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  • On the Record -- SafeSport Chief Executive Shellie Pfohl


    (ATR) Shellie Pfohl says that the U.S. Center for Safe Sport is hiring more investigators to help with its turnaround time on investigations.

    Pfohl was one of many U.S. sport leaders to testify before Congress this year (CSPAN)
    Currently the center has around 24 full time investigators helping with cases of abuse, misconduct, and other issues in U.S. sport. By the end of the calendar year that number could be as high as 36, and next year the center expects to have around 50 full time employees.

    Pfohl briefed the USOC Assembly last month about the current state of the center, and what athlete groups and National Governing Bodies can be doing to help educate stakeholders about the center. She took time to speak with Around the Rings about the center, and addressed some of the criticisms lobbied at the venture in recent months. 

    This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

    Around the Rings: It has been a pretty eventful year for SafeSport. I think anyone would agree with that. Where does the organization stand, three months after visiting Capitol Hill?

    Shellie Pfohl: Yeah absolutely, suffice to say we’re in a heavy growth mode and we are up to 24 full time staff, and a few part time, and some contractual investigators on top of our internal folks, we are staffing up at a record pace to meet the demand and the demand is huge. We are approaching 1400 reports since we opened our doors in March 2017 and certainly some of those are not sexual misconduct or abuse, but most of them are. Addressing those and at the same time because of our education efforts, which are equally important. Its equally important that we are working on prevention and working with individuals on what abuse is and isn’t in these contexts, so every time we do a training we get more reports so that outreach we are doing there is helping people know we exist and helping people go to report. Most of our reports are on incidents that have happened in the last five years, at least 80 percent. We have a good number where the incident was more than five years ago, and as people get to know the center is out there we’ll probably have more of those incidents or reports from things that happened a little longer ago.

    ATR: Is it fair to say there is a crisis of sexual abuse in sport, given the volume of reports that you’re hearing?

    SP: I guess it depends on how you define crisis. Certainly we know that sport is a part of society and we know that the type of abuse we are talking about, whether child or adult, there is a prevalence in our overall society, so in that sport is part of society, it sure seems like it because of the courage of the Nassar victims and many others to come forward, so that has shown the light on what can take place if we are not vigilant, so I think at the same time I’d want to say that, I played four sports growing up and was very involved in many aspects of sports, and I think the good news is there are millions of really good coaches out there and good people that want to do the right thing but unfortunately there are bad actors in sports like in other parts of society. Our job is to root them out.

    ATR: SafeSport has been in the headlines for the last few months with a number of high profile cases, and I understand you’re not allowed to comment individually on cases, but I guess, part of the issue is athletes need to have trust in the system to make sure they are protected. What’s been going on, especially with the Lopez case, what is the Center going to do to make sure athletes maintain the trust in this endeavor?

    Steven Lopez (Wikimedia Commons)
    SP: I think a lot of that is education, the reason I’m here at the USOC assembly is just that. I’m making the rounds to the AAC and Olympic and Paralympic association, and I spoke with the USOC board this morning. So some of that is education not just here at the assembly but how do we ripple this out, so athletes understand what our process is, how we treat every report that comes in, and we have been doing a lot of that with the media and folks that let’s say are used to writing about sport [but] don’t know how do you go about adjudicating if you will a report of abuse. So those robust discussions have been helpful and from an athlete's standpoint we are and will continue to do more and better education on who we are, what we do and how we do it and I’m going to be speaking shortly to the USOPA folks, and they said be sure to bring something that shows your process, because these folks want to know what the process is and they want to be ambassadors, and a lot of word of mouth, and our performance quite honestly will speak for itself. There is a lot of stuff we read in the media and social media that is flat out false. We then pick and choose what we refuse because we want to protect the people writing reports, we don’t want to be talking about reports. Period. We will stay silent.

    What does the center have to say for survivors of abuse that have been critical of the process? Who have used the media to speak out as well?

    SP: Yeah I think I would say that for some that the right information isn’t getting to them perhaps. I would say that certainly that we have growing pains and the two biggest pain points are response rate, our closure rate to fully adjudicate a case, and the other is communication. We are solving both of those things by staffing out in the right way. So those are pain points for a lot of folks including ourselves. So for some folks that have gone through the process that say gosh this didn’t happen fast enough or I didn’t have good communication, we are listening and we are doing better and we will continue to do more and better.

    ATR: What does the center feel when some athletes call it a branding exercise by the USOC to cover itself?

    SP: Well I can tell you from the center’s standpoint we are putting together a team of passionate professionals that take every case seriously that are working literally seven days a week to try and be as responsive as we can and that we take this mission seriously. So we don’t have time for a marketing exercise, we are about serving athletes and serving these constituents. That said I will also say the USOC, having spoken to the board this morning, I believe that they are sincere in their current efforts to advance athlete safety and that includes a lot of things including these specific issues. We are completely 100% independent and I told their board this morning. Here’s a stat for you, zero. Zero is the number of times that someone at the USOC or any of the NGBs has tried to influence the outcome of a case. Zero. So that independence from that governance standpoint and the work we do on the response side is completely independent. Having said that, it also makes sense that we have to partner if we are going to change the culture of sport. We balance, we are 100% independent, but it also makes sense that we have to communicate and work with USOC and the NGBs if we want to change the culture.

    SafeSport had had to address questions of its independence from the USOC (Getty Images)
    ATR: That was going to be my next question. There have been a lot of criticisms regarding the makeup of the board for the center for SafeSport, obviously investigators are completely independent, but there has been some reporting on links between the USOC and SafeSport board, is that a concern still?

    SP: It is not a concern for us. It is not a concern for us. While the original board was seated by the USOC, and several of those members still serve on our board, we believe that they meet that high bar of independence, and we will continue to look for board members that do the same, so they have subject matter expertise they are not currently or in the past many years involved in the USOC or NGBs or any way, shape or form. Some of these understand the Olympic movement which is a good thing, but they meet that bar for independence.

    ATR: What is going to be the goal of what you hope the US Center for SafeSport takes away from the USOC assembly?

    SP: We’re trying to do a fair bit of listening as well as presenting updates to the respective councils and organizations in terms of progress and where we are headed and the hurdles we are trying to overcome so part of that is sharing that information and also listening -- listening to athletes, listening to the NGBs, directors and athlete safety folks who will share this is what they need to do a better job and what kind of training they need from us so we’re both sharing and emparting training and knowledge as well as gathering feedback from them.

    ATR: What would be a successful next year for the center?

    SP: For the next year what success would mean for us to be able to show and we do track all this stuff to be able to show we are meeting the demand for the services in a timely manner and define what makes sense there, with clear and transparent understanding of our process and the fair process we have in place.

    (Wikimedia Commons)
    ATR: One of the things I took away from the [House of Representatives] hearing was Congress expressed the willingness to want to step in and see [the Center] grow. Has there been any follow up from them and have those indications of another hearing and more financial aid come to fruition so far?

    SP: So there were funds that were put in the omnibus spending bill for a competitive grant. So that competitive grant is being run out of the DOJ (Department of Justice). We expect them to award it to someone. The amount was not as much as we had hoped, $2.5 million was authorized in the omnibus, and authorized doesn’t mean appropriated. So DOJ determined how much money so they have appropriated $2.2 million over three years and money can be added to that as they get their new budgets so they can only project out so far as well, so we are hoping that amount of money grows in that competitive grant as well as continue to seek out direct appropriation if that’s available and through feedback from congressional folks. A couple have come to our office and sat with our staff and have a good understanding of the center and of what we do, so we hope there’s a growing appetite for what we do, and we hope there will be a growing appetite to fully fund the center at the level for which is needed to meet the demand.

    ATR: What is that level?

    SP: This year's budget was about $6.4 million and that was thanks to the USOC doubling its pledge and so forth. We think we will be closer to $11 million in order to meet the demand not quite doubling, but we think that will be about $11 million so for me, and the USOC is considering their financial investment in us as they continue, and the NGBs is the same and looking at their piece of support for the center. Beyond that any type of federal dollars we can go after -- foundations, corporations, and individuals. And we are seeing a little bit of funding stream come in a fee for service, that is folks that want access to the training that are outside of the movements but because of Senate bill 534 they are saying hey center can we get access to your training, that’s an easy thing for us and provides a trickle of funds in and helps us keep our education training fresh through new developments.

    Homepage: U.S. Center for SafeSport

    Interview conducted by Aaron Bauer in Colorado Springs

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