Like a crack of lightning splits the earth, the suicide of popular U.S. show jumper Robert Gage has shocked the horse world into a SafeSport schism, bringing to light the divided opinions, misguided assumptions and rampant speculations on either side of an initiative meant to protect athletes.
In February, Gage was banned for life from United States Equestrian Federation rated competition and sanctioned activities by the U.S. Center for SafeSport due to sexual misconduct involving a minor. He appealed the decision, but took his own life days before the L.A. hearing for his case was scheduled to take place.
Gage’s death, and the conversations thereafter, exemplify the tensions between the #metoo movement and due process, raising difficult questions around how to best support victims while upholding the constitutional notion of innocent until proven guilty.
It’s also become abundantly clear that the public understanding of SafeSport is anything but. The community is now questioning how the policy works, if it’s fair, and whether it does more harm than good. So far the answer’s been shrugging shoulders and shaking heads—even among those who support the mandate.
Olympic gold medalist and World Cup champion Mclain Ward is a SafeSport advocate. In a long Facebook post he detailed an internal conflict that is shared by many following this case and conceded that he struggles to understand a policy that is mired in confidentiality clauses.
“To be honest most of us have almost no idea how safe sport [sic] works, who and where the mandates come from and who is charged with investigating and determining the steps taken,” wrote Ward.
What is known for certain is that Gage’s death and the alleged incidents leading up to it are tragic from all angles.
The road to SafeSport was paved with good intentions. Originating as a congressional mandate, it was adopted by the U.S. Olympic Committee in response to the USA Gymnastics Larry Nassar scandal.
The legislation was designed by Nancy Hogshead-Maker, an Olympic Swimmer and sexual assault survivor, to fight the “No Duty Law,” which states that a person or organization has no duty to protect another from obvious harm. It’s the same rule USA Gymnastics was hiding behind until nearly 300 women stepped forward and shared their harrowing stories. With the world hanging on the words of Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman, the frightening scale of abuse in sports was thrust into the spotlight.
The equestrian industry, too, sees rampant misconduct in shadowy barn aisles that contrast the 8am arena bustle. It’s thrived in the “hush, hush” culture, and is only now beginning to be regulated and discussed.
By and large, the concept of SafeSport has been widely embraced by the equestrian community—ensuring athletes train and compete in a safe environment is an initiative most view as decades overdue. Where critics take issue are the holes in the legislation, and it’s possible Gage’s death is a result.
That’s because SafeSport doesn’t follow due process of law like the U.S. judicial system. In fact, even if charges are dropped and the accused is acquitted in a court of law, SafeSport can still issue sanctions against that individual.
What SafeSport does have are stringent protocols in place for cases of a sexual nature. As soon as a sexual assault report is filed with USEF, both law authorities and the U.S. Center for SafeSport are alerted. It is then out of USEF’s hands. If the Center believes the facts and circumstances warrant investigation, the accused is placed on a temporary suspension while the case is investigated. The Center handles the investigation and final ruling, and the USEF is notified and tasked with carrying out the decision.
What that SafeSport investigation entails, however, and how the final ruling is determined is less clear. A USEF SafeSport representative was not available for interview prior to publication.
Vicki Lowell, USEF Chief Marketing and Content Officer, did issue the following statement about Gage’s case:
“Rob Gage’s death was a shock to the equestrian community. USEF was notified on 2/1/19 by the U.S. Center for SafeSport (the Center) that Rob Gage was permanently ineligible to participate in the sport following a full investigation by the Center for sexual misconduct involving a minor. The Center completed their investigation and issued sanctions in accordance with their jurisdiction over cases involving sexual misconduct. The decision was under appeal. Details of the Center’s investigation remain confidential to protect the reporting parties and the responding party.”
That last detail, the lack of transparency, is a serious point of contention among SafeSport critics. There is no hearing before an independent arbitrator for an individual accused and under investigation of sexual misconduct until after the final decision is made. Only then can an appeal be lodged.
SafeSport, though, feels their system allows the accused adequate opportunity to counter the claim by allowing them to present information and evidence throughout the investigation process. In Gage’s case, they also maintain that their investigation was thorough, and their verdict of permanent ineligibility supported by sufficient evidence. In an email-issued statement received on June 17th, SafeSport wrote:
“The United States Center for SafeSport made Robert Gage permanently ineligible to participate in sport based on its finding that he engaged in sexual misconduct involving minors. Permanent ineligibility is the harshest sanction the Center can impose and is reserved for the most egregious offenses. Sanctions should not be confused with temporary measures. The sanction issued here was implemented following an exhaustive investigation, and decision process, that found sexual misconduct involving a number of minors. The Respondent, Mr. Gage, had multiple opportunities to provide information and evidence as part of a robust investigative process, and would have had the opportunity to contest the findings at a hearing before an independent arbitrator.”
There’s also no public record of the hearing, even in a redacted form, which makes it all but impossible for outside parties, the public included, to form an educated opinion on a case.
Gage, as noted, did file an appeal. That hearing was scheduled for June 17. Close friend and fellow coach, Bernie Traurig, a veteran member of the U.S. equestrian team, said Gage phoned him last week distraught after learning a second individual had come forward and SafeSport had requested a continuance to his appeal.
Another key point of differentiation with SafeSport is that there is no statute of limitations on the amount of time permitted for a victim to file a complaint. In the judicial system, this statute varies from state to state. Currently, there are seven states that have abolished the statute of limitations for all felony sex crimes. So, while SafeSport isn’t in the majority they also aren’t alone. In Gage’s case, the incidents allegedly occurred over 30 years ago.
The reasoning behind this SafeSport clause is that time passed does not minimize the crime or the victim’s experience. The consideration is not in how long ago the alleged event took place. Just that it did.
SafeSport addressed this point in a statement, which reads:
“The Center does not have a statute of limitations, as we disagree with those who seek to invalidate abuse that occurred many years ago. To change the culture of sport, individuals must be held accountable for their behavior, regardless of how long ago it occurred. The Center recognizes just how difficult it is for victims of sexual abuse to come forward, no matter the circumstances; the trauma of abuse is bad enough, which is why the Center works so hard to protect their privacy, allowing them to speak on their own terms, when and if they so choose.”
Once a complaint is lodged, if SafeSport finds the report is substantial enough to warrant an investigation, the accused is placed on interim suspension during the investigation. This, too, is standard practice for teachers, police officers and politicians. Their names are also released to the public, which has adverse ramifications on their reputation and often on their ability to earn an income.
According to Traurig, Gage was under financial and emotional duress in the weeks and months leading up to his death.
“He had suffered a great deal,” wrote Traurig. “Loss of his income for a year, dipping into his retirement fund to sustain himself, his reputation tarnished, his girlfriend working two shifts until 1 am as a vet, and the mental anguish he carried.”
But then anguish is the common thread for all involved, not just those who cared for the amicable trainer but also for his alleged victims and those of sexual assault at large.
Because Gage was so well liked, the individuals who came forward have been subject to intense backlash online. They also had to bare witness to an outpouring of support for their alleged abuser. According to a representative for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL), a victim would almost undoubtedly experience a decline in mental health after seeing their alleged abuser put on a pedestal by their own community.
And then there’s the spinoff vitriol.
Without an identifiable victim—all details of SafeSport accusers are kept under wraps to protect the victim—some supporters of Gage have attacked the women who came forward last year with allegations of sexual abuse against former hall-of-famer Jimmy Williams.
Others level the blame, at least in part, on the USEF.
Devilyn Wallin, a long-time friend of Gage, believes he was “bullied” by USEF, and the way in which the case was handled directly resulted in his death.
“Rob was an extremely sensitive person. I think only people that knew him knew how deeply he felt things, [and] he has dedicated his life to his sport, he was in a really amazing point at his career and there is absolutely no other reason for him to feel this desperate,” said Wallin.
A petition is currently in circulation that calls for USEF members to refrain from renewing their membership to the National Federation in November “if a significant and meaningful change is not made to ensure a full hearing on SafeSport allegations.” At the time of publication, the petition had over 2000 signatures.
On the other side are Gage’s detractors, who suggest his suicide may be an admission of guilt. But again, according to the NSPL, that is not necessarily an accurate deduction.
“Suicide isn’t usually something that’s in the heat of the moment,” said a representative of NSPL who asked that their name not be used. “It’s a progression of feeling like there is no more hope, no future, and nothing good left to come.”
For Gage and famed figure skater John Coughlin, who at age 33 also died by suicide following SafeSport allegations, there is no future. Good may still come yet though.
One lesson that may be taken away from the deaths of these two men and the discourse they’ve raised, it’s that accusers and the accused suffer without clear process. In the absence of a transparent investigation, there is little to support public trust in a system that levels wide and sweeping jurisdiction over the careers of industry professionals.
Ward, perhaps, put it best in his Facebook post:
“I hope that Robs [sic] death along with the frankly shocking stories of abuses within our sport align us as a community to pull down the curtain on not only an ugly underbelly of misconduct but the process in which we use to address that conduct.”
*This story has been updated to include a statement from the Center of SafeSport that was received on June 17, and to a clarify a point on the investigation process. Further updates will be made with the emergence of new information in this developing story.*