John Coughlin, SafeSport and a Call for Advocacy

The world was shocked by the allegations raised against Team USA’s Olympic Gymnastics Team Doctor, Larry Nassar. The thought of someone abusing the power dynamics and culture of a sport to take advantage of young women -- many of which were elite stars of the sport -- was disgusting and led to the beginning of an overhaul of United States of America Gymnastics, or USAG, (the governing body of American gymnastics) while justice was served for the survivors.

Related: Time’s Up for Larry Nassar

However, as deplorable as Nassar’s actions are, he is not alone. The culture of many of our sports cultivates a toxic power dynamic that can lead to authority figures such as doctors, officials or coaches taking advantage of the athletes. As we learned in the Larry Nassar investigation and trial, the toxicity that allows this abuse to flourish is deeply ingrained in the psyche of those involved, which makes it difficult for survivors to come forward and have the support of their colleagues and their association.

As USAG recently had to learn this lesson, now, United States Figure Skating, or USFS (the governing body for American figure skating) has been faced with a similar challenge. Two-time U.S. pairs national champion who was now working as a coach and ambassador for the sport, John Coughlin, had three accusations of sexual misconduct (two of which were brought forward by minors) brought against him that led to a U.S. Center for SafeSport investigation and interim suspension. SafeSport is an independent organization created by the U.S. Olympic Committee to both identify and eradicate misconduct (listed by SafeSport as bully, harassment, hazing, emotional misconduct, physical misconduct and sexual misconduct) in sports. An independent, noncriminal, investigation on Coughlin had been launched and escalated by the organization.

While there was very little information available to the public, on January 18th, Coughlin died of an apparent suicide the day after the SafeSport investigation was escalated. Prior to the news of Coughlin’s suicide breaking, very few news outlets covered the investigation and even fewer of those inside the sport acknowledged the accusations -- unlike what we’ve seen in other cases.

When someone, in this case Coughlin, has a long history of excellence and sportsmanship, there is often a lot of conflict in the minds of their friends, colleagues and loved ones as they attempt to reconcile the person they thought they knew with this potential other person who did horrible things. It’s hard to match the charismatic and joyful national champion with someone who abused their position to sexually assault underage girls. This process becomes all the more complicated with a case like Coughlin’s, where the investigation and accusations are intersected with a tragic event like suicide. However, fans of figure skating where shocked when tributes began pouring onto social media about Coughlin that didn’t acknowledge the accusations or the victims, with some even going so far as to discredit the accusations or blame them for Coughlin’s suicide.

This forced a difficult reality onto many fans or members of the sport where it became abundantly clear that the toxic power dynamics and misogyny is so deeply entrenched in the sport that it’s stars and leaders seemed to genuinely believe that the victims were wrong for coming forward.

This treatment was also extended to those in the media who dared to discuss the investigation while it was ongoing and after Coughlin’s death, namely reporter Christine Brennan and YouTube commentary channel ‘The Skating Lesson’ (TSL). Both parties were open about the response they had gotten from both the general public and the skating world -- which was overwhelmingly negative. In a since-deleted interview with Brennan, Dave Lease, one of TSL’s frontmen, was describing the death threats and nasty messages sent to their social media accounts right as another one arrived in their inbox. These jabs aren’t just thrown by anonymous internet trolls either, elite skating stars and coaches have commented about how TSL and Brennan’s reporting on the investigation caused his suicide, and these comments pushed TSL to delete the majority of their videos from the last year and shutter their social media accounts, as well as cancel trips to the upcoming National Championships.

While Coughlin’s victims or the figure skating world will most likely never get justice or closure, as SafeSport revealed that it is ‘unlikely’ to continue in the wake of his death, this case serves as a stark and painful reminder that our sports are far from safe and something needs to change. We cannot claim them to be when victims are terrified to come forward or when its athletes, officials and federations become complicit in the abuse by delegitimizing the mere possibility of misconduct.

We have a duty to protect our children, to protect all athletes, from abuse and misconduct. We have a duty to condem abusers. We have a duty to support survivors as they face a system that doesn’t support them. We have a duty to seek justice for both the accusers and the accused, not to allow those in power to sweep it under the rug when convenient. We have a duty to make our sports truly safe.

Related: To All the Survivors I’ve Known Before

Figure skater Mervin Tran took to Twitter on January 19th to share his feelings on Coughlin’s death, and while he said it was difficult to strike a balance between “acknowledgement and grievance,” he believed that we live in a world where “we can grieve a friend and hold him accountable.” Tran states candidly that, “I’m not perfect in this. I will admit that I did not reach out to anyone upon hearing the rumors… I figured I would have a beer with him at Nationals and ask him what was up in person. I would probably pass by the victim(s) I’ve heard about, give a hug and sincerely ask, “How’s it going?” I don’t know if I would have made a difference nor if I’m making one now. Between my stance on suicide, #MeToo and the John I knew, I’m conflicted.”

Via Twitter

There needs to be a certain level of transparency and advocacy in the figure skating community. This change starts from within.