conducted by Sarah Hamilton, Managing Director of Kivvit, a top communications firm based in Chicago. If you missed this panel today, it is available on demand on USEF Network.
The U.S. Center for SafeSport has exclusive jurisdiction over reports of sexual misconduct within National Governing Bodies (NGB) who are part of the Olympic movement. Henry, who recently spoke at the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Annual Meeting, discussed the misnomers and misconceptions commonly referenced and disseminated regarding SafeSport procedures, which are detrimental to the integrity of the overall reporting and investigative process, specifically addressing the concern surrounding anonymous reporting.
“We do take anonymous reports, but that does not mean action is taken exclusively based on an anonymous report, that would defy fundamental fairness. While we may receive anonymous reports, we go through a process called the preliminary inquiry process before any type of action is ever taken, which we use to identify who the report is about, who are the players, what has actually been alleged here,” commented Henry. “Sometimes that’s more descriptive and sometimes we have to do a bit more digging to uncover what that is. There are many cases that don’t even make it past the preliminary inquiry process because there is simply insufficient information to move forward.”
Hillary Ridland, a well-known rider and active member of the equestrian community, discussed her experience with the U.S. Center for SafeSport and the importance of the process. Initially hesitant to participate in the investigation, she was compelled to end the cycle of abuse after a claimant gave permission to the center to disclose details of the case to her directly. “I found the center to be very discrete and supportive. I was not interested in talking to them until I was made aware of the fact that this particular abuser had a long span of abuse that I was not aware of. When I realized that, it made it really important for me that nobody else go through that. The center kept asking me the questions diligently and I realized that our sport was going to go in the wrong direction if I didn’t speak up about this.”
Henry also discussed the process in which a respondent, or the individual in question, is included in an investigation. He explained that before disciplinary action is taken, “A respondent is always made aware of the allegations and who the allegation concerns, when, and where it happened, and is given a full opportunity to respond and participate throughout the investigative process. We often communicate multiple times, conduct multiple interviews, and have interactions with respondents, claimants, witnesses and their advisors and attorneys.”
To conclude the panel session, Sonja Keating, General Counsel for US Equestrian, urged members and attendees to do their own due diligence in understanding USEF’s Safe Sport policy and the U.S. Center for SafeSport’s Code, while also encouraging people to fact check before blindly believing information online.
“Don’t believe everything you read on social media and before you draw a conclusion based on what you see there, do a fact check. We’re always available to provide the facts about the policies and processes. Drawing opinions and conclusions based on what you see is dangerous because you are most likely going to walk away with misinformation,” said Keating.
Key Takeaways for Members:
- Read the SafeSport Code and familiarize yourself with the policies and procedures of the movement. The U.S. Center for SafeSport’s Code and US Equestrians Safe Sport Policy are both available online and should be used as a resource to understand the definition of expectations for participation in sport, as well as the process the center employs during the response and resolution process. “Take the time to read the Code. The USEF Safe Sport Policy mirrors the U.S. Center for SafeSport’s Code in most respects. As it relates to the forms of misconduct that are prohibited and the definitions of those, it’s identical. I know it can be very dry, but it’s worth taking the time. This is a community effort and we need our community to be as knowledgeable as possible,” said Keating.
- There is a misconception of secretive versus confidential. Confidentiality is incredibly important to the investigative process and will remain a key component of the U.S. Center for SafeSport’s procedure when collecting evidence in reports of sexual abuse in sport. “Confidentiality is important and necessary. It comes down to the fact that you shouldn’t have to out yourself publicly if you have been sexually abused, physically or emotionally abused within the context of sport, in order for that behavior to be addressed, particularly when that behavior poses a risk to the rest of the sporting community,” said Henry.
- Temporary measures are enacted very rarely and used in a limited fashion – less than one half of one percent of all equestrian cases brought forward have been issued a temporary suspension. According to Henry, the number is misrepresented as greater than it is because there is more impact when temporary suspensions are issued. “We don’t perceive it that way because of the implications. When we issue a temporary suspension, allegations that are sufficiently severe – we’re not issuing temporary suspensions for sexual harassment, but for egregious sexual abuse in the worst of forms – it has to have a sufficient amount of evidence that makes it plausible that the allegations brought forward are true and present a risk to the rest of the community,” commented Henry.
- There is a difference between the criminal justice system and the administrative process of the U.S. Center for SafeSport. “Within the administrative context, you’re afforded certain procedural rights because it is fair or because that’s what prescribed by policy. This is an administrative process. This is not a civil process or criminal process. The harshest sanction we can implement is that you cannot be a part of a community anymore, which is very similar to any other membership-based community. We know that is not to be taken lightly or belittled because participation within the Olympic movement is what people have spent decades of their lives building,” Henry explained.
- False reports are a violation of the SafeSport Code and can/will be sanctioned. Henry commented, “We do not take action on reports unless we have met a certain level of sufficiency. A sufficiency of risk, a sufficiency of evidence, and a sufficiency of understanding who the parties are. When you think about weaponization, people are concerned that someone could make a claim against someone else and they would be immediately suspended. That isn’t possible. We don’t readily suspend people. We understand the implications of that and hold ourselves to a high standard. We want to get to the truth and that is why we utilize an exhaustive, reliable, and impartial investigative process.”
Bill Moroney, CEO of US Equestrian, concluded with remarks and encouraged members and attendees to join together in owning the responsibility of making equestrian sport a safe place for all participants.
“We should be the ambassadors for our community and the ambassadors for our sport. We need to tell people we have training, we have resources, we have education, we have reporting systems, and we are proud to have that. Parents should feel comfortable bringing their children to our sport, or husbands and wives and significant others. Come feel safe in our sport. We need to be promoting that our environment is safe, instead of buying into the process of tearing it down. It’s natural for people to have a fear of change, but read, understand, and ask your questions.
“We completely support the survivors coming forward. It takes a lot of fortitude and perseverance for somebody to come forward. It’s important that we support them, we embrace them, and it’s important that we believe them. We, as a community, have to change the way we have been operating for hundreds of years – we as a culture have to embrace this. This is the right thing to do and we need to make sure that everyone in our community is safe. We all share in the responsibility of doing that,” concluded Moroney.