U.S. Center for SafeSport was created to protect athletes from abuse. But is it working?

Rory Dames is mentioned almost 400 times in Sally Yates’ voluminous report on abuse in women’s soccer. The specific details of his abuse, and how the former Chicago Red Stars and elite youth coach was allowed to get away with it for so long, take up 38 of the 172 pages.

Verbal tirades. Emotional abuse and manipulation. A sexualized environment at Dames’ youth club that included talking to teenage girls about oral sex and foreplay. Demeaning treatment of his NWSL players, some of whom were talented enough to play for the four-time World Cup champion U.S. women.

“All current and former (Red Stars) players that we interviewed reported that Dames engaged in … excessive shouting, belittling, threatening, humiliating, scapegoating, rejecting, isolating or ignoring players,” Yates wrote in her report. “As (Red Stars) player Samantha Johnson put it, at the Chicago Red Stars, 'abuse was part of the culture.’”

In response to the abuse allegations, U.S. Soccer stripped Dames of his coaching license in January 2022. It also reported him to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which Congress has tasked with protecting young athletes, from the rec leagues to the Olympic level, by punishing those who would do them harm and getting them out of sports.

Yet nearly 18 months later, SafeSport’s investigation of Dames remains ongoing. The Center also lifted U.S. Soccer’s suspension of Dames and modified the restrictions on him.

“Obviously the allegations (against Dames) were very public. But a lot of these allegations are not,” said Cindy Parlow Cone, president of U.S. Soccer.

In addition to returning Dames’ coaching license, U.S. Soccer said SafeSport has refused to share its reasons for closing other cases and prohibits the federation from doing any additional investigation.

MORE INFORMATION What is the U.S. Center for SafeSport and what does it do?

This means U.S. Soccer has no way of knowing whether there was merit to a complaint and an abuser is being returned to its ranks. And because SafeSport has exclusive jurisdiction over abuse cases, even if U.S. Soccer believes someone is a risk to athletes, they cannot bar him or her from the sport.

This despite Yates specifically recommending U.S. Soccer not rely solely on SafeSport to keep its athletes safe because of the delay in resolving cases and instead “should implement safety measures when necessary to protect players.”

“It’s not just important SafeSport gets this right, it’s important we all get this right. And that we all work together,” Cone said.

“I’m not interested in fighting with SafeSport,” she added. “Ultimately what’s at stake here are kids. We have a responsibility to make sure we’re providing as safe as possible an environment for kids and in order to do that, we need to share information.”

U.S. Soccer’s concerns are similar to what other sports governing bodies, advocates and attorneys on both sides of the process have been saying, often privately for fear of repercussions, almost since SafeSport opened in March 2017.

The criticisms have reached Congress, which has stepped in twice to give SafeSport both the authority to operate and additional funding to do so.

“We absolutely see a need for effective oversight to ensure the law is working as intended. We want to know where gaps exist and where policies and procedures can be strengthened to better protect players,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, who co-sponsored the Empowering Olympic, Paralympic and Amateur Athletes Act following an 18-month investigation into the abuse crisis in the Olympic movement, said in a joint statement to USA TODAY Sports.

The Act, which became law in 2020, requires the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee to contribute $20 million a year toward the Center for SafeSport’s operating costs, and increased the legal liability on the USOPC and sport governing bodies if abuse occurs.

In an interview with USA TODAY Sports, SafeSport CEO Ju’Riese Colon acknowledged the Center has made mistakes. It has taken steps to address them, she said, and will continue to do so.

“I think some (of the criticism) is unfair, but it’s not all unwarranted,” Colon said. “Behind every one of those numbers, the 8,000 reports we get, is a person, and that person has an individual experience. And it might have been great and it might have been terrible for them.

“I do think that we’ve changed a lot and we’ve listened. And we’ve gotten a lot better,” she said. “... If people didn’t trust the system, they wouldn’t call us. So I think that is just representative of how far we’ve come, but also of how far we have to go.”

What happens to abuse complaints

The Center for SafeSport has been criticized both for its low rate of resolution and its high rate of administrative closures, which occur when SafeSport decides there’s insufficient evidence or the victim chooses not to participate.

From mid-February of 2018 to June 30, 2020, SafeSport resolved 4,150 claims. Of those, 731 resulted in a formal resolution while more than twice as many, 1,498, were administratively closed. Put another way: Of the cases SafeSport resolved in that two-year-plus span, more than a third were closed at the Center’s discretion, with no requirement it provide further explanation.

Those figures, from a Government Accountability Office report at the end of 2020, are currently the most detailed available publicly. SafeSport does not keep updated statistics – how many cases have been filed, how many have been resolved, how many have been administratively closed, how many findings have been reversed or modified on appeal – on its website, something Colon said they are working to change.

Even more troubling, the Yates report pointed out that from June 1, 2020, through June 7, 2022, SafeSport administratively closed all but 25 of the 156 allegations of sexual misconduct involving U.S. Soccer participants that didn’t have a criminal disposition. That’s a whopping 84%.

“It’s very important we get (an explanation) or the decision on the merits in some of these cases where there isn’t a criminal charge,” said Alison Kocoras, U.S. Soccer’s vice president of safeguarding – response and welfare. “… Was this a text message? Exposure to sexual videos on text? Was it a sexual assault? We don’t get enough information.”

Colon said she could not address Yates' statistics on administrative closures because "we were not interviewed for the Yates report." In Yates' report, the former U.S. Attorney General said she and her team conducted "well over 200 interviews in total, including ... (with) representatives from the U.S. Center for SafeSport."

Colon did defend SafeSport's use of administrative closures, saying they allow the Center to re-open cases when a complainant is ready to participate. But the SafeSport Code specifically says a claimant does not have to participate, and allows for the Center to "make its decision based on the available evidence."

When SafeSport does do its own investigation, the case can drag on for months if not years, leaving both victim and accused in limbo. SafeSport does not comment on specific cases, but Colon said of the Center’s roughly 1,000 open cases, 28% are a year or more old.

That includes the case of fencer Alen Hadzic, who has been under investigation for sexual misconduct for more than two years – since before the Tokyo Olympics. An arbitrator has ordered USA Fencing to allow him to compete in some events until the case is resolved. The Morning Call newspaper in Allentown, Pennsylvania, reported late last month that longtime gymnastics coach John Holman, who’d been coaching under temporary restrictions since May 2019 following complaints of abuse by multiple athletes at the famed Parkettes gym, retired this spring with the investigation still ongoing.

“We found that the experiences of survivors in the investigation process were widely divergent. Some cases took years to resolve, some appeared to never be resolved, and many survivors/witnesses never received updates,” said Julie Ann Rivers-Cochran, executive director of The Army of Survivors (TAOS), an advocacy and support group for survivors of sexual abuse in sports.

Rivers-Cochran said TAOS doesn’t want cases closed simply to meet a deadline, but it recommends “at most 90 days,” unless the allegations are complex. The group also wants SafeSport to ensure complainants are informed at every step throughout the process, including being made aware of accommodations and protections available during the investigation.

Even that, though, won’t be enough for some to regain trust in SafeSport.

“I generally recommend to our clients don’t participate,” said John Manly, the attorney who represented Olympic champions Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney and many other survivors of Larry Nassar. As a physician for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State, Nassar sexually abused hundreds of girls and young women, often under the guise of medical treatment.

“It’s slow, cumbersome, biased and often handled incompetently,” Manly said. “Why would I ever entrust a survivor of sexual assault to them?”

Trying to make soccer safer

Following the Yates report, U.S. Soccer overhauled its player safety program, flipping its approach to prioritize the vetting of coaches rather than trying to weed them out after the fact. The governing body will require background checks and safety training for prospective coaches along with yearly verifications, and is strengthening its Codes of Conduct.

It formed a Participant Safety Taskforce to find and develop the most effective training and oversight methods, particularly for the youth level. It created an Office of Participant Safety to oversee both education efforts and reporting policies. U.S. Soccer is also moving to centralized registration, so the governing body will know who is participating, whether it’s a coach or an athlete, in all levels of the game.

And, following Yates’ recommendation, U.S. Soccer said it will use its licensing authority to keep abusers out of the sport. Having a license isn’t required to coach soccer but it does suggest a higher level of expertise or experience, and U.S. Soccer believes it can use that to curb bad behavior.

Rather than welcoming the efforts, however, U.S. Soccer feels SafeSport has put up barriers.

Colon said SafeSport wants to work with NGBs, advocates and anyone else to make the Center better and more effective. There is a limit, though.

“There’s a reason why the Center was given exclusive jurisdiction, and that’s because of decades of mishandling or just not handling allegations that came forward by NGBs,” she said. “So I would not feel comfortable giving NGBs that power back.”

But it’s imperative there be trust in the system. The stakes could not be higher.

While abuse cases involving Olympic-level and professional athletes have prompted national outrage, those athletes are a fraction of the kids and young adults playing sports in America. Most are playing soccer with their local park district, taking gymnastics classes two days a week or doing taekwondo after school, and their parents often aren’t even aware of SafeSport.

But abuse in sports is rooted in this environment. In her report, Yates noted the prevalence of verbal and emotional abuse in youth soccer “and players told us that … made it more difficult to determine what was out of bounds (later).”

In a 2021 survey of almost 300 current and former professional and Olympic-level athletes by World Players, 37% said they’d been physically abused at least once while in youth sports, 13% said they’d experienced sexual abuse and 61% said they’d suffered emotional abuse.

Nearly 70% said they hadn’t always been aware they had rights as young athletes.

Rivers-Cochran said the numbers are probably much higher, given the fear of retaliation that can occur when someone reports.

“Until all sports organizations accept and then act upon the fact that athletes are being abused within their systems, athletes will remain unsafe and kids will suffer the consequences of systems that fail to protect them,” she said.

Flooded with complaints

Few would dispute that SafeSport is overburdened and under-resourced.

SafeSport opened six months after Nassar was first accused publicly of sexual assault, and the Center quickly found itself inundated with complaints. In its first 18 months alone, SafeSport received about 1,800 complaints.

Yet the Center had a budget of less than $4 million when it opened, and one full-time investigator.

Colon said SafeSport now has a budget of $21 million and 117 staff members, about 60% of whom are involved in the response and resolution process. Even that isn’t enough, she said.

In addition to the 1,000 cases that remain open, Colon said SafeSport gets 150 new reports a week. That works out to 8,000 new cases this year. With the exception of 2020, when most sports went on hiatus at the start of the COVID pandemic, the number of cases SafeSport has gotten has increased every year since it opened.

“We’re managing with what we have right now,” Colon said. “If that trend (of rising cases) continues to grow, which I do think it will, fast forward to 2025, 2026, 2027, and we’re going to be in a not-so-great place.”

Blumenthal and Moran’s legislation requires the USOPC to give SafeSport $20 million a year, but that figure is not adjusted for inflation. The Center also sells its education programs to outside groups, and Colon said the Center is working to raise money from corporations and foundations.

But more is needed for SafeSport to be fully effective.

“I’ve gone from being disappointed in them to having sympathy for them,” said Steve McNally, who took over as executive director of USA Taekwondo after its previous leader departed amid criticism of his handling of abuse cases.

“That’s not necessarily good,” McNally added, “to be having sympathy for an organization that’s supposed to be handling such an important issue.”

Scant oversight

Aside from its delay in resolving cases, the biggest criticisms of SafeSport are about transparency and oversight.

Victims often complain of a lack of communication and sensitivity from SafeSport that leaves them disillusioned with the process. Or, worse, feeling revictimized.

They say they’ve been asked to tell their stories multiple times and are sometimes questioned in a way that seems to cast judgment on them and their trauma. One complainant told TAOS an investigator questioned how there could be a power imbalance if they and the alleged perpetrator had similar ranks.

They recount going months without any updates on the case, and years without a resolution.

“You’ve done zero follow-up with my clients in the last two years that reflects that you are doing any work at all to conclude your investigation, take appropriate action, and safeguard the community you were created to protect. Zero,” Jack Wiener, the attorney for several of the women who filed sexual abuse reports against Hadzic, wrote in an email sent this month to Deanna Young, a SafeSport investigator.

“You refer to my ‘continued patience.’ You misunderstand. I have no patience any longer. This inaction on SafeSport's part is inexcusable.”

Young said in response that the case is being reviewed “at the next level beyond the investigation team.” While she couldn’t provide a timeline, she told Wiener that the case is “certainly progressing ever closer to a conclusion.”

Complainants also have said safety plans put in place have been ignored, forgotten or laxly enforced. “Multiple survivors reported that all of the safety plan requirements were violated. And there was no follow up or accountability,” TAOS said.

“I had expected – as I imagine most Americans would -- that an organization like SafeSport would be led by people who were outraged by the prospect of an athlete accused of rape by multiple young women potentially representing the USA at the Olympics and other international competitions. And would therefore conclude investigations within reasonable periods of time,” Wiener, who is representing the women pro bono, told USA TODAY Sports.

“That obviously has not happened. No reasonable explanation has been offered as to why.”

Colon acknowledged SafeSport has “not done a great job communicating case status.” In particular, she said the Center can do a better job of explaining the timeline of the process and why there can be a lag between when an investigation is complete and a finding is issued.

Colon said the Center is also in the process of developing a tool that will allow people involved to give feedback at every step in the process, and expects to roll it out by the end of the year.

The governing bodies, meanwhile, worry the Center’s secrecy about administrative closures could result in them putting bad actors back in gyms and on playing fields.

The attorney for one governing body told USA TODAY Sports the federation can’t take any action against a coach because SafeSport administratively closed an abuse case against him and retains exclusive jurisdiction. This despite the NGB hearing of other, similar complaints against the coach.

“The next person who makes a complaint is going to have a really good civil case,” the attorney said.

Governing bodies also express frustration at their exposure during lengthy investigations.

Because of SafeSport’s exclusive jurisdiction, a governing body can’t impose its own suspension and most are reluctant to even comment on a case. That can make it look as if the federation doesn’t care or is ignoring abuse when it’s powerless to act.

“The NGB is left holding the bag,” an executive at one governing body, granted anonymity in order to speak freely, told USA TODAY Sports.

SafeSport says it has to tread lightly because it needs to protect the rights of those accused, too. But SafeSport is not meant to operate under the strict standards of the criminal system. There are ways to make sure both individual rights and kids are being protected, said U.S. Soccer’s Kocoras, who is also an attorney.

“Coaching is a privilege,” Kocoras said. “If we don’t think someone is safe, we should be able to keep him out.”

Little cooperation

While some critics say SafeSport is unworkable in its current form and should be disbanded, Cone said that isn’t what U.S. Soccer wants. It wants to work with SafeSport. Has tried to work with SafeSport.

But SafeSport has, so far, been uninterested – another complaint heard from governing bodies, attorneys and advocates.

Rivers-Cochran said The Army of Survivors reached out to SafeSport in 2022 to share recommendations of how the Center could be more athlete-centered and trauma-informed, based on feedback from athletes. SafeSport initially said it would respond, Rivers-Cochran said, but has not.

“We have not received a response, after several attempts to request further feedback and possible next steps in our attempting to offer opportunities for training and consultation on what it means to be trauma-informed and athlete-centered,” she said.

Because of its need for independence, SafeSport does not report to the USOPC. But it doesn’t seem to answer to anyone else, either.

Colon said SafeSport provides data to members of Congress on a regular basis, but there is no formal hearing each year to review its performance. The last GAO analysis of SafeSport’s performance was at the end of 2020, and its yearly checks now only ensure the Center is maintaining independence from the USOPC.

SafeSport has also been selective about the data and information it’s made public, which Colon blamed on not having a mechanism that could provide reliable, up-to-date statistics.

Those who deal with SafeSport, who need SafeSport, fear that lack of accountability gives the Center little incentive to accept criticism or change its actions.

That, Manly said, is simply unacceptable.

“All of us as adults, especially adults when we have children under our care, have to put them first. Not our jobs, not our reputations, not our money,” Manly said.

“We’re the only things standing between them and the (abuser).”

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: SafeSport's mission is to protect athletes from abuse. Is it?