A group responsible for oversight of amateur sports organizations has responded to more than 500 reports and inquiries in its first year — and banned 122 people from working in youth sports.
The United States Center for Safe Sport opened on March 3, 2017.
The profile of the small, little-known organization based in Denver got a boost after Congress passed the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017. The law, signed on Feb. 14, expands the list of people who are required to report wrongdoing and adds tougher penalties for not reporting. It also gave the center jurisdiction over each national sportsgoverning body with regards to safeguarding athletes against abuse.
“If one child is abused as part of their sports experience, that’s one too many,” said Shellie Pfohl, the center’s president and CEO.
From those 506 reports and inquiries, the center investigated more than 250. It can hand down sanctions from a warning to permanent ineligibility. Its toughest penalties — loss of privileges, suspension and permanent ineligibility — are posted in a searchable database, allowing interested parents or athletes to find out if their coach or trainer has been sanctioned.
In its first year, the center banned 122 people, temporarily suspended 60 and delivered 10 sanctions short of ineligibility.
The center’s reach extends well beyond the top-level Olympic athletes. It extends down to the grassroots level, as any league or club associated with the parent sports organization falls under the center’s purview. It covers more than 13 million athletes, coaches, officials, physicians and trainers.
Nathan Weddle, former head coach of the Raleigh Area Swim Team, is on the banned list. Weddle was arrested in December and charged with 13 counts of statutory sex offenses, accused of having sex with a 15-year-old girl. It is a violation of the Safe Sport code to be convicted of or subject to a criminal disposition for a crime involving any form of sexual misconduct or a crime involving a minor.
Two former South Carolina coaches are on the banned list: Daniel Brown, a former fencing coach, from Greer; and James Buchen, a former karate coach, from Huger. Both faced criminal charges that led to them being placed on the banned list.
The Center for Safe Sport deals with abuse of any kind, not just sexual. Sexual abuse of young athletes, however, has made headlines in recent months, including with the conviction of former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. More than 250 young women spoke of abuse by Nassar at his sentencing.
In February, Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, joined a group of senators calling for special committee to investigate how Nassar was able to abuse gymnasts for decades. Sens. Jean Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, and Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, led the effort, but the committee has not yet formed as they are seeking more support for their resolution. It currently has 18 co-sponsors.
“These children that probably from the time they were walking were working to realize that dream of being an Olympian have had this dream actually turned into a nightmare,” Tillis said. “We have a responsibility for oversight, and we should do everything we can to figure out what systemic problems exist in the USOC (United States Olympic Committee) that need to be fixed and people need to be held accountable.”
The scandals have not been limited to gymnastics. Two USA Swimming officials resigned recently after news that the organization ignored reports of abuse. The executive director of USA Taekwondo resigned under pressure in September after questions about his handling of misconduct cases were reported by USA Today.
The Center for Safe Sport has nine full-time employees and several investigators that work on contracts. Pfohl hopes to double the organization’s workforce this year and increase its budget from its current $4.3 million to about $8 million.
The center is independent from the USOC, but gets funding from the committee as well as each of 49 national governing bodies, such as USA Gymnastics, that oversee each sport in the country. USA Baseball, based in Durham, is among the bodies covered by the center.
Safe Sport also receives funding from the private sector and is hoping to work with Congress to identify additional funding sources.
“Our goal is to be an independent, confidential and professional place for individuals to come forth and report,” Pfohl said. “By the volume of the calls that we’re getting, individuals are understanding that we exist and they feel confident and comfortable calling us.”
The inaugural international Safe Sport conference will be held in Madrid in April.
Pfohl said her organization is not just about investigations and punishment. It wants to improve awareness and education to prevent not only sexual abuse, but bullying, harassment, hazing and physical and emotional abuse.
She said children need to be educated about what proper behavior from their coaches and trainers looks like, and parents need to ask questions about policies and procedures, such as their organization’s policy on background checks and if they have two adults present at all times, which the Center for Safe Sport recommends as a best practice.
“Parents should be empowered to ask these questions,” said Pfohl, a former college softball player. “I know the positive benefits that sport can bring. My passion is around wanting everyone to have that positive experience in sport.’
U.S. Center for Safe Sport
To find out more or search the database, go to safesport.org