In my time as a journalist, stories about child abuse have always been the one genre that everyone, even internet commenters, agree are bad. But preventing child abuse—which costs money and takes long-term dedication of resources—who has time for that?
For years, whenever sex abuse scandals emerged within various Olympic sports, various Olympic leaders would tell reporters that it was working on a fix, dubbed SafeSport. Until recently, few asked asked how SafeSport was funded, or for the nitty gritty details of how it would work, or if its setup even made sense. Like everyone else, the Olympic movement would like to handle its history of child abuse on the cheap, and reporters have helped them achieve that.
The latest examples played out recently in the New York Times’s coverage of SafeSport, the agency ostensibly charged with preventing sexual abuse in Olympic sports that still operates in a black box, can’t enforce its own bans, downplays its massive conflicts of interest, won’t admit to its own underfunding, can’t use its grant money to hire the investigators it needs, already has lost one CEO, and has had at least two bans of men accused by multiple women of abuse and assault overturned by arbitrators. But you won’t see many of these issues raised in the Times Q&A.
First came a Q&A the Times in last week with USOC CEO Sarah Hirshland, a marketing guru brought in to run an organization in the middle of a sexual abuse crisis. Like any well-trained PR professional, she dropped the word “empowerment” in the very first sentence of her very first answer, as if that overused word had any meaning left. Hirshland also talked about giving athletes “a voice and a seat at the table” as well as creating an environment “that’s free of abuse,” truly hitting for the buzzword cycle.
The questions start out about funding, which makes sense given that SafeSport is grossly underfunded, but the questions ignore the obvious truth that Hirshland shouldn’t have any control in SafeSport’s finances. The supposedly independent organization that’s supposed to prevent sexual abuse in the Olympic movement is also funded by the Olympic movement, creating a permanent conflict of interest that doesn’t seem to bother leadership within the Olympic movement or Congress, which created SafeSport. Whoever asked the questions (the interview does not carry a byline) didn’t bring any of that up.
Hirshland talks out of both sides of her mouth throughout the interview; to one question, she says: “Every meeting I’ve had in Washington, I’ve asked for money for the Center for SafeSport.” So, okay, the center needs more money, right? Not according to Hirshland. To another question, she says: “Funding is not the issue; it’s capacity and growth rate.” Later, Hirshland proclaims that there exist “thousands of athletes whose lives are changed for the better constantly by this movement.” Nobody, at least in the version published, pushed her on the many athletes who are left penniless, or stripped of records for violation of petty rules, or who were victims of sexual abuse within the very movement she’s paid to protect.
Bad interviews happen, but the Times Q&A was quickly followed by Jeré Longman’s equally bad piece yesterday about figure skating after the suicide of John Coughlin. Coughlin, a former pairs skater and coach, died days after his interim suspension by SafeSport was announced; USA Today reported that three complaints had alleged sexual misconduct by Coughlin. The Times piece tries to take on the complex issue of child abuse, but somehow starts out talking about sequins and an unrelated crime from decades ago.
It is a sport where drama and scandal, on the ice and off, are as commonplace as sequins. The outrageous and bumbling clubbing of Kerrigan on Jan. 6, 1994, made skating more popular than it has ever been. Television ratings soared, along with skaters’ paychecks. Last year, the mockumentary “I, Tonya” even won an Academy Award for best supporting actress.
But skating’s attraction has long ebbed outside of the Olympics. And this year’s American championships return to Detroit at a grim moment, following the apparent suicide of a former star who had been suspended by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, an organization whose primary mission is to investigate accusations of sexual misconduct.
Longman goes on searching for answers that nobody except those who reported to SafeSport can provide. Craig Maurizi, who reported that his own coach had sexually abused him, tells Longman he thinks SafeSport is good, but also SafeSport is taking too long on his case, but also SafeSport might have violated the due process rights of Coughlin, whom he considered a friend and whom his wife represented as an agent. I understand Maurizi’s difficult place in all this and doubt I would have had something more eloquent to say, but I don’t understand what the Times saw as the value in elevating such statements and mixing them with various other people’s support for Coughlin and mentions of unrelated past scandals along with the expected nothing-burger statements from SafeSport’s spokesman. The article closes out with rehashed words from Hirshland’s interview.
Where does this leave the many victims who, like Maurizi, are waiting for their final resolution from SafeSport? Or the people still too afraid to report abuse because an army of supporters will call the Times and tell them how great an abuser was to them? They are left with Hirshland telling them to wait a little longer for her to find some coins between the sofa cushions (while USOC leaders pay themselves six-to-seven-figure salaries)—the same story so many other leaders of this country have told them before. Perhaps these articles are anomalies, a thing that happens sometimes when deadlines are tight and resources are thin. But on a subject that’s so universally agreed upon as vitally important, an outlet with the size and scope of the Times should do better. We all should.