How does SafeSport affect soccer coaches?

Let’s say you’re a U-14 coach -- parent or professional. Your game starts in 20 minutes. Suddenly, your phone buzzes in your pocket. It’s a text from one of your players, who’s confused about which field to go to.

As of now, you can no longer respond -- at least, not directly, unless you copy a parent or guardian on the text.

Can you have a one-on-one session at a futsal court with a player who wants extra training? Nope. Not unless another adult can see what’s going on.

If you’re a licensed massage therapist as well as a coach, and a fellow coach at the club asks you to do a rubdown for one of the club’s players, can you accept? Nope.

Whether you love these rules or hate them doesn’t matter. U.S. Soccer is simply doing what it has to do, legally and morally. Coaches and any other responsible adults are required to abide by these rules. They also must report suspected abuse to law enforcement within 24 hours or risk prosecution.

In the wake of horrific sexual-abuse scandals in USA Gymnastics (Larry Nassar in particular), USA Swimming and other Olympic sports, the federal government has passed legislation requiring all sports organizers not just to crack down on offenders but to take all available measures to prevent such atrocities from happening in the first place.

With some federations struggling to protect their athletes, the U.S. Olympic (now also Paralympic) Committee slowly ramped up a coordinated effort that led to the creation of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a quasi-independent body akin to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that officially opened in March 2017.

The government has been of two minds about helping out. Lawmakers are happy to summon federation leaders to squirm on Capitol Hill, even if those leaders are new replacements for those who’ve been forced out for negligence on their watch. Members of Congress also call impressive press conferences to announce legislation. Then the legislation sits untouched in committee, and the backers usually offer no substantial funding for the Center, anyway.

But the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017, signed into law in 2018, backed the Center’s authority to investigate abuse claims and put the onus on national governing bodies (NGBs) such as USA Swimming or U.S. Soccer to put education and prevention policies in place.

The Center, not an individual NGB, will investigate claims of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct. On other forms of abuse and misconduct, the Center may or may not defer to the federation.

In April 2019, the Center released a comprehensive SafeSport code urging its federations to give sport-specific policies limiting one-on-one interactions in all forms -- travel arrangements, office discussions, social media interactions, etc.

And while the soccer community hasn’t had the widespread issues of other sports, sexual misconduct cases have arisen here and there. As of Aug. 22, a search for “Soccer” at the U.S. Center for SafeSport’s centralized disciplinary database turns up 61 people, a solid majority of whom have been charged with some sort of sexual misconduct. Those offenses aren’t necessarily in the context of their coaching duties -- in some cases, they’re teachers convicted of having sexual relationships with students.

That’s not a large number in comparison with other federations. The much smaller sport of taekwondo has roughly half as many cases as soccer. Track and field has more. Swimming has roughly three times as many.

But the number isn’t zero, and even if it was, the law is clear.

So while U.S. Soccer’s SafeSport efforts haven’t attracted the scrutiny that hangs over other federations, those efforts are proceeding nonetheless. At the Annual General Meeting in February, members passed bylaws and affirmed policies that weaved Center for SafeSport authority into the federation’s fabric.

From the U.S. Soccer homepage, a link at the top for “Safe Soccer” takes you a page of resources offering parent education resources, explanations of federation policy, and a link and phone number for the federation’s Integrity Hotline, an open line that also covers reports of doping violations, game-fixing, referee abuse and other issues. (If you’re reporting a sexual abuse accusation, you must also contact law enforcement, and U.S. Soccer will send the accusation straight to the Center for SafeSport.)

One catch for U.S. Soccer is that it’s composed of constituent members, so some specific authority falls under bodies like U.S. Club Soccer, which has an extensive page of information, including a detailed policy update that goes into effect Sept. 1.

And different organizations may have their own lists of suspensions, most of them not related to sexual abuse. U.S. Youth Soccer has a list with hundreds of names for unspecified infractions.

But some work is centralized within U.S. Soccer. The federation is bringing in an outside provider to give 24-hour support to the Integrity Hotline. Referees (like me) are required to take SafeSport training, for which USSF is in turn required to use modules provided by the Center.

For now, SafeSport responsibility falls within the federation’s busy legal department. But a search is starting for a dedicated staff member akin to similar people in other U.S. sports.

While the new rules may be an imposition on coaches, they may also provide a shield against unwarranted accusations. If a coach and player are never alone together, the coach is far less likely to be in a situation in which an allegation can’t be proved true or false. If a coach never texts a player, any accusation that the coach was “grooming” the player for a future sexual or romantic relationship -- a common issue in swimming -- would hold far less weight.

More importantly, predators won’t have such an easy time preying on the young people entrusted to their care.

2 comments about "How does SafeSport affect soccer coaches?".
  1. R2 Dad, August 26, 2019 at 1:52 a.m.

    Live Scan is now required of coaches/managers/administrators here in Cal-N:
    This is a great development and goes a long way towards establishing identification documentation and impediments to adults preying of youths.
    Of course, unregistered leagues may not have this safeguard--nor insurance--as their primary goal is keeping player costs down. Unfortunately, there is no free lunch.

  2. uffe gustafsson, August 28, 2019 at 4:59 p.m.

    live scan is also required for cal HS coaches.
    it does make it a conundrum for us coaches, have several girls in schools around our HS that play for our HS and need a ride to our game, since they get out just after 3 pm for our 4 pm game and reliant on one of us to pick em up on the way to the game.
    its really a drag that it have come down to this.
    wonder if the parent have a say in us picking them up to  the game, like a release form signed.

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