This post was written in response to ongoing confusion regarding roles and responsibilities between that of the US Center for SafeSport (USCSS) and USA Fencing. It is not intended to go into the weeds of their unique disciplinary processes, rather, to establish who takes jurisdiction over a particular case and why.
We also wrote this with the intent of providing some background on why the USCSS was established as an independent body in 2017 following the USA Gymnastics Larry Nassar scandal.
- Once the USCSS establishes jurisdiction over a case (usually cases involving sexual misconduct of minors or non-minors), USA Fencing’s disciplinary measures are extremely limited.
- USA Fencing will handle SafeSport Code violations that the USCSS does not establish exclusive or discretionary jurisdiction over. USA Fencing is also responsible for tracking member/club compliance with background checks, and ensuring all who interact with athletes are up to date on SafeSport training.
- When it comes to reporting, complaints can be filed with either USA Fencing or USCSS. Cases will be triaged based on the nature of the accusation. Even if you file to the “wrong” body, they will still communicate with one another to determine jurisdiction.
- USA Fencing cannot prevent someone from participating in a case that USCSS establishes jurisdiction over, but they can create safety plans to protect both accuser and accused.
- It can be confusing who takes on a case and why. We review some recent cases and explain which bureaucratic body took on each of these cases.
Larry Nassar and the Establishment of the US Center for SafeSport
After serving as the Doctor of USA Gymnastics for nearly 20 years, Dr. Larry Nassar was convicted on child pornography charges and for sexually assaulting more than 100 women. He was sentenced to a maximum of 120 years in prison soon after.
For decades, Dr. Nassar’s crimes were ignored by parents, coaches, and USA Gymnastics itself. A dozen victims attempted to report Nassar, and at every turn, they were silenced due to Nassar’s political influence on the organization and “culture and policies of the gymnastics program that inhibited victims from coming forward.”
Nassar’s victims cite a number of reasons why he was able to abuse women and children for so long: masterful fundraiser, Olympic team influence, protection from powerful coaches, and a broader culture that rejected the narratives of victims.
The story of Nassar was a systemic abuse horror story unlike anything a United States Olympic and Paralympic Commission (USOPC) National Governing Body (NGB) had ever encountered before. While Nassar was the most egregious example, a Congressional report found incidents of similar prolific abuse in taekwondo, speed skating, swimming, and cycling. Soon after the Nassar indictment, Congress passed the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017 with overwhelming bipartisan support, thus establishing the USA Center for SafeSport (USCSS) as the “official safe sport organization for all Olympic, Paralympic, Pan American and Para Pan American sports in the United States.”
USCSS’s Independence and Exclusive Jurisdiction
Section Summary: Once the USCSS establishes jurisdiction over a case (usually cases involving sexual misconduct of minors or non-minors), USA Fencing’s disciplinary measures are extremely limited.
With the establishment of the USCSS, NGB’s no longer had the authority to police themselves when it came to incidents of sexual abuse. USCSS was granted exclusive jurisdiction to resolve such manners. The Center’s exclusive jurisdiction extended to the following types of misconduct, per the USA SafeSport Code (Section 4, Article A):
- Sexual misconduct (including child sexual abuse)
- Criminal charges involving child abuse/misconduct
- Misconduct related to reporting
- Disruption of the Center’s processes (their equivalent of obstruction of justice, in a sense)
- Other discretionary jurisdiction (as defined in Section 4, Article B of the code)
There’s one more important thing to note regarding USCSS’s exclusive jurisdiction: Once it has been established that the USCSS has jurisdiction over a case, an NGB such as USA Fencing “cannot issue—in response to those allegations—a suspension or other restriction that may deny or threaten to deny a Respondent’s opportunity to participate in sport. The relevant organization may implement any necessary safety plan(s) or temporary measure(s)” (see USA SafeSport Code, Article V, Section D).
Is There Anything USA Fencing Can do Once the USCSS Establishes Exclusive Jurisdiction Over a Case?
Section Summary: USA Fencing cannot prevent someone from participating in a case that USCSS establishes jurisdiction over, but they can create safety plans to protect both accuser and accused.
This has been a topic of heated discussion around recent cases. The short answer to this question, is that once the USCSS establishes exclusive jurisdiction, USA Fencing cannot prevent an accused party from participating in the sport.
What they can do, however, per Section V, Article D of the USA SafeSport Code is “…implement any necessary safety plan(s) or temporary measure(s).”
It’s not widely publicized, but we recently spoke to Aly Nutter, USCSS’s process coordinator who informed us that any accuser may request a safety plan be implemented, regardless of the outcome of a case.
So We’ve Established What Types of Misconduct the USCSS is Responsible For. What is USA Fencing Responsible for Then?
Section Summary: USA Fencing will handle SafeSport Code violations that the USCSS does not establish exclusive or discretionary jurisdiction over. USA Fencing is also responsible for tracking member/club compliance with background checks, and ensuring all who interact with athletes are up to date on SafeSport training.
In the event the Center does not establish jurisdiction over a case per the criteria listed above (usually cases of non-sexual misconduct), a case is remanded to USA Fencing.
Cases that USA Fencing might take on include:
- Spewing racism to students on a Zoom class.
- Physical assault of a non-minor.
- Committing financial crimes.
- Bullying/harassment of a non-minor.
- Accepting a bribe as a referee.
- Any other SafeSport code violations that do not fall under the Center’s jurisdiction.
We place an emphasis on “might,” because per Section 4, Article B of the USA SafeSport Code, the USCSS may still establish jurisdiction over examples like those listed above should they so choose.
USA Fencing is also responsible for executing the screening and background check program that coaches, volunteers, medical staff, referees, Board members, and division officers must complete in order to participate in their respective capacities. Per the USA Fencing SafeSport Policy, all clubs’ Coaches or anyone in a teaching capacity must pass a background check. Failure to do so can result in loss of insurance or sanctions against a club for non-compliance.
Additionally, Federal Law allows the USCSS to issue mandatory prevention training to any adults operating in the above capacities. Per USA Fencing’s SafeSport code, they are responsible by law for offering this training, or, with parental consent, to offer to minors as well (see USA SafeSport Policy, Section III).
SafeSport requirements also mandate that USA Fencing must establish a means for members to report, establish policies to prohibit retaliation, and governance procedures to ensure they remain in compliance with USCSS’s policies.
The Reporting Relationship Between USA Fencing and the USCSS
Section Summary: When it comes to reporting, complaints can be filed with either USA Fencing or USCSS. Cases will be triaged based on the nature of the accusation. Even if you file to the “wrong” body, they will still communicate with one another to determine jurisdiction.
If you’re still confused about who handles which kind of cases and you’re unsure of who to file a complaint with, the answer is: either.
Both USA Fencing and the USCSS will be in communication on the front-end of a disciplinary process to determine which body shall have jurisdiction over a case. We’ve found the optimal responsiveness and urgency by going to USCSS’s reporting webpage and filing a complaint there, or by calling their reporting hotline at 1(833)587-7233.
You can also file a complaint via USA Fencing’s resources by going to the following USA Fencing webpage, downloading their report form, and emailing it to email@example.com.
USA Fencing recently published the following flow chart that provides an overview of how cases are triaged. It’s a bit confusing, but the important thing to note, is that USA Fencing will often give a discretionary referral to the USCSS who will then determine if they want to establish jurisdiction over a case. Regardless of where a case is filed, the organizations will communicate with one another to determine jurisdiction. Think of it like the USCSS having “first dibbs,” so to speak.
Recent Cases, Who Handled Them, and Why?
Section Summary: It can be confusing who takes on a case and why. We review some recent cases and explain which bureaucratic body took on each of these cases.
So we’ve established at this point that the USCSS will establish exclusive jurisdiction over cases that are sexual in nature, cases that obstruct the Center’s processes, or cases that they exercise discretionary jurisdiction over. Confusing? Yup. Let’s look at a couple of recent cases, which body (USA Fencing or USCSS) handled them, and why. Obligatory discretionary notice: many of these cases listed are active investigations. This is not intended to weigh in on the veracity of allegations against the individuals; rather, to discuss which bureaucratic body took on each case and why:
|The Case||Which Organization Heard the Case||Why|
|A member of the USA Olympic Epee Team was accused of committing numerous allegations of sexual assault.||US Center for SafeSport||The allegations against the accused are sexual in nature. Thus, they fall under the USCSS’s exclusive jurisdiction to investigate such alleged crimes.|
|A Coach is accused of grooming a minor (two active cases with such allegations)||US Center for SafeSport||The allegations against the accused are sexual in nature and involve a minor. Thus, they fall under the USCSS’s exclusive jurisdiction to investigate allegations that are sexual in nature. Per mandatory reporting guidelines, these also have been reported to local Law Enforcement Agencies.|
|A Coach is accused of abusing the SafeSport process, retaliating against an accuser, and for failure to report the accuser’s allegations||US Center for SafeSport||The USCSS Code Section IV Article A establishes that the Center will have exclusive jurisdiction when it comes to any obstruction of their processes/failure to report.|
|A Referee is accused of assaulting another referee over a disagreement||USA Fencing||This was a case of physical misconduct involving two adults. While USCSS could have established discretionary jurisdiction, the case was remanded to USA Fencing.|
|A Coach is accused of making racist statements during a Zoom class.||USA Fencing||As a case of emotional misconduct, the Center could have established discretionary jurisdiction here, but the case was remanded to USA Fencing.|
|A Coach is accused of committing a financial crime.||USA Fencing||There doesn’t seem to be an area where the Center can establish discretionary jurisdiction here. This falls under USA Fencing’s Code of Conduct, and therefore was handled by USA Fencing.|
For more details on the current list of ineligible members, you can visit USA Fencing’s Ineligible Member List.
Answering Questions from the Fencing Coach Community:
Question: Why is it not an established rule that coaches/assistant coaches/staff only interact with students in the presence of a chaperone?
Answer: It is! Under the Minor Athlete Abuse Prevention (MAAP) program rules, all Fencing interactions must be “observable and interruptible.” In the same policy, you must “Have another Adult Participant physically present for the athletic training modality, massage, or rubdown” as well.
Parents may sign a consent waiver annually to forgo that right and allow coaches to train athletes one on one without a second adult present, but as a best practice, one should always have another adult (be it a parent or a second coach) present.
Further, communications with a minor athlete must always have a parent copied. As a best practice for all coaches, we recommend having a second adult present when in doubt.