U.S. Center for SafeSport CEO Ju’Riese Colon, who recently took the helm of the organization charged with investigating allegations of abuse in sport, testified at a hearing on athlete safety before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on Wednesday.
SafeSport, which opened its doors in March 2017, stands at a critical juncture. Colon’s appearance on Capitol Hill comes at a time when lawmakers are waiting to debate proposed legislation -- written by two senators who spearheaded a wide-ranging investigation of abuse in Olympic sports last year -- that would significantly bolster her organization with millions of dollars of what she says is much-needed additional annual funding.
Wednesday’s hearing, while not directly tied to that proposed legislation, is scheduled to be a discussion about “athlete safety and the integrity of U.S. sport.” Colon was invited to testify alongside the heads of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the National Athletic Trainers’ Association.
As high-profile cases have vaulted the issue of sexual abuse and misconduct in sport into a matter of grave public concern, SafeSport has been dogged by questions from athletes and their advocates who doubt the organization’s independence and effectiveness.
Colon sought to assuage those doubts on Wednesday.
“The Center has come a long way,” Colon said in her opening remarks. “We have developed policies where there were none. We have provided a mechanism for athletes to seek resolution. We have required training where it was once rarely utilized. We have held hundreds of individuals accountable for causing harm. And, as a result, we are leading the charge in changing the culture of sport.”
Several prominent attorneys who have represented elite athletes in sexual abuse cases remain highly skeptical of SafeSport’s ability to adequately address the problem of abuse in sports.
John Manly, an attorney whose firm represents many of the victims of disgraced USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, has emerged as SafeSport’s fiercest -- but by no means only -- critic.
“SafeSport is an organization devoted to one thing: protecting the USOC,” Manly told ABC News and ESPN. “Congress has to decide whether they’re going to be complicit or not.”
Jon Little, an Indianapolis-based attorney who has represented several clients against national governing bodies in suits over their handling of abuse allegations, echoed those concerns, saying SafeSport is still “bent on protecting” sports institutions and the people who work for them.
“The goal of SafeSport is to gather information to mitigate the criminal and civil liability of the coaches it certifies, protects and controls,” Little told ABC News and ESPN. “No matter how much [money] you give them, as long as the purpose is wrong, it’s pointless."
On Wednesday, Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, asked Colon to address the issue of independence directly, and she responded by highlighting the organization's pledge not to hire anyone who has recently worked for the USOPC or one of the national governing bodies.
“Independence is very important to us,” Colon said. “It is certainly something that has been called into question before, but we have done everything we can, I think, to ensure that independence.”
And in response to questions from ABC News and ESPN, SafeSport spokesperson Dan Hill defended the organization and its work.
“SafeSport and its employees are independent from the [U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee] and [national governing bodies]. They do not report to those entities,” Hill said. “The Center has its own governance, oversight and policies. Since opening its doors … 627 individuals have been sanctioned by the Center, including high-profile athletes, coaches and figures in their sport.”
Hill suggested that some of SafeSport’s critics are “working to undermine the Center’s mission” for personal and professional gain, but he acknowledged “the right of parties to seek counsel and to pursue their own personal interests outside of sport.”
“But we believe,” he said, “those interests and ours can and should co-exist.”
Colon took over as CEO in July 2019 following the departure of the organization’s original top executive Shellie Pfohl in December 2018. Colon inherited an organization with a modest budget and a small staff struggling to keep pace with the number of claims requiring investigation and to maintain the trust of the athlete community it aims to serve.
SafeSport, through its spokesperson Hill, declined requests from ABC News and ESPN to make Colon available for an interview, but she spoke at length about her new role on a recent episode of a sports industry podcast.
The organization receives more than 200 reports per month, Colon said in October, and currently has about 1,200 open investigations, the majority of which involve allegations of sexual abuse of children. About half of her 40 employees are devoted to clearing that backlog, she said, and adding more investigators is one of her top priorities for 2020.
Colon, a longtime child safety advocate who previously served in executive roles at the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, obviously has a deep background in child abuse education and prevention, but her investigative experience appears to be limited.
“As for the CEO, the Center sought a well-rounded leader to oversee all aspects of the Center’s mandate, which includes education, awareness and prevention policies,” Hill said. “She has been around and supported the investigative process most of her career and has the leadership qualities, skills and passion the Center was looking for.”
The majority of SafeSport’s funding is provided by the U.S. Olympic Committee, but the organization also receives “a significant portion” of its budget from the national governing bodies, Colon said, and she is actively involved in ongoing discussions with their leaders as they “collectively” determine how much financial support they should provide to their own watchdog.
For Manly, Colon’s fundraising from the national governing bodies creates the potential of a conflict of interest.
“That tells you everything you need to know,” Manly told ABC News and ESPN. “We’re going to hold people accountable with money from the people we need to hold accountable? It is an utterly broken system because it was never designed to work.”
According to Hill, however, SafeSport’s independence is protected by its policies regardless of the sources of its funding.
“There are many … who believe that the sports and USOPC must be invested in solving these issues,” Hill said. “One might ask, if they do not fund the Center, who will?”
Some of the biggest challenges facing SafeSport were on display in its failed attempt to remove once-celebrated figure skating coach Richard Callaghan from his sport.
Callaghan, who has coached some of the world’s most decorated skaters, was initially banned for life in August 2019 following an 18-month investigation into his conduct sparked by allegations of sexual abuse reported to SafeSport by his former student and colleague Craig Maurizi. Callaghan, who has repeatedly denied those allegations, appealed that decision to an arbitrator, who lifted the ban and instead imposed a three-year suspension, 15-year probation and 100 hours of community service for non-sexual misconduct toward other skaters.
Last month, ABC News and ESPN obtained confidential documents that revealed that the arbitrator who reviewed SafeSport’s investigation of Callaghan lifted his lifetime ban despite agreeing with the investigators’ conclusion that Callaghan had sexually, physically and emotionally abused young skaters.
Callaghan’s actions, the arbitrator wrote in his hearing decision, were “deplorable and unbecoming of a coach in the Olympic movement,” adding that “sexual activity with a minor … has no place in sport.” He decided, however, that, because procedural rules regarding conduct that preceded SafeSport’s existence dictated that he rely on the standards of that time, he applied what he called “an absurd and draconian” since-repealed law adopted in New York in 1980, which required “corroboration” for certain sexual offenses.
Without a witness to, or other corroborating evidence of, the sexual abuse, in other words, his hands were tied. Callaghan, he decided, could return to the ice in 2022.
“I’m shocked and disappointed,” Maurizi told ABC News and ESPN. “SafeSport was put in place to stop predators. But, in my case, they did just the opposite.”
In an earlier statement, SafeSport said that while it might not agree with this particular arbitrator’s decision, the arbitration process itself is an essential component of its operation.
“In the matter of Richard Callaghan, the Center stands behind its thorough investigation and decision to issue a lifetime ban,” SafeSport said in a statement. “Even when the Center disagrees with the outcome, it must respect the arbitration process as it is essential to maintaining fairness and SafeSport’s authority to pursue these matters.”
Callaghan’s case is not the only time an arbitrator’s decision to overturn a SafeSport sanction has sparked controversy.
Similar stories in taekwondo, weightlifting and cycling have raised a similar concern: the arbitration proceedings and the investigations that precede them are considered private and confidential, so the rationale behind those decisions remain largely hidden from public view, even as alleged offenders return to competition or coaching.
Stephen Estey, a San Diego-based attorney representing three former taekwondo athletes in a potentially landmark case against the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee in California, called SafeSport’s policy “the opposite of transparent.”
“Why wouldn’t SafeSport want these decisions to be public?” Estey told ABC News and ESPN. “You would want everyone to know the facts, so that parents can make their own informed decisions. Even if an arbitrator overturns a ban, at least the facts will be available so people can say, ‘Is this someone I want around my kid?’”
Hill argued that the confidential process was designed not to shield abusers but to protect victims and witnesses.
“There are many reasons why victims of abuse do not want their stories shared publicly and it’s not something SafeSport or any entity should take lightly,” Hill said. “Public disclosure of the personal and sensitive details of sexual abuse would undoubtedly reduce reports and negatively impact the Center’s ability to fulfill its mission.”
But SafeSport’s biggest challenges is arguably the distrust of the organization among some of the leading attorneys who represent the athletes who fall under its jurisdiction.
Manly, Little and Estey all told ABC News and ESPN that, as a rule, they recommend that their clients do not participate in SafeSport investigations or arbitration hearings, a stance SafeSport spokesperson Hill previously called “unacceptable" and said the organization was "looking into."
On the eve of Colon’s testimony, however, Hill went one step further.
“A failure to report,” Hill said, “could be a violation of the SafeSport Code.”
Pete Madden is an investigative producer for ABC News. Dan Murphy is a staff writer for ESPN.