USA TODAY’s Christine Brennan discusses the findings of the investigation commissioned by the USOC into handling of Larry Nassar sexual abuse case.
The CEO of the U.S. Center for SafeSport is stepping down, just as the center, the U.S. Olympic Committee and its sports national governing bodies are coming under heavy criticism for not doing enough to protect athletes.
Shellie Pfohl, who has been head of SafeSport since November 2016, four months before the center opened its doors, notified the center’s board on Dec. 7 that she intended to step down. She will remain through the end of the year. Her initial contract was supposed to run through the end of 2019.
The center announced Regis Becker, a member of its board of directors, will serve as interim CEO. The organization expects to name a permanent CEO early next year.
Pfohl’s departure comes two weeks after a USA TODAY investigation found there is little to no enforcement of sanctions for sexual misconduct. USA TODAY found six coaches who had continued to coach despite being permanently banned. Of the 40 governing bodies who responded to a USA TODAY survey, only 17 said they can punish clubs or members that ignore the bans.
And despite pressure from Congress and the USOC, a universal banned list still does not exist.
SafeSport currently has a searchable database, but it only includes people who have been sanctioned since the center opened in March 2017. Of the 50 governing bodies, only 23 maintain any sort of public banned list. Three governing bodies – hockey, soccer and climbing – keep theirs private.
The USOC ordered governing bodies in May to share information on individuals they had banned with SafeSport for a universal list. Pfohl had said she hoped such a list would be ready by early 2019.
“I think we all understood, certainly from the Congressional hearings, that several members of Congress think that this is a positive move forward,” Pfohl told USA TODAY in October. “It was a collective understanding that this was important and an important opportunity to serve citizens, and specifically athletes and their families.”
Asked why it was taking so long to complete, Pfohl said the center has been inundated. The center, which handles all sexual abuse complaints for the USOC and its governing bodies, had more than 1,800 reports of sexual misconduct or abuse since it opened in March 2017.
During a May hearing before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Pfohl said reports spiked after the #MeToo movement and the sentencing of Larry Nassar, the longtime USA Gymnastics team doctor who abused more than 350 girls and women, often under the guise of medical treatment. While the center got 20 to 30 complaints a month the previous year, Pfohl told the committee, it was now getting that many each week.
“No,” Pfohl said when asked if the center had adequate resources to investigate the volume of complaints.
SafeSport’s budget includes $3.1 million from the USOC. It also received a $2.3 million, three-year federal grant for prevention and education, though that money cannot be used for abuse investigations.
“Just the bandwidth issue,” Pfohl said of the delay in a centralized database. “We focus certainly on looking at and responding to the myriad cases that have come in and have focused our response and our team on current cases that we’ve been asked to adjudicate.”
In October, the center increased its staff from four employees to 29.
The USOC had long maintained that protecting athletes from sexual abuse was best left up to the governing body. But after a series of high-profile sexual abuse cases in swimming, speedskating and taekwondo, a USOC working group recommended the creation of an independent body to handle abuse complaints.
The USOC approved the recommendation in June 2014, with a targeted opening of 2015. But the USOC, and then Pfohl after she was hired in November 2016, struggled to raise outside funding and the center did not open until almost three years later, in March 2017.
In a report earlier this month, law firm Ropes & Gray said both the USOC and USA Gymnastics had governance structures and policies in place that “had the effect of allowing abuse to occur and continue without effective intervention.” The USOC hired the firm to investigate who knew what and when about abuse by Nassar.
USA Gymnastics informed former USOC CEO Scott Blackmun in July 2015 that several gymnasts had accused Nassar of sexual abuse and that it was reporting him to authorities. But the governing body did not make the information public, and Blackmun did not tell anyone else at the USOC, or at SafeSport, before Rachael Denhollander told her story of abuse to The Indianapolis Star in September 2016.
Nassar, 55, is serving what’s essentially a life sentence on a federal conviction for child pornography and state convictions in Michigan for criminal sexual conduct.
A majority report from the House Energy and Commerce Committee released earlier this month also criticized a culture in the movement that focuses on reputation and the USOC’s long-held lack of belief that it has authority over the NGBs, which “contributed to a systemic failure” to protect athletes.
The report, released on Dec. 20, found the U.S. Olympic Committee and the national governing bodies inconsistently applied policies and were slow to take action despite broad knowledge of abuse complaints.
The House report noted several concerns about SafeSport, including lack of funding.