Associated Press [New York NY]
July 20, 2023
By Anne M. Peterson
The U.S. Center for SafeSport said it is willing to work with the U.S. Soccer Athletes Council to address concerns about the organization tasked with protecting athletes from abuse.
The U.S. Soccer Athletes Council sent a letter to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives this week signed by more than 100 current and former national team players, including the entire U.S. team playing in the Women’s World Cup.
“As athletes, we want to take a lead in collaborating with Congress and National Governing Bodies of Sport in order to create a safe and supportive environment that allows soccer players — and all other athletes in the Olympic movement — to thrive both on and off the field. We are committed to working with you and other stakeholders to make the necessary changes to ensure that players are safe and protected from abuse. And that means that we need to create an efficient, fair, and effective system for athletes to report,” the letter said.
“As a neutral and independent organization not beholden to any sport or individual, we recognize that criticism is inherent to this work and are open to feedback,” Colon wrote. “There is no way to satisfy every party in a Response and Resolution outcome, but the Center is deeply committed to continuous improvement.”
The players’ letter to Congress comes after an abuse and misconduct scandal that rocked the National Women’s Soccer League. In 2021, two former players came forward and accused longtime coach Paul Riley of misconduct and sexual coercion. Riley, who denied the charges, was fired and later banned from the league.
Riley was among five of 10 NWSL coaches who were either fired or resigned that year amid allegations of improper behavior. It spurred investigations by U.S. Soccer and the league itself. Both found a systemic culture of misconduct.
Both investigations also made recommendations for player safety, many of which have been implemented. But the U.S. Soccer investigation, led by former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates, suggested the federation should not rely only on SafeSport for player safety because the organization is slow to act.
The players’ letter said SafeSport declares too many cases administratively closed “with no ruling in favor of either party.”
“This outcome has serious consequences for victims. We have seen our colleagues work up the strength and courage to tell their stories, only for investigators to close their case without any conclusive findings. When cases are administratively closed, there is no true closure for victims, and most troublingly, their abusers are free to return to their sport,” the letter said.
Colon said administrative closures are not decisions, which are binding, and allow the SafeSport to re-open the investigations at any time. The mechanism is also used when there is not enough information available to move forward. She said that more than 200 cases have been re-opened.
The players also said that SafeSport’s exclusive jurisdiction means that U.S. Soccer cannot investigate cases or take action on its own. The Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017 established SafeSport, which is responsible for investigating cases involving sex abuse in Olympic sports.
“The Center was created in response to widespread abuse across sport and the need for a truly independent entity to tackle the sexual, emotional, or physical misconduct that was robbing so many of the benefits of participation. Congress underscored the importance of the Center’s work by furthering its independence and ensuring it had adequate resources to do the work that they determined NGBs were incapable of doing,” Colon’s letter said.
SafeSport was formed after dozens of athletes across several sports detailed decades of abuse allegations that were not handled properly by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the sports organizations it oversaw.
But the players claim SafeSport is failing in its mission.
“As it stands, SafeSport is the only formal mechanism to keep bad actors out of our sport, and we are reliant on it as we work towards reform. But the Yates report laid bare deep flaws in SafeSport’s process. SafeSport was created with noble and important intentions, but we believe that as it stands today, SafeSport is failing in what it was meant to achieve,” the players’ letter said.
SafeSport did not immediately respond to a request for comment.