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What is SafeSport and Why Did It Suspend Alberto Salazar?

The U.S. Center for SafeSport is investigating Alberto Salazar. Here’s what you need to know about the SafeSport code and who enforces it.

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On Friday, the U.S. Center for SafeSport temporarily suspended former Nike Oregon Project coach Albert Salazar, who is also serving a four-year U.S. Anti-Doping Agency ban for violating its rules.

The news of the SafeSport suspension comes three months after Mary Cain, a former teen track star who trained under Salazar from 2013 to 2015, alleged in a New York Times op-ed that the coach weighed her in front of teammates and publicly shamed her for not hitting his predetermined number on the scale. As a result, Cain, now 23, said she suffered depression, suicidal thoughts, five stress fractures, and didn’t menstruate for three years.

Cain’s allegations were later corroborated by former members of the now-defunct Oregon Project and others came forward with similar experiences, including 2008 Olympian Amy Yoder Begley, who was a member of the group from 2007 until 2011, when she said Salazar dismissed her from the team because she appeared too heavy (scans of her lean muscle and body fat ratio at that time showed she was fitter than ever, she added).

Salazar did not return an email message seeking comment for this article. When he received the four-year doping violations ban—for trafficking testosterone and tampering with the doping control process—he denied the charges and is in the process of appealing the decision in the Court of Arbitration for Sport. After Cain’s new allegations came to light, Salazar also denied those, though he told the Oregonian, “I may have made comments that were callous or insensitive over the course of years of helping my athletes through hard training.”

The U.S. Center for SafeSport has temporarily suspended Salazar while it investigates the case, Dan Hill, a spokesperson for the Center said during a phone interview on Monday. Officials at the Center can’t comment on details of specific cases or the nature of the allegations it is investigating.

Since the news broke on Friday in the New York Times, many runners and fans of the sport have wondered what the Center is, what is included in the SafeSport code, and what authority it has within U.S.A. Track & Field. Women’s Running spoke to some experts and officials to answer a few of the big questions.

What is the U.S. Center for SafeSport?

It’s an independent nonprofit organization based in Denver, Colorado, created in 2017 and designated by the U.S. Congress to respond to reports of sexual misconduct within U.S. Olympic and Paralympic sports. It is federally authorized under the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act and also has responsibility to develop policies to prevent emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of athletes of all ages participating in Olympic sports at all levels.

How is the U.S. Center for SafeSport funded and why does it have authority within U.S.A. Track & Field?

In 2019, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) gave the Center $7.4 million and the national governing bodies (NGBs) of each sport collectively contributed $2.05 million. The total 2019 budget was $10.5 million.

The USOPC sanctions each sport’s NGB—in running’s case, that’s U.S.A. Track & Field (USATF). In order to receive sanctioning, each NGB must support SafeSport.

“That’s the lever that the Center has, even though we’re independent,” Hill said. “They’re required to work with the Center.”

One of the main criticisms about the Center is that it is under-funded and doesn’t have enough resources to keep up with the number of cases that are reported. It receives more than 200 reports a month, has an estimated 1,100 open cases, and 18 investigators and lawyers. Leaders are asking the federal government to provide more funding, as well as proposing that NGBs contribute more.

“It is resource-strained,” Hill said. “That doesn’t mean that cases are being investigated at a lower level of professionalism, but it takes longer to get to them. How many cases we can get to and in what time frame has been frustrating to some people, but the only way the Center can continue to be a credible, independent body is if there’s a fairness in it, which means it’s thorough…and it has to be based on evidence and investigation and substance.”

Nancy Hogsheads-Makar, an Olympic swimmer and civil rights attorney who founded the advocacy group Champion Women, has been involved in a number of SafeSport cases representing victims.

“As I practical matter, when I do it for clients, I want to give the Center a done deal, so I collect witness statements and text messages and emails and the ‘love letters’ between the parties,” she said. “You don’t have to do that, but bear in mind that right now the U.S. Center for SafeSport is getting over 200 complaints a month…it’s an extraordinary number.”

How does the Center decide if it will pursue a case?

The organization has the exclusive authority to respond to allegations of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct, but it also has the discretion to investigate other violations of the SafeSport code, like bullying, harassment, and physical and emotional abuse.

After a report is filed, the Center evaluates whether it will take the case. If it chooses not to, the report goes back to the NGB and the sport’s officials can choose to pursue it either by investigating internally or hiring an outside investigator. In rare circumstances the Center may investigate a report of emotional or physical abuse. All investigations are kept confidential and reports of violations don’t have a statute of limitations.

“In general—not speaking about [the Salazar case] specifically—the Center will evaluate the severity of it or take it if it’s something systemic or pervasive,” Hill said. “Other reasons the Center would take this kind of case would involve conflicts of interest, like if it might involve a major funder of the sport or a senior official in the sport.”

Nike is the biggest sponsor of U.S.A. Track & Field with a deal that goes through 2040 with an estimated worth of $500 million. After Cain’s allegations last fall, Nike said it conducted an internal investigation of Salazar and the Oregon Project. Nike said it will not release the findings, but it did release a list of new initiatives it plans to pursue as a result of its probe. Cain said she did not participate because she didn’t feel it was a transparent process. “And seemingly some of the people involved in the process were investigating themselves,” she told Women’s Running.

What is included in the SafeSport code and how might Salazar have violated it?

It’s important to note that because investigations are confidential, it’s unknown which allegations the SafeSport case into Salazar may include.

Based on what is publicly known from athletes’ stories and what has been revealed during the course of the U.S. Anti-Doping investigation, a number of SafeSport violations could be at play. Reading the SafeSport code offers some insight, based on U.S. Anti-Doping documents and former Oregon Project athletes who have spoken publicly about their experiences. “Emotional misconduct,” for example, includes a pattern of verbal abuse like calling an athlete fat; “physical misconduct” can include prescribing weight-control methods (like weigh-ins) without regard to the nutritional well-being of an athlete (Cain said in November that Salazar suggested she take birth control and diuretics to lose weight). The code also prohibits coaches from providing non-prescribed medications to athletes, which Salazar has also been accused of doing.

Some runners have asked what the difference is between “tough coaching” and emotional abuse. While a runner’s body fat to lean muscle ratio is part of performance, when coaches put pressure on athletes to become thinner, it can result in serious health risks. Cain’s symptoms, for example, indicate she suffered from RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport), a syndrome of insufficient caloric intake, which can result in amenorrhea, decreased bone density, and excessive fatigue. Long-term, it can also result in cardiovascular disease, infertility, and osteoporosis. Before Cain left Oregon and returned home to New York, she said she felt so isolated that she had suicidal thoughts and cut herself.

Who has to be trained and SafeSport certified in track and field?

USATF adopted a SafeSport code in 2014, three years before the national Center opened. The sport’s code is aimed at creating safe environments for runners of all ages—from youth to masters, recreational to elite. Teams like the Oregon Project or even local running clubs become members of USATF in order to participate in USATF events like regional or national championships or the Olympic Trials.

USATF has a public “coaches registry” that lists the individual coaches across the country who are USATF members, have cleared criminal background checks, acknowledged receipt of the SafeSport handbook, and passed a 90-minute online SafeSport certification course. Others who go through the same process include volunteers, vendors, agents, officials, youth camp staff, and the USATF staff and board of directors.

“By design, these individuals cannot act on their official capacities until becoming USATF 3-Step SafeSport Compliant first,” Susan Hazzard, USATF director of public relations, wrote in an email to Women’s Running.

In order for a coach like Salazar to receive credentials for any USATF meet, like the Olympic Trials, for example, he would need to appear on the list of compliant USATF coaches. Or, in order for a local youth running team to retain USATF membership and the support that comes with it (like insurance), its coaches, volunteers, and staff must also retain SafeSport certification and valid background checks.

USATF also makes a list of banned coaches available on its website.

Of the 130,000 USATF members, Hazzard said about 10,000 members annually are SafeSport compliant.

What happens when a report is filed with SafeSport? Who can file one?

Anybody who is aware or a victim of a SafeSport violation can file a confidential report—either on the USATF website, by phone, or through the U.S. Center for SafeSport website. It’s noted that if the concern involves child abuse or the sexual abuse of a child, law enforcement also needs to be notified.

After a report is filed and if the Center decides to take it, it’s assigned to an investigator. The cases of all forms of abuse rely heavily on testimonies and interviews of witnesses or those with direct knowledge of the allegations.

“At first we may have only a few points of contact, but over time, through correspondence, you find additional people to speak to and there’s more evidence gathering,” Hill said. “That could include emails or text messages or social media posts or video.”

Then the investigator writes a report that’s reviewed by a team, which will form a recommendation about whether to move forward.

“At some point early in the process, if there’s enough evidence, the Center can issue a temporary measure,” Hill said. “It’s akin to when an employer says that somebody is being put on administrative leave, pending the outcome of an investigation. A temporary ban is the furthest we can go—short of that, the Center can order a restriction that would say, for example, ‘These two people can’t be at the gym or a meet together.’”

Salazar received a temporary suspension. He had already received the coaching ban from USADA, but this also means he can’t participate in the sport in any capacity until the investigation is complete. After the Center issues a decision and if that includes a sanction like a lifetime ban, Salazar will have the right to request arbitration.

Why don’t more people in the sport know about SafeSport or how to use its services if needed?

Much of the responsibility to educate the public about the U.S. Center for SafeSport falls on the Center itself. But with limited resources and a flood of cases each month, Hill said that the focus has been less on marketing and more on investigating reports.

“It’s relatively new still—it opened its doors in 2017 and there are major cultural shifts happening in sport,” Hill said. “In some of these sports those cultural shifts are happening at a much slower rate than in the rest of society, which is a much bigger issue…more than a million people have been trained through SafeSport—the awareness is growing, but there’s a long way to go.”

Some of the responsibility also rests with the NGBs. Officials at USATF said they send emails about SafeSport to athletes and market it at championship events through pamphlets and information booths. They also put information about how to report a complaint on race bibs, Hazzard said.

“Additionally, we make SafeSport information readily available on our website,” she said.

Hogshead-Makar feels the NGBs like USATF should do more to educate a wider population of people within their sports—not just athletes, but parents, too.

“Families don’t know what to look for—for example, I had a client in figure skating and her mom said that she thought she should be alert for signs that her child was moody or withdrawn. She saw a child who was happy and gleeful and couldn’t wait to get to practice,” Hogshead-Maker said. “Little did she know, her daughter was texting late at night with her coach and having coaching sessions alone. She got groomed and was molested. But her parent saw a teen who was happy.”

If more people within track and field understood the policies and reporting procedures, perhaps a faster shift would take place within the sport. Hogshead-Makar is trying to do her part, for example creating one-sheet of bullet points regarding SafeSport policy that everybody should know.

“I could easily be in private practice taking cases, but I’m much more interested in getting the word out and having more people understand what the best practices are,” Hogshead-Makar said.