DENVER (AP) — When Kirsten Hawkes, a one-time elite fencer, reached out to her childhood coach for advice about starting her own fencing club, their meeting turned awkward right away.
It began, she said, with an unwanted kiss on the lips when the two met at a bar during a fencing tournament in Minneapolis last October. A few hours later, as she and the coach were saying good-bye, Hawkes said he forcibly kissed her — “stuck his tongue in my mouth,” she told investigators.
Hawkes filed a complaint against the then-assistant coach with the U.S. Paralympic team to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, whose mandate is to combat sex abuse in Olympic sports. But it didn’t take long for her to realize she was pitted against not just the coach, but one of the most renowned sports attorneys in the United States.
“It just led to a sense of helplessness,” Hawkes, 36, told The Associated Press about the process that led to her allegations against the 52-year-old coach ultimately being rejected.
“The whole point is, it shouldn’t be an undue burden for a victim to come forward. But that’s how it ended up.”
To Hawkes, the 10-month-long ordeal illustrates why the Denver-based SafeSport Center has come under increasing scrutiny for what critics, from athletes to high-ranking Olympics officials, contend is an opaque, confusing process that often takes far too long to resolve cases.
A draft report in September by a congressionally appointed commission obtained by the AP concluded the center was “in potential crisis.” More than half of the 1,756 athletes, coaches and administrators in the Olympic movement surveyed said SafeSport wasn’t meeting its goals; nearly 25% disagreed or strongly disagreed when asked whether the center was successful in its mandate to sanction sex abuse in Olympic sports.
Formed in 2017 as the depths of former gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s crimes were being exposed by hundreds of his victims, SafeSport is responsible for resolving abuse cases involving not just Olympians but all athletes in Olympic-related sports down to the grassroots level — a scope that covers more than 11 million athletes, including those like Hawkes.
Since then, more than 1,900 offenders have been placed on SafeSport’s disciplinary database — showing, it says, that efforts to corral abusers who might otherwise go unchecked have been successful.
But Hawkes’ former coach never went on that list — not after SafeSport handed him a three-month probation in May, six months after its initial hearing in December, nor after he was immediately removed from his Paralympics coaching job by USA Fencing. Then, an eight-hour arbitration hearing in August overturned the probation and other sanctions.
In her ruling, the arbitrator noted her decision was partly influenced by the “different and contradictory messages” sent by the kiss that began the evening.
The AP is not identifying the coach because his name never landed on SafeSport’s disciplinary database. His probation only meant he had to disclose his status to anyone he worked for and faced harsher punishment if he committed another violation.
Hawkes’ complaint also included abuse accusations against the coach when she was a child in Huntington, New York. She told SafeSport investigators he touched her between her legs, squeezed her thigh, poked and touched her breasts using his fencing foil, and made comments about her breasts, starting when she was 12.
SafeSport told Hawkes those allegations were not pursued because New York state law and fencing rules at the time would not have resulted in charges or sanctions.
That policy undercuts what SafeSport touts as one of its biggest strengths — its authority to pursue cases without regard to statutes of limitation.
“It’s frustrating to the center, as it is rightly to claimants, when rules or laws did not exist that prohibited conduct in the past” that SafeSport rules would punish today, communications director Hilary Nemchik said in an email.
Nemchik said the center is constantly exploring ways to improve and next year will announce changes stemming from feedback and internal review “on how to make its processes more timely, understandable and trauma-informed.”
Hawkes said the center’s response fed into her belief that the process is flawed if it won’t even consider older allegations like hers.
“It has to be consistent,” she said. “If it doesn’t work for everybody, then it doesn’t work for anybody.”
Hawkes said as a kid, with her father not in the picture, her reaction to the coach’s alleged behavior was less horrified than it it should have been.
“I think about it now and it’s really disturbing,” she said. “There are a lot of things that happened when I was a kid and young adult where it was just less awkward” to let it pass, “than to just say ‘No.’”
Hawkes also said she was thinking about good memories from her childhood fencing days when she decided to meet with the coach to pick his brain about a business venture she was considering to open her own fencing center in San Diego.
Both said the evening began with the kiss on the lips, but in arbitration testimony, they disagreed over who initiated it.
Hawkes testified the coach began talking to her about her sex life and interlocking legs with her under the bar. She said she was uncomfortable, but tried to make the best of a difficult situation because she knew they would cross paths again at the tournament.
She said she answered “No” when the coach asked if she would invite him to her hotel room. As they parted ways in front of her hotel, Hawkes said she reached out for a hug and the coach leaned down and forcibly stuck his tongue in her mouth.
“I was like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no,’” she testified, adding that she pushed him away.
The arbitration decision says the coach “acknowledged kissing claimant that evening, stating he thought she wanted him to kiss her” — something Hawkes adamantly maintained was far from the vibe she was putting out.
In seeking evidence the kiss was unwanted, Hawkes said she asked the hotel for surveillance video and was told it was caught on camera. But the hotel refused to hand it over without a subpoena.
Hawkes said she filed a report with Minneapolis police but was told an unwanted kiss — the likes of which has dominated headlines in recent weeks following Spain’s Women’s World Cup soccer victory, prompting an international outcry and the resignation of the Spanish soccer federation chief — did not rise to the level of sexual misconduct needed to open an investigation.
SafeSport, though chartered by Congress and acting as a quasi-legal agency, does not have the authority to compel the hotel to turn over the surveillance video. Hawkes said she realized she would have to hire an attorney and initiate a civil proceeding to access it, which she couldn’t afford.
Nemchik said because the center isn’t designed to act like a criminal or civil court system, it limits respondents’ ability to call witnesses and subpoena evidence — powers she said wouldn’t “be appropriate and would potentially lead to more trauma for those involved.”
But to Hawkes, the arbitration hearing prompted by the coach’s appeal of SafeSport’s sanctions was, in fact, traumatic. It included cross-examination and what she described as “slut shaming” by the coach’s lawyer, Howard Jacobs, a top sports attorney involved in some 100 SafeSport cases over the agency’s six years.
In arbitration cases, a SafeSport attorney is tasked with defending the agency’s sanctions. Claimants such as Hawkes are not required to participate, but she said she thought it was important to be heard.
The coach “was still working with children, and working with other fencers and athletes, and justice hadn’t been served,” Hawkes said.
It put her in a position to field what Jacobs concedes were tough-but-necessary questions — about Hawkes’ sexual history and her actions the night she met the coach.
It also led Hawkes to wish she’d hired her own attorney — something she said she believed was unnecessary according to SafeSport rules and a center intake coordinator.
Also playing a key role was USA Fencing, which removed the coach from his Paralympic team job and limited his one-on-one contact with athletes after the complaint.
This was the latest in a line of cases in which a national agency overseeing an Olympic sport has been at odds with SafeSport, which has primary jurisdiction over abuse cases. In this instance, SafeSport imposed less-stringent sanctions than USA Fencing. The coach did not get his job back after the arbitration, but USA Fencing’s other penalties were lifted, meaning the coach was able to return to training fencers who might make the Paralympic team.
USA Fencing CEO Phil Andrews expressed frustration about cases in which SafeSport rules sometimes hamstring his agency and others that “wish to act in the interests of safety and abuse-prevention of its members and are prevented to do so because of jurisdictional control.”
At a September hearing in Washington by a congressionally appointed committee looking into the Olympics, witnesses took special aim at SafeSport’s arbitration process.
“It has routinely resulted in re-traumatization of victims and reversal of well-founded claims,” said Marci Hamilton of the advocacy group Child USA.
SafeSport CEO Ju’Riese Colon called arbitration “one of the stickiest pieces we have to deal with.”
Even Jacobs, who estimated that about two-thirds of the 40 cases he’s taken to arbitration have resulted in sanctions being overturned or reduced, thinks the SafeSport system is broken.
“I certainly wouldn’t say the arbitration process is perfect, but they have to give somebody who’s accused some reasonable process to challenge it,” he said.
Hawkes called arbitration the final step of a frustrating process that left her feeling overmatched and barely heard.
“I didn’t feel like I could trust anyone,” she said. “I felt like I was dealing with this useless, for-show organization that didn’t solve anything.”