Are You Ready for SafeSport?

Decades of abuse by coaches in swimming and gymnastics, recently uncovered, prompted the sports governance world in the U.S. to establish an organization much like USADA: the U.S. Center for SafeSport. I’m going to write about a SafeSport concern today, that is, not about SafeSport’s protection of us, but our own protections in a SafeSport-governed world. Before you jump out of your seats, I fully support this org’s vital place in our sport. In fact, I could imagine SafeSport evolving, as anti-doping has, into private contracts with leagues and employers outside of the Olympic Family. Just, if I get my wish USA Triathlon, our sport’s NGB, will help prepare SafeSport for our general membership, and will prepare us for SafeSport’s governance.

Like USADA, SafeSport considers itself an organization independent from the USOC (though the USOC is its single largest source of funding). The operating principle in both anti-doping and anti-abuse is to: 1) fund and professionalize these efforts by aggregating all the expertise at one place; 2) mainstream best practices rather than each national governing body setting its own standards; 2) offload from NGBs the burden of policing cheating and abuse.

Over the course of SafeSport’s young life it and the U.S. Congress have been criticized because of the slow pace of investigations (the org handles about 200 new cases each month, and the staffing is inadequate); because of its stingy funding by Congress; and the prohibitions on using Congressional grants for investigation (only education). It reminds me a lot of USADA’s early days.

In 2011 I was the ill odor in the elevator on the topic of age-group anti-doping. That was the year USADA announced that it was extending its efforts to incorporate the age group racer into a more formal anti-doping process, which everyone (I included) applauded. But my question then was: What are USADA and USA Triathlon prepared to do to make sure my readers and their constituents understand the duty?

“It's simple: Don't use drugs. That's the duty.” That’s what Travis Tygart, USADA’s CEO, told me when I asked. I was as unimpressed with that answer as he was with my question. I was concerned when USAT’s response to every question I asked about its duty to its own constituents was: “I refer you to USADA.”

What we’ve learned over this decade is that it’s not as simple as “Don’t use drugs.” There’s an educational component to anti-doping, and many NGBs still haven’t awakened to that need. I pointed out to USAT some years back that it took 5 clicks – that was the shortest pathway – to get from its home page to that point where a member learned anything about his anti-doping duty (USAT is much better about this now!). USADA almost immediately implemented the “retroactive TUE” because, “It's simple: Don't use drugs,” and, “you are responsible for everything you ingest,” turned out to be unrealistic for age group athletes who weren’t used to the anti-doping rigor common to the elite athlete experience.

I’m writing about SafeSport, today, in that same spirit. Abuse of a minor is worse than doping. Larry Nasser was orders of magnitude more damaging than Lance Armstrong. We therefore need the SafeSport mission and ethic. Just, if and when SafeSport gets it wrong, the result – the damage to the reputations of the accused – is also more severe than with doping; and the cost of defense is on par with doping.

Anti-doping efforts warmed up for about a half-century, practicing on elite athletes, before it was unleashed on the amateur population. Not so SafeSport. Almost everyone thinks that SafeSport is of vital concern to coaches, administrators, federation officials, doctors, soigneurs, massage therapists and other athlete support personnel. Yes, but not only! As with anti-doping, when you become a member of a sports federation you may well sign up for more than you realize. Depending on the NGB to which you belong, SafeSport says you become what it calls a Covered Individual. Are you?

Who SafeSport Considers a Covered Individual

If you’re a Covered Individual you’re obliged to live under SafeSport’s Code, just as you agree to live under the WADA Code. A Covered Individual includes anyone, “seeking to be within the governance or disciplinary jurisdiction of an NGB,” which is what you do when you sign a USAT membership application. However, SafeSport appears to acknowledge that the NGB must also obligate you to SafeSport’s Code in its membership application.

Who USAT Considers a Covered Individual

According to USA Triathlon, “any USA Triathlon member can have an accusation of a SafeSport violation brought against them, and should that occur, the member would need to cooperate with all investigations and proceedings.” But I’m not so sure.

When you sign to become an annual member, you agree to: Be familiar with and to abide by the Rules and Regulations established for the Event; to the Competitive Rules adopted by USAT; and to the WADA Code as implemented by USADA. Nothing about compliance with SafeSport. Further, rank-and-file members are not mentioned in the list of Covered Individuals in USAT’s SafeSport Policy Handbook.

But that may change. USAT is all-in on SafeSport. Laudably! I suspect – predict, actually – that by next year the Annual Membership application (and probably the one-day) will have a SafeSport clause right next to the USADA clause, and if so then there will be no question that what USAT already considers to be the case will for certain be the case.

Badminton apparently has SafeSport compliance on its membership application. USA Cycling is kind of in the middle. General members agree when signing the app that “USADA’s Protocol applies to me” and members "agree to submit to the processes of USADA, including arbitration…” About SafeSport, USAC's member app says that, “the SafeSport Committee will provide additional guidance in making interpretations, determinations, and adjudications.” Kind of squishy. I’ve asked USA Cycling for clarification on this.

Duties of a Covered Individual

First, you live under SafeSport’s Code. There’s not much to it. Well, there’s a lot to it. But almost all of the Code is devoted to processes and procedures. The Behaviors themselves are minimal: Don’t harass, either sexually, or by bullying or stalking or by placing an athlete in physical harm. We’ll get to examples of what SafeSport considers violations.

The other duty is that you’re what SafeSport considers a Mandatory Reporter. If you see “actual or suspected misconduct” you are obliged to report it; and if you don’t you violated its Code.

SafeSport’s Lane

If you take SafeSport’s training, become certified; if you read every document SafeSport generates for external consumption (and I’ve done all of that), I promise you your takeaway will be: This entire program centers around adults coaching children. Mostly it contemplates an adult coaching a team of minors. And this is where SafeSport is guarding our most precious commodity: our children.

But triathlon is an adult sport, by and large. For every USAT-certified coach who specializes in minors, there are 5 or 10 who’re not coaching teams of kids, but individual adults. SafeSport is very suspicious of coaches texting or emailing their charges. For good reason! No swim coach should be texting a 12 year-old he coaches. In triathlon? Do you have a coach? How do you get your workouts? SafeSport offers no guidance for this scenario. “Athletes should not join or ‘like’ a coach or volunteer’s personal page,” according to SafeSport. Then Slowtwitch is in violation, as we offer you the chance to select your coach off our coaching dbase and attach him or her to your Reader Forum User Profile.

SafeSport tells you to, “Set rules around the presence of alcohol at organization events… minimize one-to-one interactions… don’t transport an unrelated athlete by yourself.” Does this rigor overlay neatly on an almost entirely adult population of coached athletes?

SafeSport doesn’t limit its reach to Coach and Subject. I asked SafeSport if it considers under its purview an accusation by one adult athlete against another. “Yes, the Center accepts the jurisdiction of a matter if the accused is a covered individual, which could be an athlete.”

In other words, anyone can level a SafeSport accusation against you. Not just against your coach. Against you. And if you’ve assented to this (by signing a license agreement) then you’ve agreed to adhere to SafeSport’s investigative processes, SafeSport’s arbitration, SafeSport’s public listing of your name. And remember, USAT believes you’re already adhered to this process.


When USADA decided to expand its purview to include age group athletes on a more industrial scale, enforcement got way ahead of education. There’s a thread on our Reader Forum right now about casual, non-competitive, sportsmen caught up in the anti-doping vortex. In that New Zealand case agencies tasked toward the same goal are at cross-purposes over fairness, to the point of asking whether draconian anti-doping enforcement of casual sportsmen are human rights violations. Everyone in the anti-doping agency chain – from NGB to sanctioning clubs to anti-doping agencies – has fallen down on the educational component, in my opinion. Very few of us know what we’re signing up for if we get no guidance on it.

SafeSport’s education is entirely geared toward protecting minors. The education includes a lot of scenarios, dozens, and not a single one contemplates a victim past the age of 18. The education rightly warns against physical contact with minors and offers one option for coaches who want to physically express a congratulation: a fist bump.

Is the triathlon enthusiast population relegated to the fist bump? My guess is that SafeSport would say no. However, there’s no guidance. There’s nothing in its Code; there’s nothing in the training. But, while there’s no training for you, there’s a detailed system of hearings, investigations, arbitrations for you.

Joe Biden is not unique

If you watched any of the NCAA Basketball Tournament over the past month I promise you watched head coaches committing SafeSport violations in plain view. It’s not just about sexual harassment. It’s about hazing, bullying, berating athletes in front of others. That Tourney is sometimes hard to watch – the treatment of coaches toward their players in the heat of the moment. You don’t have to be a Bobby Knight to be guilty. But this is coach behavior long in the making. SafeSport says, “75 percent of elite athletes say their coaches emotionally abused them during their athletic careers.” What are the rules for antique coaches entering the modern era? Or for adults coaching adults? Or just for adult athletes in athlete communities?

Per SafeSport: “It is considered a serious breach the SafeSport Code for a coach (or someone in a similar position) to initiate or acquiesce to an intimate or sexual relationship with an athlete who is being instructed by that coach or whose performance is being supervised or evaluated by that coach.” This is because it’s, “An intimate relationship involving a person in a position of power where a power imbalance exists.”

Coaches, administrators, sponsors, media, race organizers could all easily sit inside the power imbalance paradigm.

“If a 22-year-old coach engages in a sexual relationship with 18-year-old athlete she has direct supervision over, this is a violation of the SafeSport Code because the coach is in a position of power over the athlete, no matter the athlete’s age.” However, in all SafeSport’s training scenarios, the oldest age of any coached athlete is 18. A 45 year-old coach dating a 45 year-old pupil is never contemplated, so, I don’t know if SafeSport considers this a violation or not.

Bearing in mind that in our sport our coached athletes average low-to-mid 40s, I asked someone I know who’s been in the sport as long as I have (about 40 years): “Consider the triathlon coaches you’ve known throughout your life; how many have dated one of their athletes?”

“All of them.”

There was intentional hyperbole in that answer. But, honestly, when I think of adult-to-adult coaches, who’ve been coaching for 20 years or more, I don’t think my friend’s answer is wildly afield. Here’s another SafeSport violation: “Even if a coach is a certified massage professional, don’t allow the coach to massage an athlete.” Again, when I contemplate these longtime coaches, how many of them eschewed the practice of massage?

Let me be more clear: The coach, administrator, sponsor generation that’s been in triathlon since before the turn of the century is one big walking SafeSport violation, if SafeSport’s current prohibited behaviors were overlaid onto triathlon’s coaches 15 or 25 years ago (when no one was advocating against these behaviors). In my opinion, triathlon does not have the problems at the same level we’ve seen in swim and gymnastics, mostly because we’re primarily an adult-onset sport. But I’m certain we have at least a Joe Biden problem: behaviors that are mindless, blundering, or antiquated, but not animated with mal intent.

What’s Needed

Guidance! Best practices! Training! It’s not realistic to expect an entire population of coaches and athletes to absorb wokeness by osmosis. “If you follow SafeSport guidelines you should never have a problem,” SafeSport says. Fine. Just, for us… What guidelines? The fist bump?

And remember, this isn’t just for oldie von moldie triathlon coaches who need an update. It’s my guess that all triathletes will soon live under this very SafeSport Code. Are you confident you’re ready?

In my opinion, USAT must require SafeSport to seriously address adult age group behavior as a condition of adding SafeSport compliance to the annual membership application.

Our Federation, currently led, configured and capitalized, has the muscle, style and sophistication to lead on this – to require of SafeSport the educational component that makes this transition smooth.

I’ve written all of this, almost word for word, 8 years ago, just, substitute USADA for SafeSport. We have a second bite at this apple. I believe USAT is already engaged in what I’m recommending. An allegation of a violation can be made to “the U.S. Center for SafeSport or the USA Triathlon SafeSport Coordinator,” according to USAT’s SafeSport Policy Handbook, and the very fact that USAT will deploy such a person is good. Perhaps a buffer between USAT and SafeSport might contextualize violations through a viewport SafeSport doesn’t have.

Finally, I highly recommend SafeSport’s training. It’s professional, interesting, compelling, comprehensive, urgent. It’s free. Set up a SafeSport account. The one observation about the training, beyond what I discuss above, is that I found it white-centric. I go to a lot of high school track & field meets, which in California are very multi-cultural. I went to a large meet over the weekend and considered what I saw through the prism of the SafeSport training I just took. I wonder whether all cultures and ethnicities find the curriculum relatable. But I don't know, and I defer to the judgments of others on this. If you take the training you can decide for yourself.

SafeSport is due to release a Code update on the 15th of this month; I have no information on the changes from the current Code to the next. I also note that several NGBs have notices on their websites announcing imminent changes to their guidance. Hopefully, what I’ve written here is or soon will be obsolete.