Safe Sport: Who Are We Protecting?

Photo by Lauren Mauldin

BY TIMOTHY WICKES

BAM! Down goes Jimmy Williams. The first big domino falls. #MeToo has hit the hunter/ jumper world like Serena hits a forehand. It seems that since Spring has sprung there’s been a new name added to the USEF banned list every week. With every press release, the murmurs down the halls of social media grow louder.  And, what is as plain as the nose on your face is that almost no one knows what is going on with USEF and their sudden interest in often decades old misdeeds and crimes. And just who/what the hell is SafeSport? But first a little background on how we got here.

The Amateur Sports Act of 1978 gave formal status to the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) as the national and international representative for all Olympic sports and further allows the USOC to charter a National Governing Body (NGB) in each of the Olympic sports.

The Ted Stevens Olympic Amateur Sports Act of 1998 updated the original Act, gave monopoly status to USOC and specified requirements for all of the NGBs under the USOC umbrella. In our world that NGB is USA Equestrian, before 2017 called USEF, and before that AHSA coupled with the separate USET. Fortunately, there are no more letters left on the board, so let’s call USEF our leader.

March, 2017, saw the dawn of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, an organization chartered under the USOC. SafeSport furnishes “response and resolution for claims of sexual misconduct… for the National Governing Bodies within the U.S. Olympic Committee.” Basically, under the Ted Stevens Act and by the authority of the USOC, SafeSport has complete jurisdiction over all of the 47 NGBs, including USEF and all of its affiliates. Lastly, Senate Bill 534 signed into law by President Trump on February 14, 2018, establishes SafeSport as an independent entity eligible to receive federal funding (but still in need of private donations). Further, and here I quote the recent USEF press release, “ The bill imposes a duty on Amateur Sports organizations including U S Equestrian and its members to report suspected sex-abuse to local or federal law enforcement or to a child welfare agency designated by the Justice Department within 24 hours. Failure to report is subject to criminal penalties”. Pay attention to that last line.

Photo by Lauren Mauldin

And then the articles started rolling in… JIMMY WILLIAMS!

Jimmy Williams was a legend, one of the great Hunter/Jumper/Equitation gurus of all time. The west coast George Morris. The man who invented Anne Kursinski. And tried to ruin her life. The man who we now know was using the Flintridge Riding Club as his personal child molestation playground. He started in on Anne when she was 11.

Mollie Bailey- in a terrifically written, disturbing article- in The Chronicle of The Horse ripped back the blinds and revealed the story of Kursinski, Karen Herold, Gigi Gaston and other brave women. In print, Bailey exposed  Jimmy Williams for the jailable creep he was. A companion article in the the same issue by DiAnn Langer drove a final stake of overdue justice into the heart of William’s legacy.

Sarah Maslin Nir, in the New York Times seven weeks later, followed up with a second article that largely piggy backed off of the Bailey piece and brought the story to a national stage. Maslin Nir additionally interviewed Alan Balch (former President of USEF) and legendary rider Hap Hansen. If the words “ Jimmy Williams never claimed impeccable personal virtue” (Balch) wasn’t embarrassing enough, “I just think those things are stupid to bring up whether they are true or not” (Hansen) was worthy of the Socially Clueless Hall of Fame. Those are two guys whose tribe I do not want to belong to. But those quotes illustrate the ignorance, indifference, and irresponsibility that has created the need for SafeSport as our watchdog.

As a result of complaints brought forth and investigations by SafeSport in the first half of 2018, a flurry of press releases detailing the latest additions to the Banned and/or Interim(temporary ban pending a full hearing) lists have been released. Memorial Day Weekend brought forth a small shopping list of new names, including some very popular USEF officials. They were soon followed by a plethora of social media howls about the injustice of it all. Yet, upon a closer look, three of the six names added in 2018 were either registered sex offenders or had been convicted of sexual assault. The sex offenders had been on the national registry for 15+ years. Seems like the sort of fellows we don’t need on the show grounds. On July 2, 2018, David (Larry) Glefke was added to the Interim list pending a full hearing. Glefke now has more attorneys then Paul Manafort and his self anointed David vs. Goliath status is once again sullied.

Photo by Lauren Mauldin

How are our parent organizations USEF and USHJA adapting to their new normal? Not well so far. Sonja Keating, General Council for USEF, seems to be the one bright light in an otherwise dark ages leadership group in the Federation. She is sharp, focused, and committed to working with SafeSport toward the safety and well being of everyone in the sport, as well as ridding us of bad apples regardless of their popularity. As the single mother of three teenage girls, she wears her heart on her sleeve when discussing the long overdue cultural change rolling down the halls of 21st century sport. Unfortunately, the rest of USEF seems a million tiny steps behind. Other than the dry press releases, there has been little humanity associated with this movement on the part of our leaders. With each announcement of another interim suspension or lifetime ban, our world shifts, our stomachs turn. It is a wrenching, difficult process. I want our leaders to step up and tell us to take heart, to be strong because we are doing the right thing. As Kessler recently said, “ “I believe we must learn from the past, and now we must focus on stopping abuse we believe is still going on.” We need their voices now when our membership is divided and disconcerted by SafeSport fallout.

Procedurally, USEF has no mechanism in place for informing show managers that an official, member, or vendor has been banned. SafeSport sends an email out to the subject and the USEF concurrently when a ruling comes down, and then USEF sends out a press release. That’s it. When SafeSport banned two officials late Friday afternoon of Memorial Day Weekend, both were working at horse shows that very weekend. There was no official protocol nor communication from USEF for the horse show managers to delineate next steps.  With no mechanism in place to send a red flag communication to show managers, both continued to work through the weekend, clearly not the intention of a suspension nor the same consequences for anyone else with a USEF suspension.

If USEF seems sloth like, USHJA is sphinx like. Of the 20+ sports under the SafeSport umbrella whose websites and social media pages I perused, USHJA’s is by far the least informative. For a group that USEF information lists as over 43,000 members, they have done virtually nothing to get the word out about SafeSport, the reporting process, and said nothing about the cultural change that we hope they support.

During the June, 2018, mid-year USEF meeting, a task force was formed to design a mandatory rule for SafeSport for all those registered with the Federation as professionals or coaches. As a point of reference, most of the other 47 sports under the SafeSport umbrella have had these requirements in place for from 12 to 30 months. We are late on the draw.

Recently, I spoke with a USET Foundation Board Director who informed me that to the best of her knowledge, the Foundation had sent out zero information about SafeSport to its Board, no information about the Foundations’ responsibilities, and as an organization with over $25,000,000 in net assets had not proposed donating a dollar to SafeSport. SafeSport is only partially funded by the Federal government and may soon be overwhelmed by the scope of the demands placed on it. It is time for our leadership and fundraising entities to support the agency. 

Photo by Lauren Mauldin

As the scabs of secrecy have been picked off the Catholic Church, Penn State, MSU and USA Gymnastics, as one youth sport after another has been forced into a new era of self awareness and propriety, as we have been blinded and shamed by our decades of tolerance and inaction, a new better morality has been forced on us and we are better for it. For those who ring their hands over the possibility of false allegations, I get it. But the national statistics just don’t support it. Somewhere between 2%-10% of all rape claims prove to be false and similar number for child molestation. In child molestattion cases, 90% of all cases brought to trial end in conviction. It’s time to trust the system; trust but verify.

We as individuals need to educate ourselves as to the SafeSport process for reporting in order to help victims come forward and tell their stories and get  justice. It’s time for us to rid our sport of predators and it’s time for us to kick our governing bodies in the ass and make them do a better job. And lastly, it’s time for the leaders of those organizations to get their heads out of their breeches and catch up to right. It’s 2018. #MeToo is the loudest, most righteous voice in the room and SafeSport is here to stay.

Citations and Further Reading:

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