Three-time Olympic taekwondo medalist Steven Lopez, whom the U.S. Center for SafeSport declared permanently ineligible because of “sexual misconduct involving a minor” in September, has been reinstated following an arbitration hearing, reports USA Today.
Lopez, considered the biggest star in the sport, was banned following a SafeSport investigation into accusations from taekwondo athlete Nina Zampetti, whom he coached from ages 10 to 16. According to SafeSport investigative documents reviewed by Deadspin’s Diana Moskovitz, Zampetti claimed that Lopez, with whose family she lived at one point, engaged in a variety of grooming behaviors, inappropriately touched her, and asked her to perform oral sex on him when she was 14. Her detailed account and lack of any obvious motive to lie were, according to the report, among the reasons why her accusations were found credible and met the standard of preponderance of the evidence used in SafeSport investigations.
Zampetti chose not to testify at the hearing; she and her attorney both cited civil litigation as one factor, and her lack of trust in SafeSport as another:
“I declined to be questioned by SafeSport because I don’t believe they are here to help us,” Zampetti said via text message with USA TODAY Sports. “They are only trying to help themselves. If I would have answered those questions I believe they still would have lifted the ban. I will just give my statement in real court when the day comes.”
Lopez, meanwhile, did not speak to SafeSport investigators but did speak at the hearing. He brought five witnesses, including his sister Diana, who denied that Zampetti had contemporaneously described the abuse to her. (Zampetti’s sister Connie told SafeSport investigators that Zampetti had described the abuse to her, one factor in the body’s decision.)
Zampetti’s declining to testify weighed heavily in the decision by arbitrator Jeff Kaplan, according to USA Today, which obtained a copy. So did Lopez’s apparent distress at the allegations:
Because Zampetti “chose not to testify, questions about her credibility are left unanswered. The arbitrator has not had an opportunity to observe her demeanor or question NZ about the information she provided to SafeSport, much of which is controverted. By contrast, Lopez appeared genuinely upset and was visibly emotional when talking about the allegations of sexual misconduct against him. Not only has his taekwondo career been jeopardized, but his family has been humiliated and embarrassed by what Lopez believes are false and malicious allegations. Lopez testified in a manner consistent with someone who is falsely accused. His outrage did not seem feigned or contrived.”
SafeSport removed a ban on Lopez’s brother Jean over sexual misconduct allegations earlier this year; attorney Stephen Estey said at the time that a SafeSport official had told him that the organization would be unable to defend the ban unless accusers agreed to testify in person. This requirement is not to be found in SafeSport’s policies and procedures.
The Lopez brothers and SafeSport are, along with USA Taekwondo and the US Olympic Committee, co-defendants in a suit filed by five athletes which accuses the brothers of sexual abuse and alleges that the governing bodies violated racketeering law by obstructing investigations into the claims so as to allow the brothers to participate in key international competitions.
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