The debate over SafeSport: is it keeping our children safe?


Everyone’s read about the Larry Nassar scandal with the US Gymnastics team. Now equestrian sports are getting their turn under the microscope of sexual misconduct. In June, California trainer Rob Gage committed suicide after being banned for life for sexual misconduct with a minor. Last year, the New York Times Wrote an expose on  Jimmy Williams (The Coach who Minted Olympians and Left a Trail of Child Molestation), who, based on the testimony of numerous victims, was revealed to be both a brilliant coach and a serial molester.

George Morris
George Morris has issued a statement about the allegations through Phelps Media. “I am deeply troubled by the U.S. Center for SafeSport’s findings regarding unsubstantiated charges for events that allegedly occurred between 1968 & 1972. I contest these findings wholeheartedly and am in the process of disputing them. I share our community’s commitment to protecting the safety and wellbeing of all our athletes who need reliable guidance and encouragement at every level, of which I have provided for over 50 years. I will continue, as I always have, to proudly support equestrianism and its continued development around the world.” Photo by Brenda Mueller.

Today the man in the spotlight is George Morris, a living legend in the hunter/jumper world, and also a man about whom rumors have swirled for years. I have only met Mr. Morris once, at a clinic, and have no idea whether the rumors are true.

The organization that has banned them from USEF events is SafeSport,  an organization chartered under the USOC for the “response and resolution for claims of sexual misconduct… for the National Governing Bodies within the U.S. Olympic Committee.” All Olympic sports fall under its jurisdiction. SafeSport is more than just a tribunal of judges looking at misconduct, it also provides training for coaches and parents to create guidelines for creating a safe environment.

Many people in the equestrian community have problems with SafeSport, believing it to have too much power to besmirch a person’s reputation over events that happened many years ago. The problem with trainers abusing their minor students is that not every victim comes forward in a timely manner. Some of the cases are decades old. There are also privacy issues, we do not have the right to know the intimate details of the abuse, and yet people defending coaches or friends call for more information — how many victims? What kind of abuse? How long ago? These questions pingponged around the Internet for weeks. But do we have a right to know? In the close knit equestrian community it doesn’t take much information to out victims, who are then subjected to shaming.

In the case of Mr. Gage, five women stepped forward and identified themselves as victims of abuse. Among them was Hilary Kuhne Ridland, a well-known rider and wife of course designer Robert Ridland, who says she was sexually abused by Gage at the age of 14. I don’t know the names of the other women who came forward, but Ms. Ridland held a conference at a show and offered to answer questions.

The backlash was fierce. Although she has many supporters, people also posted things like this, which is still on her Facebook page.

You are a loser and you murdered Rob Gage- if you suffered so much over the past 30+ years why didn’t you say something and why did u continue to associate with Rob and hire him to judge your shows? I hope you rot in hell

For many people, coming forward about sexual abuse, especially when it was perpetrated by someone in a position of power, can take years. Often, the people being groomed for sexual advances are vulnerable. They may feel shame, or they may feel flattered that someone they idolize is sexually attracted to them. It may take a long time to untangle those threads.

Perhaps the most common arguments I see are that someone was a terrific person who would “never” do something like that, or that  things were “different” in the 60s and 70s.

We’re trying to hold people accountable by today’s standards for actions that took place in a whole different time, with different norms.

But when was it okay for older men (it’s primarily men) to have sexual relations with children? Some people argue that the young riders pursued the “hot trainers.” Maybe they did. That doesn’t mean those trainers should have taken advantage of those girls, or that it wasn’t illegal. For many of them, though, it wasn’t some grand adventure, but rather something they didn’t have the courage to speak out against for fear they wouldn’t be believed by the adults around them, or because they thought they needed to stay in the good graces of the trainer. Read this story by DiAnn Langer (From Survivor to Chef D’Equipe: My Story) if you have any doubts.

The real problem with addressing events that happened so long ago is how people remember them. John Lipari, the lead trainer at La Jolla Farms Stables through the 1970s, was found to have initiated sexual relationships with girls as young as 12 and 13. His reasoning? The girls came on to him.

“They were nice kids, but it’s not what you think. It’s not what everybody thinks,” Lipari said. “Do you know how hard it is to say no when they come on so strong? I never messed around with anybody that did not come on to me.”

The trainer said although the sex was consensual, he now understands it may have been inappropriate. – John Lipari in the San Diego Union-Tribune

The girls remember it differently. Here’s what several of them said in the same article.

“My trainer was like God to me,” Farr said in a telephone interview. “I looked up to him.”

“The whole time it was happening I never told anybody,” Thornton said by telephone. “I became the star. I got to ride the clients’ horses. My parents attended a few shows, but eventually they were never there. The other girls that were his victims were also a little bit estranged from their families.”

“Was it consensual?” she asked. “I want to say it wasn’t like normal consent. It was more like ‘Be a good girl and you can do this’.

“He made it seem like it was OK, that it was normal, that he cared about me and that he would keep me safe and I believed him,” said Moser, who is 54 now and living in Tarzana. “He was 42 and I was 16. He brainwashed me.”

I was riding at a show barn in the mid to late 70s and early 80s. Nothing ever happened to me, but I saw a few things that in retrospect, were not appropriate. At the time, I didn’t give it much thought. I was there to ride. Yes, we all sought attention from some of the big name riders who were there. Yes, we wanted to be noticed, to get tips on riding better, to be complemented. But, I wasn’t interested in older men and I didn’t really focus on the age differences in some of the relationships that I witnessed. In retrospect, I did see things I would now consider inappropriate? Would I have mentioned them to my parents? No way! They might have kept me away from the barn, and at that point in my life, riding horses was incredibly important. Instead, I remember ignoring the comments from the former Olympian — who rated the girls in the barn on a numerical scale — and didn’t think much about the young woman who was living with one of the trainers.

More recently, I saw the coach/athlete relationship play out in my daughter’s sport. The coach was an attractive, friendly man in his early 30s. I liked him. He was an excellent coach and everyone one wanted to train with him; his coaching almost guaranteed the chance to be recruited to a top college program. At one point my daughter and her friends commented on the apparantly close relationship he had with an athlete who he’d coached as a junior and was now in college. I dismissed her speculation, I didn’t think he’d be stupid enough to have a relationship with a student.

I was wrong. The girl’s parents discovered the relationship and the coach was fired. I don’t know if he started a sexual relationship with her while she was still under age. I do know that he took her and other minors to away events where supervision was minimal. Suddenly, the fact that he would post on the girl’s Instragram accounts seemed less benign, his joking a bit less funny. I later learned he’d been dismissed from a previous position for sending inappropriate text messages to an athlete on his team.

There’s a new documentary out, At the Heart of Gold, about the US Gymnastics scandal. It provides a chilling example about how victims were encouraged to “reframe” their experiences, and those who reported were shut down. People preferred to look the other way rather than accept that the unthinkable was happening. One of the most heartbreaking results from the Nassar case was that the father of one of his victims (who was a family friend, not an athlete) committed suicide when he realized his daughter had been a victim since the age of 6 and he had not believed her.

SafeSport may not be perfect, but it’s necessary. Just because someone is an excellent coach or horseman — by all reports Jimmy Williams was a phenomenal trainer — doesn’t make them a good human being. It’s time that coaches in all sports are held accountable and our children are protected. SafeSport might not be perfect, but people have turned a blind eye to abuse for decades. It’s time for that to stop. So yes, I believe that SafeSport will help keep our children safe. The training and awareness that it brings to organizations is going to be critical to creating safer environments for minor athletes. Unfortunately, part of the effort is going to involve cleaning house so that coaches in every sport understand that abuse will not be tolerated, which is something we saw in gymnastics and now is playing out in equestrian sports.

One thought on “The debate over SafeSport: is it keeping our children safe?

  1. If you read any books or reports on child molestation, the perverts…for that’s what they are, always protest their innocence with statements such as “she came on to me”, “She liked it”, “It was consensual”. Talk to ANYONE who works in the corrections department or the Bureau of Prisons and they’ll tell you that. What’s even worse is that most child molesters, wehn convicted and sent to prison, are PROTECTED from the general population. Most child molesters are not sent to a Federal penitentiary or a high security prison for precisely that reason…the other prisoners try to kill them. So most of them are in low to medium security facilities, and…because there are no children in prisons…get released early due to good behaviour.
    And…so often, victims of these perverts are not believed, or are told not to tell, or in other ways manipulated into protecting their molesters.
    Arrrgh, don’t get me started.

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