Hunter/Jumper

Equestrian Sport 2019: The New Reality for Everyone, an Interview with US Equestrian and Safesport

Our culture, our way of life, our entire world is structured along certain consistencies and absolutes that people rely and depend upon to live their lives.

People wake up every day knowing (generally) how their day is going to go, what issues will likely arise and need to be dealt with, things to look forward to and things to dread. Politicians will be critical of each other, a famous couple will fall in love and then get divorced, Tom Brady will win another Super Bowl. Absolutes like these help to govern and structure our society and provide stability in our way of thinking. Each day, people have a good idea of what to appreciate and what they are going to complain about.

Sometimes though, the lines of culture blur and sometimes those lines are trampled and crushed. An event can happen that changes reality not just for an individual but for a society.

In show jumping circles in North America, and truly worldwide, the name that everyone knows is George Morris. For everyone reading this, he has had some form of influence on their association with horses, whether that be from coaching, reading, influencing the American style of riding, watching him compete, or simply cheering on the American team. The news that this icon of the sport has been given a lifetime ban has conjured a reaction of massive proportions. 

George Morris, America’s most popular clinician, will likely never teach again!

The fact that this pronouncement comes from an organization that many people know very little about has sent the horse world reeling. We are accustomed to our heroes falling from grace, hearing a Judge pronounce a guilty verdict, seeing the victim(s) earn some measure of solace.

Our culture is not used to seeing life-altering, and sometimes life-ending, declarations made from an unseen voice, an unknown method of procedure, a never before heard of level of punishment. They are not used to not knowing the alleged victim(s), not taking sides, not debating the issue, not being heard.

This is brand new territory and people on both sides of the issue are feeling strong emotions.

Both US Equestrian and Safe Sport have taken the time to answer questions about this topic. I have received hundreds of questions from people about this issue and have done my best to incorporate these thoughts into this interview.

First is the list of questions I sent to SafeSport, they requested that this was done by email. Obviously, I prefer a personal interview, which allows me to follow up on questions, but that was not an option. I feel that these questions were very fair and the intent was to provide information for all of you. Unfortunately, the response to my questions was, shall we say, unsatisfactory.

  1. When I first heard of Safe Sport my assumption was that it was to protect minors from sexual predators in today’s world. It seems that the cases the public hears about are from past offenses, some even 50 years in the past. What is the ratio of alleged past crimes to current alleged misconduct?
  2. The general federal statute of limitations for felonies stand for the proposition that the government can no longer file criminal charges for an offense once five years has passed. Why does this not apply to Safe Sport?
  3. The public perception is that according to Safe Sport policy if you are accused of misconduct then you are guilty until proven innocent. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 11, states: “Everyone charged with a penal offense has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense.” Does Safe Sport actually do the opposite of this Declaration or is public opinion incorrect?
  4. Does Safe Sport provide counseling and programs for the people that have been confirmed to be victims of sexual abuse?
  5. If you are a victim, what are the requirements to provide proof of sexual misconduct against you? If you are the accused, how do you prove that there was no illegal action? In the case of an alleged crime 50 years ago, I assume there is no DNA, video, or even picture evidence?
  6. Does the office of Safe Sport feel that the cultural environment they are helping to create is safer and healthier for the youth of today and future athletes?
  7. Has Safe Sport accomplished what it was created to do? What potential changes would the administration like to see to improve the Safe Sport program?
  8. What are the consequences for a person who makes a false accusation? Do they become responsible for the legal fees of the accused? Are they responsible for reparations to the business and reputation of the person wrongly named?
  9. In a crucial time of mistrust of authority in America, there is a (perceived) veil of secrecy regarding the investigations that Safe Sport conducts. What is the reasoning and logic behind the lack of transparency? I assume it is to protect the alleged victim and encourage people to come forward with their stories, which is understandable. However, that creates a sense of misunderstanding and actual fear among the public. The term “witch hunt” is used often in regards to what is happening. How do you respond to this perception?

This is the response I received:

Thank you very much for your patience! I’ve attached the Center’s response, from its CEO Ju’Riese Colon, to your questions. Many of the questions dealt with details of a specific case. It’s the Center’s policy not to comment on specific matters. We do this to protect the integrity of the process and the privacy of the individuals involved, including parties reporting abuse. As a result, we’ve combined the answers we could provide into a single piece.Please let me know if you have any questions or comments.

As you can see I did not speak of any specific case, I thought the questions were pretty good actually. So while this article is not about condoning SafeSport, or supporting it, I will say their reply has left me frustrated. I wrote this to help inform and educate people and while there is some good information in the response below, it really is not all that I was looking for.

About the U.S. Center for SafeSport

The U.S. Center for SafeSport, an independent nonprofit organization, opened its doors two and a half years ago to respond to and prevent allegations of abuse in sport. Authorized by Congress, the Center investigates allegations of sexual, physical and emotional abuse in organizations under the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) and recognized National Governing Bodies (NGBs), including local clubs, national teams, and those in between — representing about 14 million athletes, coaches, trainers and others involved in sport.

While the Center largely focuses on investigating allegations of abuse, prevention education is core to our mission. Since opening its doors, the Center has trained more than 800,000 people to recognize red flags, understand appropriate boundaries, and report abuse to the Center. This comprehensive training is available online and in-person, and engages athletes, coaches, and others to understand their responsibility to report abuse and misconduct. Additionally, through its investigative process, the Center has resolved more than 1,700 matters, finding violations in 551 cases and rendering 285 people permanently ineligible to participate in sports under the USOPC’s and NGBs’ umbrella.

Our team of subject matter experts develops best practices, policies and trainings, and regularly consults with researchers and leading organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Investigators have a wealth of experience and include former prosecutors FBI, NCIS, child protection services, Title IX, and other fields, making them uniquely qualified to conduct thorough and effective investigations. Many of the Center staff have also competed and coached and care deeply about the integrity of sports and the well-being of its participants.

Why is the Center Necessary? 

For decades, major institutions — sports, religion, entertainment and more — have had a responsibility to keep people in their community safe, but unfortunately, abuse persisted. Those who disclosed were often disbelieved or ignored, which discouraged others from ever reporting abuse. That’s why, in part, the SafeSport Code does not put a statute of limitations on reporting abuse. Anyone who comes forward to report abuse should be heard, regardless of when it happened. 

How does the Center’s Process Work?

The Center’s processes and policies (available here) define abuse, and clearly outline how the Center investigates allegations and how those accused can participate in the process to defend themselves. It’s important to keep in mind that the Center is not a government entity, has no legal authority and imposes no legal penalties. While its policies and processes are transparent, safeguarding the identities of those that come forward and disclose is critical. As a result, the Center does not comment on individual matters. To ensure people continue to report abuse, they need to be able to do so free from fear of retaliation and harassment.

We are often asked about false reporting, but research indicates it is rare. According to one landmark study that included reporting data from a major Northeastern university, false reports of sexual assault account for 2-10% of total reports. Still, the Center takes concerns about false reports seriously and has safeguards in place to prevent the system from being misused. In addition to conducting thorough investigation, the SafeSport Code prohibits false reporting, which the Center enforces.

Upon receiving an allegation of abuse, the Center reaches out to those individuals that have been accused and provides details of the process to ensure all parties understand that they can offer evidence and witnesses, retain an advisor, such as a lawyer, and appeal any decision the Center issues. Those accused of abuse are also provided information regarding the specific allegations, and if possible, the identity of the reporter. Throughout the process, investigators interview both parties, witnesses, review relevant evidence, such as photos and text messages, well before issuing any decisions. 

At any time throughout the process, the Center may issue temporary sanctions out of an abundance of caution. Temporary measures are common tools in other institutions, similar to administrative leave for teachers, police officers, and other professionals facing charges of misconduct. It’s important to note that temporary measures do not represent a finding of misconduct, and that measures can always be appealed through independent arbitration.

Athletes at all levels of competition deserve to participate in sports that are free from sexual, physical and emotional abuse. That’s why the U.S. Center for SafeSport was created. And while the Center makes more and more progress every day, it will take a team to eliminate abuse in sports.

US Equestrian was much more accommodating. Vicki Lowell responded to my questions in a timely manner and thanked me for getting the word out on this important topic.

Jay Duke: When Safe Sport was first enacted, did US Equestrian foresee or prepare for the possibility of the current state of affairs amongst its membership? 

Vicki Lowell: USEF anticipated that the U.S. Center for SafeSport would remove barriers to reporting due to its independence from the sports organizations and the USOPC and thereby reports of misconduct would dramatically increase. 

JD: Many people are asking if “non-Olympic” participants can be separated from the Team members so that Safe Sport does not apply to them. Is this a legal possibility? If it is an option, would US Equestrian wish to do this? 

VL: USEF values the safety of its non-Olympic participants the same as its Olympic participants. USEF’s aim is to ensure a safe environment for everyone to participate regardless of your preferred breed or discipline.  Athlete protection, education and training, mandatory reporting, investigation and resolution are not unique to Olympic sports.  

JD: Does US Equestrian feel that Safe Sport has had a positive effect on its members and the sport of Show Jumping? With the new Safe Sport policies being enforced, coaches are now wary to spend any time alone with a minor under any circumstance. Many have said they will no longer work with children. Is the environment today safer and healthier for the equestrians of today and future participants? 

VL: US Equestrian believes that an educated community is better equipped to be effective in creating and maintaining a safe environment for athletes of all ages.  Currently, over 58,000 USEF senior active members have successfully completed the SafeSport training.  We encourage members with concerns or questions to contact the U.S. Center for SafeSport or USEF and to read the U.S. Center for SafeSport code and policies available on the USEF and U.S. Center for SafeSport websites.  

JD: Does US Equestrian feel it is properly supporting its members, both juniors and adults, in regards to understanding and coping with the new reality of the Equestrian world in 2019 under a program such as Safe Sport? What is the plan, if any, for the next year to increase knowledge and awareness of Safe Sport? 

VL: US Equestrian understands that the implementation of the Safe Sport requirements has been challenging for everyone. New programs continuously evolve, especially in the early years of their development and implementation, and Safe Sport is not immune from changes to requirements and federal law. We have and will continue to communicate the requirements and any changes to our members using a variety of methods including direct mail and email, print publications, e-newsletters, social media, FAQs, resources on our website and in-person town halls. There is a tremendous amount of misinformation being propagated through social media, chat rooms and forums. We urge any members who have questions about Safe Sport to please contact the U.S. Center for SafeSport or USEF and your inquiry will be answered.  

JD: For the cases that have resulted in suspension, are there programs provided by US Equestrian for the victims of sexual misconduct or bullying to deal with the trauma they have experienced? 

VL: USEF just launched a Member Benefit Program for mental health services that provides professional counseling to our members who may be experiencing emotional or other distress. All members are eligible for the benefits the program offers and is no additional cost to our members. 

JD: If there is a proven false allegation, are there repercussions against the accuser? Are they financially responsible for reparations towards the accused from a business perspective and public image damages? 

VL: Filing a knowingly false allegation that a participant engaged in conduct prohibited under the U.S. Center for SafeSport Code may violate state criminal law and civil defamation laws. Any person under the Center’s jurisdiction who does so is subject to disciplinary action by the Center. 

JD: Bullying is a huge issue in our sport and society in general. On the US Equestrian suspended list there are no violations or suspensions for bullying even though it is covered under the SafeSport mandate. My readers talk constantly about this being paramount in the sport. Certainly, I have experienced it and so have my daughters in the Equestrian world. What, if anything, is US Equestrian doing to help and protect its members from bullying? 

VL: US Equestrian’s Safe Sport Policy prohibits bullying, and we take such reports very seriously. We aim to educate our members on how to identify bullying behaviors and how to differentiate bullying from personal conflicts. We’ve requested that the U.S. Center for SafeSport produce additional educational resources that focus on bullying behaviors. If you have any questions please contact USEF if you have any questions.

Read more interviews and articles by Jay at jayduke.com. Follow him on Instagram at jaydukeq and Facebook Jay Duke Equestrian.