Where Are We With Safe Sport Regulations?

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Over the last year, so much attention has been fixed on the United States Equestrian Federation (“USEF”) Safe Sport policies and their consequences. These USEF policies and U.S. Center for SafeSport Code are aimed at protecting all participants in our sport, yet recent heated dialogue over the reporting misconduct mechanism has stirred all types of reactions from placid acceptance to vehement rejection of the program as a whole. Some feel the regulations are so strict that they unnecessarily restrict teamwork and collegiality of the sport, while others roll off impassioned diatribes that the regulations do not go far enough to rectify previous wrongs.

Many of you have trainers, friends, fellow competitors who have been accused of misconduct under the SafeSport reporting provisions. The indignation brewing on social media and running rampant through the horse show rumor mill is loud and powerful. In many cases, pushback to regulations buoys a groupthink type nostalgia for the ‘old days’ while belittling the very voices we are seeking to protect. 

If we are to compete in and sustain an industry together, we must create a healthy dialogue. A dialogue that both serves a community of women and men who were, and may still be, subjects of unwanted sexual misconduct and also one that stimulates productive feedback for the changes as they continue to take shape in the sport.  

As an equine attorney, life-long USEF/USHJA competitor, and activist, I have developed a healthy skepticism to most knee-jerk, commentary on developments in public policy. As it stands, the needle of change moves at a glacial pace. Regulations intended to create a safer and more transparent sport will come across as severe upon execution. 

As someone who follows the Supreme Court of the United States’ opinions as religiously as many of my friends watch The Bachelor, I am confident the breakdowns between SafeSport’s intent and its implementation will be remedied and the due process protections will vindicate the falsely accused. In the meantime, there are definite procedural areas that require immediate attention. In order to understand why these areas are lacking, it’s important to look back at the history and facts behind the implementation of SafeSport.

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In 2017, Senator Dianne Feinstein sponsored a piece of legislation called “Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and SafeSport Authorization Act of 2017.” This bill was enacted and mandates that USEF and its affiliates adopt policies for reporting child and sexual abuse, granting sanctions for amateur athletic competitions and other requirements for all youth-serving amateur sports organization. 

In response to this mandated piece of legislation for all amateur sports organizations, USEF implemented the SafeSport program.  On August 27, 2018, USEF announced that all adult members must complete a free SafeSport online training intended to heighten awareness of abuse and misconduct. One goal of the training is to eliminate abuse by teaching younger members to recognize the signs of abuse and misconduct in order to prevent it. 

USEF is does not deny the program requires additional modifications and continued attention to reach its intended efficacy. For instance, on April 29, 2019, the USEF Board of Directors approved updates to SafeSport and adopted new policies to protect minors called the USEF Minor Athlete Abuse Prevention (MAAP) policies. On June 1, 2019, the MAAP policies went into effect via congressional requirements mandating USEF, as well as other amateur sports organizations and governing bodies, to implement policies and procedures that limit one-on-one interactions between minor athletes and adults who are not their parent/legal guardian.

Note however, while Congress mandated SafeSport training, it did not provide sufficient funding or oversight resources. In many versions of the bill, funding was neglected in its entirety. Amateur-athlete organizations who were then tasked with making millions of children across America safer, had to go out and find their own support. Meaning USEF, USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming and Diving, USA Soccer, and many more, were forced to re-budget, make staffing changes, set-up reporting capabilities and rollout an entirely new program in less than a year, and largely without government assistance. 

In addition to an educational component, the SafeSport policy is intended to prevent misconduct through sanctions, which is where much of the controversy around the program circulates. One piece of misinformation stirring in the vast cyber-commentary on the new regulations is that USEF is acting above the parameters of United States law. The belief is that the accused are not given due process rights (a fair chance to be heard). This conclusion is misrepresented.

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The SafeSport Sanctions prohibit those accused of violating SafeSport or federation rules. A list of those permanently banned from USEF activities and competitions are listed in full on the USEF website. The SafeSport center handles ALL reports of sexual abuse within the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Movements. Competitors are encouraged to make a report to if they have a reasonable suspicion of sexual misconduct such as child sex abuse, non-consensual sexual conduct, sexual harassment or intimate relationships involving an imbalance of power. Allegations are not, and should not be taken lightly.

While there are valid concerns that an influx in reporting can create a witch-hunt atmosphere for falsely accused, a reporting mechanism is inarguably necessary. Sanctions increase transparency and demand accountability from the professionals in our sport and follow an exhaustive investigation. In April of 2018, the equestrian world read in horror as Olympian Ann Kursinski detailed her experience as an 11-year-old girl who suffered 6-years of continual rape and molestation from her equestrian coach Jimmy Williams. While many may continue to debate the fairness of stripping Mr. Williams of his accolades posthumously, his victims and the hundreds of athletes that witnessed him kissing and groping young girls, recognize the importance of Safe Sport sanctions. 

For SafeSport to have a chance, athletes need to believe in its influence. Otherwise we will run into the same issues that plague law enforcement, child services, Title IX officers, and human resources departments: victims who avoid reporting to enforcement offices that they view prioritize the reputations of the institutions over the individual athletes. It is not surprising that in the few months following the mandatory online training, USEF is functioning like an underfunded and overworked DA’s office, that it may employ people who are under-qualified, or that it has been heavily influenced by people who appear to care more about the image of USEF and preventing lawsuits than protecting children. But, you could easily adopt the same cynicism when looking at numerous child welfare agencies currently active across the country.

This cynicism, when coupled with a collective resignation that SafeSport is useless, is self-serving to those who refuse to accept the industry needs to change. Transparency, funding and education are all positive components to this movement to create a safer sport, even if the road gets a bit bumpy. We, as a culture, are in the thick of one of the most transformative times for sexual harassment protections, every industry is feeling the impact of these changes. As a sport with hundreds of confirmed cases of child molestation in its history, we cannot stand on a soapbox and decry regulations that are necessary (and mandated) to protect rising equestrian youths. 

Author Erin Prutow, Esq. is an equine law attorney who assists horse owners with their businesses, estate planning and employment law needs. She graduated summa cum laude from Oklahoma State University where she was captain of the nationally ranked equestrian team. She received her juris doctorate from Emory University School of Law before relocating to Southern California. A Pennsylvania native, she has been training and showing in the hunters and jumpers her entire life, most recently enjoying her saint of an equitation horse, competing in the AAs.