For the past couple decades or so, athletes participating in various sports under the umbrella of the United States Olympic Committee (“USOC”) and its National Governing Bodies (“NGBs”) who experienced sexual and other forms of abuse often felt they had no voice and nowhere to go to report their concerns. After many years of failure by the USOC and its NGBs to adequately respond to allegations by athletes of emotional, physical, sexual or other abuse, the U.S. Center for SafeSport (“SafeSport”) was established in 2017. SafeSport is an independent, federally authorized nonprofit committed to ending all forms of abuse in sport. It provides educational services to amateur athletes, coaches, administrators, and others while responding to and resolving allegations of bullying, harassment, hazing, physical abuse, emotional abuse and sexual misconduct in sport.
Earlier this spring, a new player advocacy group, the College Athlete Advocacy Initiative (“CAAI”), was launched to offer legal advice to college and university athletes as well as to pursue campaigns to help them share in the billions of dollars generated in college sports. The organization’s founder, attorney Tim Nevius, citing players in major conferences who are verbally abused by coaches, coerced into giving up their scholarships and prevented from transferring, said: “The calls I’ve gotten in the past year convinced me this was needed.” Initial funding for the CAAI was provided by the Urban Justice Center, a New York-based nonprofit legal advocacy group.
Recently, Washington Post writer, Ben Strauss, reported on complaints levied against the University of Nebraska (the “University” or “Nebraska”) softball coach by players on the team. Strauss reported that “players detailed what they said was systematic emotional abuse and a toxic culture on the team that included fat-shaming, verbal abuse, and erratic and harassing behavior” by their coach, Rhonda Revelle.
The University responded- not by engaging an independent, outside firm to conduct an investigation- but by conducting its own internal investigation that lasted for weeks. Following the reported completion of the investigation, University Athletic Director Bill Moos informed the players that: 1) Coach Revelle would be retained; 2) the investigative report would not be shared with the players; and 3) no one affiliated within the athletic department-including administrators, coaches and players-would be allowed to comment further on the situation. Suffice it to say members of the team were not satisfied with this response.
Reeling from the report, the players threatened to boycott the first practice of the year, despite fearing retaliation from the University, a practice explicitly prohibited under the University’s compliance program. One current Nebraska player reportedly asked, “Who listens to us? Who are we supposed to talk to? How do we have a voice in anything?”
This response was particularly curious given the University’s Compliance Office provides/suggests at least seven ways to report concerns. These tools include: 1) online; 2) to law enforcement; 3) through a telephone hotline; 4) through an ombudsman’s office; 5) to responsible employees; 6) to a Title IX coordinator; and/or 7) through the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education. Perhaps Nebraska softball team members question the effectiveness or objectivity of these internal recommended procedures.
Strauss further reports that in recent weeks, Nebraska players have reached out to Tim Nevius at the CAAI. Nevius responded saying, “I think Nebraska missed an opportunity to take seriously the athletes’ concerns about the program. They essentially disregarded the athletes’ serious complaints.”
SafeSport opened its doors just a couple of years ago and soon became federally-authorized under the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017 which became Public Law on February 14, 2018. Under this law, SafeSport develops resources and policies to safeguard athletes from the forms of sexual, emotional and physical abuse set forth above. The law entrusts SafeSport as the exclusive authority to respond to reports of allegations of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct within the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and their recognized NGBs.
The mission of the CAAI is to coordinate legal services for college athletes on NCAA-related matters and to launch advocacy campaigns to combat inequality and exploitation of athletes in the multi-billion dollar college sports industry.
While the future of SafeSport is now assured by statute, hopefully the CAAI will demonstrate that it can deliver on its mission to meet the emerging needs and expectations of college and university athletes who report allegations of abuse or exploitation. Both organizations are designed to serve valuable and necessary roles in ensuring the proper treatment of our young athletes.