In an increasingly common occurrence that has become appallingly familiar to most Americans, another story of alleged sexual abuse in the Olympic world has resurfaced in the form of a lawsuit filed by three athletes who once represented this nation on the world stage, including at the Olympic Games.
Snowboarders Rosey Fletcher, Erin O’Malley and Callan Chythlook-Sifsof are suing former national team coach Peter Foley, as well as the U.S. Ski and Snowboard federation and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, alleging numerous instances of sexual abuse by Foley that they say were covered up by the two organizations.
The alleged abuse, which was brought to light by Instagram posts by one of the athletes and by ESPN last year, occurred when they were competing from the 1990s into the first years of the 21st century. Foley was fired last March and is temporarily suspended by the U.S. Center for SafeSport as it investigates the case.
It is of course outrageous that Foley allegedly abused his power over these athletes so reprehensibly, and that it took so long to find out about it and bring him to justice. But there also is a modicum of goodness in this news, in knowing that athletes can come forward now in our #MeToo world, that they are empowered to speak out and are being seen and heard and believed.
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The horror will live with them the rest of their lives, as it does with the gymnasts, the swimmers, the figure skaters, the soccer players and so many others who endured years of sexual abuse as they pursued their athletic dreams, but perhaps there is some peace in knowing that the world is listening now and does care.
So often, we hear about the terrible things that happened in the past, long after athletes have finished competing. They rarely if ever speak out in real time, for a host of reasons that couldn’t be more obvious. The fear of telling the truth about a coach and sabotaging your chance at a spot on a national or Olympic team, or even a college scholarship, is overwhelming. Coaches hold extraordinary power over athletes and their parents, who often hope their child becomes a winning lottery ticket. How does a teenager speak out against a beloved coach when that coach suddenly starts to abuse them? Or tell their parents the truth about what’s happening to them when so much time and money has been invested by the family in that kid’s sports dream?
For the longest time in this country, our athletes had nowhere to turn. Now, though, there is a place, but it is so woefully underfunded, understaffed and under-appreciated that it is having a difficult time making much of a dent in what has become a national sports crisis.
The U.S. Center for SafeSport opened in March 2017 to investigate sexual abuse in Olympic sports. It has suspended or sanctioned hundreds of coaches over the past six years; its centralized disciplinary database, which is public, listed 1,895 names as of Friday. More have been suspended but had their punishment overturned or shortened in arbitration.
SafeSport takes in thousands of reports a year via email, on its website or over the phone, many understandably offered anonymously. An investigation of a single coach can stretch more than a year and involve dozens of witnesses and scores of interviews.
If we really care about getting rid of abusive coaches, why aren’t we hearing that SafeSport needs double, triple, quadruple the funding that it receives now, which is about $20 million a year from the USOPC, mandated by Congress? Why aren’t our political and sports leaders calling for a dramatic increase in SafeSport staffing, which would of course require more funding?
One reason is that there are some in the Olympic world who do not take SafeSport seriously and even mock its efforts. I recently heard a term for the first time: “to SafeSport a coach.” It’s not a compliment. Turning the proper noun into a verb, it’s meant to portray the coach who is being investigated as the victim and the victim who had the courage to come forward as the perpetrator. It’s jarring and incredibly troubling, but it’s out there, and it’s real.
I’ve heard longtime Olympic coaches question SafeSport rulings and defend those who have been suspended. Athletes have told Congress they don’t trust SafeSport. Some say it’s not independent because it’s funded by the USOPC, but that decision wasn’t made by the USOPC or SafeSport, it was made by Congress.
Then we’re outraged by the continuing sexual abuse and lawsuits in the Olympic world and wonder why it won’t stop. And on and on we go.