Two taekwondo coaches had a lifetime ban from Olympic sports permanently lifted after their alleged sexual assault victims refused to testify in person before arbitration proceedings convened by the Denver-based U.S. Center for SafeSport.
The bans against brothers Steven and Jean Lopez were brought in August after the center found they had engaged in a pattern of sexual misconduct. They appealed to arbitration, which involves a courtlike proceeding with all decisions deemed “final” in the center’s eyes. With no victims represented, the brothers won, and the bans cannot be revisited unless new allegations emerge.
An attorney representing the women, Steve Estey, said efforts to show their claims in sworn statements at the hearings were denied. The women, who face testimony in a civil case, didn’t want to face the trauma of taking the stand twice, and their voices weren’t heard, the lawyer said.
Howard Jacobs, attorney for Jean Lopez, said his client is satisfied with the outcome.
“His case is done, so he is obviously happy with the result,” Jacobs said. “He has maintained all along that the allegations are false.”
The ban was lifted on Jean Lopez after a Dec. 27 arbitration hearing, four weeks after former Olympic champion Steven Lopez had his sanction lifted. In a statement, SafeSport said it follows “best practices” in conducting arbitration proceedings.
However, legal issues are far from over for the Texas-based Lopez brothers, who along with the U.S. Olympic Committee, Colorado Springs-based USA Taekwondo and SafeSport are defendants in a lawsuit brought by five named plaintiffs and 45 “Jane Doe” plaintiffs who allege the coaches engaged in a pattern of sexual assault and harassment while protected by the agencies governing Olympic sports.
The Gazette does not name alleged victims of sexual assault.
The governing agencies have filed motions to dismiss the suit. The USOC in Colorado Springs filed a motion in court that claims it had no duty to protect the women.
“No entity has a duty to prevent attacks it had no reason to believe might occur,” the USOC said in court papers.
The Olympic Committee did not respond to an email seeking comment on the decision to allow the Lopez brothers to return to Olympic coaching.
SafeSport issued a statement Wednesday defending its process as a whole, but declining to address the specifics of the Lopez brother allegations.
The center did, though, discuss testimony used in arbitration proceedings.
“Following best practices in the field, the Center uses a trauma-informed approach to accommodate witnesses, including allowing them to participate in arbitration remotely, as well as an opportunity to limit cross-examination to the arbitrator as opposed to a responding party’s counsel,” the center said in a statement. “The center is dedicated to its mission of making athlete well-being the centerpiece of our nation’s sports culture.”
SafeSport and the USOC have been locked in the spotlight over the past month after a pair of scathing reports criticized Olympic culture as leading to the crimes of USA Gymnastics Dr. Larry Nassar, who was accused of sexually assaulting hundreds of athletes.
The reports accused the Olympic Committee of focusing on money and medals rather than athlete safety.
In the USOC’s internal report on the Nassar case, investigators say it “engaged in affirmative efforts to protect and preserve their institutional interests — even as Nassar retired from the sport with his reputation intact and continued to have access to girls and young women at the college, club and high school levels.”
Under new CEO Sarah Hirshland, the Olympic Committee has pledged to redouble its efforts against sexual assault, with SafeSport as a centerpiece, even as critics decry the slow pace of change.
SafeSport, which formally opened its doors in 2017 after years of planning by the USOC, was designed to stamp out sexual assault in Olympic sports and given broad disciplinary powers to ensure predators stay away from athletes.
But Estey says the agency hasn’t lived up to its billing.
“They are really new, and they really don’t know what they are doing,” Estey said.
In congressional testimony last year, SafeSport leaders complained of a case backlog exacerbated by a lack of funding.
While the USOC and the four dozen national governing bodies it oversees for individual Olympic sports have stepped up contributions to the independent SafeSport nonprofit, critics say the center still lacks the money, people and processes to properly do its job.
In the suit, the 50 plaintiffs say there are deeper problems with SafeSport, including deep ties to the USOC that endanger the center’s independence.
“Plaintiffs and SafeSport should be on the same side of this lawsuit,” the plaintiffs allege in court papers. “Unfortunately, SafeSport has proven to be little more than a nominally outsourced HR department, facilitating the USOC’s corporate greed by covering up sexual abuse and harassment complaints and providing plausible deniability.”
SafeSport, in its motion to dismiss the lawsuit, claimed immunity under its federal charter for actions relating to bans. “The Center has immunity from damages suits for such decisions, and Plaintiffs have no valid legal claims against the center,” SafeSport said in court papers.
The center issued a lifetime ban for the Jean Lopez last August and touted the decision in court papers.
“Relatedly, while Plaintiffs mention a ‘125-page report’ supporting a permanent ban of Jean Lopez, and the center fully embraces that report, it in no way supports any lawsuit against the center,” SafeSport contended.
After Jean Lopez was banned, the center suspended its action pending an arbitration ruling.
SafeSport said its bans have largely been upheld in arbitration. “To put it in context, of the 365 final decisions (including making 262 permanently ineligible) the Center’s issued since opening March 3, 2017, only 11 went to arbitration. Of those 11, arbitrators supported the Center’s findings of a violation in 8 of those matters.”
SafeSport has erased a record of its investigation of the Lopez brothers. A search of the center’s online database of disciplinary actions Wednesday turned up no trace of the taekwondo cases.
Records of the arbitration are covered by confidentiality policies that keep reasoning behind decisions locked tight.
The lack of transparency, Estey said, is troubling.
“It is kind of star chamber stuff,” he said.