SafeSport Looks Beyond Coughlin to Find ‘Abuse and Grooming’ in U.S. Skating

In the wake of John Coughlin’s death, the figure skating community, U.S. Center for SafeSport, and United States Figure Skating (USFS, the national governing body) have been playing an incredibly public game of tug-of-war about the continuation of the SafeSport investigation and the fate of future investigations.

Related: John Coughlin, SafeSport and a Call for Advocacy

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The Geico 2019 United States Figure Skating Championships took place from January 22nd to January 27th and were taken by many of the competitors and their coaches as an opportunity to publicly clear Coughlin’s name. Teams, mainly those coached by Coughlin’s former coach, Dalilah Sappenfield (pictured above with Coughlin and Caydee Denney at the 2012 Four Continents Championships). The skaters and coaches donned indigo ribbons to signify “crimes against targeted individuals of organized stalking and electronic harassment awareness” and red Kansas City Chiefs hats (which were removed or worn backward for the second day of competition due to a speculated broadcasting rights dispute) as an homage to Coughlin’s favorite team and hometown.

However, this was an incredibly polarizing move among skaters and spectators alike. In the midst of a fairly well-organized attempt to undermine the investigation and erase the stain of the allegations, these tributes came across as a frankly tacky way to further push the investigation under the rug and silence both Coughlin’s accusers and any other survivors of abuse in the sport, with many fans going so far as to dub the hats as “figure skating MAGA hats.”

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Amidst the drama taking place rinkside in Detroit, USFS released a statement calling for SafeSport to continue their investigation on Coughlin posthumously, a request they will repeat on February 26th in a letter sent to both SafeSport and Representative Jerry Moran. USFS stated that the unfinished investigation has produced an extreme amount of “uncertainty [...] innuendo and continued speculation” about Coughlin’s guilt or innocence.

However, as a private organization, SafeSport has limited resources and limited jurisdiction, with the highest punishment they can pass down being permanent suspension, they made the decision to terminate the investigation. In a statement announcing this on February 12th, Safesport states that “since the Center’s response and resolution process works to protect the sport community and other covered persons from the risks associated with sexual misconduct and abuse, it cannot advance an investigation when no potential threat exists.”

Many were elated to see USFS encouraging SafeSport to continue their investigation amid the outcry from members of the community to dismantle the Center and protect the accused from their nefarious intentions. However, in a sport where abuse has a long history of being swept under the rug by federations, many have speculated that USFS is hyperfocused on this investigation as a way to divert attention from the rest of the abuse happening at the hands of elite coaches.

While this appears to be the end of the conversation on Coughlin himself, in the process of the investigation, SafeSport has discovered a culture of ‘grooming and abuse’ that has gone ‘unchecked for too long,’ and, sadly, very few were surprised. Whether Coughlin is guilty or innocent of the misconduct he was accused of or not, it’s important to recognize that the toxicity in figure skating did not begin, nor will they end, with the now infamous SafeSport investigation. When interviewed by Christine Brennan for USA Today, a SafeSport spokesperson stated that “with the reports we have been seeing and the anecdotal stories and evidence we have been receiving. Without getting into the specifics of any particular person, we have had people want to explain how the sport works, with concerns about how young women, in particular, are treated.”

As in many elite sports that have a small number of coaches and large amounts of dependency on the aforementioned coaches, amateur figure skating is infested with abuse and toxicity that takes on a multitude of forms. Young skaters are melted down and forced into the classic figure skater mold, both physically and mentally, with no heed taken to the potential fragility of a young person’s mental state and health.

From eating disorders and body dysmorphia caused by encouragement to attain the image of a lithe and graceful skater to sexual assault, the culture surrounding the sport has cut promising careers short and caused lifelong damage.

Recently opening up to the New York Times about her struggles with an eating disorder and depression, two-time U.S. national champion and 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Gracie Gold shone a light on the moment that started her war against food, stating that “one day she weighed herself in front of a coach, a common practice, and the scale read 124 pounds. “That’s a big number,” she remembered the coach saying.” This began a battle that Gold, a natural-born competitor, saw as just one step on her climb to greatness. “The more weight I lost, the quicker and faster I felt on the ice,” Gold said. “It was win-win because I was skating better and people were saying, ‘You look amazing.’”

Related: Figure Skater Gracie Gold Pulls Out of Grand Prix Assignments

Via the Today Show

Gold -- after the encouragement of USFS officials, her family and even teammates like fellow 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Ashley Wagner -- entered treatment for her eating disorder during the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 season, making the admirable choice to put her health and wellbeing over her Olympic ambitions, stating that “if I had just continued the way I was in Detroit, I’d probably be dead.”

While Gracie Gold has begun the battle not just for a competitive comeback but also to win the war against her demons, but not before years of warning-signs being overlooked because of her competitive success. She remembers one breaking point coming at a 2017 USFS monitoring session where after the judges delivered critiques, she broke down screaming “can’t anybody see the cry for help that is my existence right now?”

It’s instinct in a sport where appearances are of paramount importance to overlook warning signs of abuse and struggle if the packaging looks right. Beyond any one case of sexual assault or potentially fatal bought with mental illness, there lie hundreds more just like it. In its investigation, SafeSport reminds us that by hyper-focusing on John Coughlin, we ignore the true depth and breadth of abuse and unhealthy situations that lie just behind.

In the same interview with Brennan, a SafeSport spokesperson serves us all with a sober reminder of the long road to an improved culture that USFS and other skating federations worldwide face: “If you want to change the culture of this sport, people have to come forward. All covered individuals (USFS member coaches, staff, board members and officials, among others) have an obligation under the Code to report, and the Center does enforce that obligation. As we’ve seen with gymnastics, it takes brave people speaking up and enough of them to get a culture shift.”