A Yates Report Takeaway: SafeSport Needs Reform
Updated: Jan 9
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Sally Yates’ long anticipated investigative report has sent shockwaves across women’s soccer, exposing patterns of systemic abuse, harassment, and misconduct by three National Women’s Soccer League (“NWSL”) coaches. The report also raises concerns about the United States Center for SafeSport and its efficacy in addressing claims made by athletes.
SafeSport is a watchdog organization that was created by Congress in 2017 following the notorious sexual abuse scandal involving Larry Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics doctor. The Center was granted exclusive jurisdiction to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct within the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (“USOPC”) and its National Governing Bodies (“NGBs”). In the five years since its establishment, however, the organization has struggled to keep up with an overwhelming influx of cases, and its “paper tiger” reputation has garnered distrust from athletes, attorneys, and lawmakers alike.
In her report, Yates discourages the NWSL and United States Soccer Federation (“USSF”) from relying exclusively on SafeSport to protect players, pointing to the Center’s limited resources, lack of transparency, and problematic appeals process.
I. Limited Resources
According to Yates, SafeSport employs a team of approximately 30 investigators who are collectively responsible for protecting the 11 million athletes that make up the Olympic and Paralympic movement. Since 2017, SafeSport has received more than 13,500 reports of abuse through its online portal and hotline. This number far exceeds the USOPC’s initial projection of sixty cases per year.
Given its short staff, it is not surprising that SafeSport has a large backlog of cases. When testifying before Congress, gymnastics Olympian Aly Raisman indicated that, “many survivors [who] report their abuse [to SafeSport say] it’s like playing hot potato, where somebody else kicks it over to somebody else and they don’t hear back for a really long time.”
Furthermore, SafeSport’s track record indicates that it rarely completes an investigation on the claims that it receives. From July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020, only 8% percent of the Center’s cases were actually completed and formally resolved. The remaining cases were either administratively closed without an investigation, put on hold, or dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.
In an effort to reform and increase funding for the Center, Congress passed the Empowering Olympic, Paralympic, and Amateur Athletes Act in 2020, which requires the USOPC to make a fixed $20 million dollar contribution to SafeSport every year. According to a joint investigation by ESPN and ABC, however, a significant portion of that contribution comes from sports federations. Each NGB is charged an annual fee by the USOPC in proportion to its “risk profile” and “case costs.” In other words, with every report filed, the amount of money that an NGB must pay is increased. Some critics are wary of this approach, saying that it disincentivizes the reporting of abuse allegations. And despite the increased funding provided, the Yates report indicates that the Center is still unable to adequately manage the volume of cases that it receives.
II. Lack of Transparency
Many have also criticized the Center’s stringent privacy policies and lack of transparency. According to Yates, the USSF was prohibited from sharing information regarding a particular coach’s misconduct. Although SafeSport initially advised that this coach be banned permanently, the case was eventually dismissed because the victim declined to partake in the appeals process, and the sanction was subsequently revoked. When SafeSport’s decisions are overturned on appeal, investigative findings are concealed from the public, even if there is substantial evidence supporting allegations. 
American athletes competing in other sports besides soccer have also expressed disapproval of the Center’s strict confidentiality requirements. An anonymous Olympic equestrian told ESPN last year “[T]he lack of transparency is terrible. With the court system, people would have the benefit of knowledge, whereas with SafeSport, that anonymity, it's not helping the victims.”
III. The Appeals Process
Yates also takes issue with SafeSport’s appeals process because it allows accused parties to “take another bite at the apple, in the hope that claimants will not want to rehash their claims.” Through arbitration, sanctioned individuals can contest SafeSport’s findings and are given the opportunity for a new investigation. When a claimant declines to participate in the appeals process, they risk SafeSport’s imposed sanctions being lifted. And even if they do agree to participate, there is still a strong chance that the initial ruling will be reduced or overturned. As of February 2022, this was true for 42% of cases that were appealed, allowing some coaches with a history of sexual misconduct to resume participation in their sports.
Having to go through one fact-finding process is extremely distressing for trauma victims as is. Requiring them to do it a second time is unfair and insensitive. It puts claimants at a disadvantage and has resulted in predatory individuals reclaiming positions of authority.
In light of these findings, Yates recommends that the NWSL and USSF refrain from relying solely on SafeSport to protect players from abuse and that measures should be taken by the league and its teams to ensure a safe work environment for athletes. Although Yates declines to provide specific recommendations regarding SafeSport’s operation, the organization’s need for reform should not be overlooked. Abuse and harassment are pervasive in sports and players need an unbiased, third-party organization that they can report allegations to without fear of retaliation. Holding SafeSport to a higher standard and correcting its structural and systemic shortcomings is a key step to ensuring player safety that should be taken urgently.
 Alex Azzi. Yates report takeaways extend beyond NWSL: ‘Guardrails’ are essential for women’s pro sports. (10 Oct. 2022) https://onherturf.nbcsports.com/2022/10/10/yates-report-takeaways-extend- beyond-nwsl-guardrails-are-essential-for-womens-pro-sports/  Jeff Carlisle. Yates report explained: Key findings on Holly, Riley and Dames abuse, what's next for the NWSL. (4 Oct. 2022) https://www.espn.com/soccer/united-states-nwsl/story/4760528/yates-nwsl-report -explaining-hollyrileyand-dames-abuse  Sally Yates. Report of the Independent Investigation to the U.S. Soccer Federation Concerning Allegations of Abusive Behavior and Sexual Misconduct in Women’s Professional Soccer. (3 Oct. 2022)  Lindsay Brandon. Major Hurdles Still Face U.S. SafeSport In The Movement To Protect Athletes. (2 Jul. 2021) https://www.lawinsport.com/topics/item/major-hurdles-still-face-u-s-safesport-in-the-movement-to- protect-athletes  U.S. Center for SafeSport. FAQs. https://uscenterforsafesport.org/about/faqs/  Dan Murphy, Pete Madden. U.S. Center for SafeSport, Olympic Movement's misconduct watchdog, struggles to shed 'paper tiger' reputation. https://abcnews.go.com/Sports/us-center-safesport-olympic- movements-misconduct-watchdog-struggles/story?id=83061994  Sally Yates, supra.  Id.  Id.  Louise Radnofsky. Amid Suspicion Over SafeSport, the Body That Investigates Abuse in Sports Wants to Grow. https://www.wsj.com/articles/safesport-olympics-abuse-in-sports-11633963737  Sally Yates, supra.  Louise Radnofsky, supra.  Sally Yates, supra.  Id.  Id.  Dan Murphy. New law gives Congress more oversight over the leaders of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. (31 Oct. 2020) https://www.espn.com/olympics/story/_/id/30229973/new-law- gives-congress-more-oversight-leaders-us-olympic-paralympic-committee  Dan Murphy, Pete Madden, supra.  Id.  Id.  Id.  Sally Yates, supra.  Dan Murphy, Pete Madden, supra.  Sally Yates, supra.  Id.  Dan Murphy, Pete Madden, supra.  Id.  Id.  Sally Yates, supra.  Id.  Id.  Scott Polacek. U.S. Center for SafeSport's Handling of Sexual Abuse Allegations Criticized in Probe. (23 Feb. 2022) https://bleacherreport.com/articles/10027830-us-center-for-safesports-handling-of-sexual- abuse-allegations-criticized-in-probe  Id.  Dan Murphy, Pete Madden, supra.  Id.  Sally Yates, supra.