The U.S. Center for SafeSport delivered a chilling assessment of sexual misconduct in the sport of figure skating Monday morning, saying that in the course of its work on sexual misconduct allegations against the late national pairs champion John Coughlin, as well as other figure skating cases, it discovered “a culture in figure skating that allowed grooming and abuse to go unchecked for too long.
“The issues in this sport are similar to those the Center has seen in many others and cut across a wide population,” SafeSport said in a statement to USA TODAY. “This cannot be allowed to continue. The Center addresses these cultural issues every day through training and education and by, on a case-by-case basis, holding those who violate the (SafeSport) Code accountable.”
SafeSport spokesman Dan Hill said in a phone interview that SafeSport has become aware of these issues “with the reports we have been seeing and the anecdotal stories and evidence we have been receiving. Without getting into the specifics of any particular person, we have had people want to explain how the sport works, with concerns about how young women in particular are treated, especially in pairs skating.
“If you want to change the culture of this sport, people have to come forward. All covered individuals (USFS member coaches, staff, board members and officials, among others) have an obligation under the Code to report, and the Center does enforce that obligation. As we’ve seen with gymnastics, it takes brave people speaking up and enough of them to get a culture shift.”
USFS, the national governing body for the sport, replied to SafeSport in a statement of its own Monday afternoon:
“U.S. Figure Skating fully supports the mission of the U.S. Center for SafeSport and works in cooperation with the Center to help end abuse in sport. The Center has clearly stated it will not advance its investigation into the allegations against the late John Coughlin. U.S. Figure Skating is constantly striving to ensure athlete safety and looks forward to working with the Center to better understand the issues raised in this case.”
SafeSport’s troubling evaluation of figure skating’s culture comes in the midst of a war of words between the Center and USFS over the status of the investigation of Coughlin, 33, who took his life Jan. 18, one day after he received an interim suspension from SafeSport. USA TODAY Sports has reported that Coughlin was facing three reports of sexual misconduct against him, two of them involving minors, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
Twice in the past six weeks, USFS has asked for the investigation to be completed, while SafeSport has maintained it cannot continue to investigate someone who has died.
In its new statement, SafeSport offered a stern and lengthy rebuttal to USFS:
“The Center has made its position regarding the Coughlin matter abundantly clear to USFS and the parties involved. The Center’s actions are consistent with the SafeSport Code and its mission. The Center cannot advance an investigation when the named respondent no longer presents a potential threat.
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“The most severe sanction the Center can impose is permanent ineligibility to participate in sport,” it continued. “In this instance, the respondent’s eligibility to participate in sport is no longer at issue. Furthermore, the Center is dedicated to providing a fundamentally fair adjudicatory process. Indeed, fairness dictates that the Center not complete an investigation when it is impossible for the respondent to provide testimony regarding events about which only he would have knowledge. While the Center can proceed with an investigation where a respondent voluntarily elects not to participate in the process, it cannot and would not complete an investigation when a respondent is deceased.”
Last week, USFS sent a letter to SafeSport saying “the lack of a completed investigation has produced great uncertainty…innuendo and continued speculation” concerning the allegations against Coughlin.
Coughlin was a well-known presence at skating competitions and rinks around the country as a coach, TV commentator and a rising star within the leadership ranks of both USFS and the International Skating Union, the sport’s worldwide federation.
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In a Jan. 7 email to USA TODAY, Coughlin called the allegations against him “unfounded.”
“While I wish I could speak freely about the unfounded allegations levied against me, the SafeSport rules prevent me from doing so since the case remains pending,” he wrote. “I note only that the SafeSport notice of allegation itself stated that an allegation in no way constitutes a finding by SafeSport or that there is any merit to the allegation.”
Coughlin’s assertion that he was being prevented from speaking freely about the allegations against him by SafeSport “is not true,” Hill said.
“The SafeSport Code and the interim measure process that was communicated to him directly, and which is on our website, makes it clear that he could provide information, evidence, speak for himself and even ask for a hearing that would have been accommodated in 72 hours by rule,” he said. “That hearing would have been in front of an independent arbitrator. That’s such a critical part of all of this.”