DENVER (AP) — When former elite fencer Kirsten Hawkes reached out to her childhood coach for advice about starting her own fencing club, their meeting immediately turned awkward.
It began, she said, with an unwanted kiss on the lips when the two met during a fencing tournament in Minneapolis last October. Then, as she and the coach were saying good-bye, he forcibly kissed her — “stuck his tongue in my mouth,” Hawkes 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 country’s top sports attorneys.
“It just led to a sense of helplessness,” Hawkes, 36, told The Associated Press after her allegations against the 52-year-old coach were ultimately rejected.
“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 SafeSport Center has come under increasing scrutiny for what critics 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 Olympics officials surveyed said SafeSport wasn’t meeting its goals; nearly 25% disagreed when asked whether the center was successful in its mandate to sanction sex abuse in Olympic sports.
Formed in 2017 as 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 — more than 11 million athletes, including those like Hawkes.
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 arbitration hearing in August overturned the probation and other sanctions.
In her ruling, the arbitrator noted her decision was 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 statues 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 would punish today, said communications director Hilary Nemchik.
Hawkes said the center’s response fed into her belief the process is flawed if it won’t even consider older allegations like hers.
“It has to be consistent,” she said.
Hawkes said as a kid, her reaction to the coach’s alleged behavior was less horrified than now.
“I think about it now and it’s really disturbing,” she said, adding that as a child “it was just less awkward” to let it pass.
Still, Hawkes said she also had good memories from her childhood fencing days and wanted to pick the coach’s brain about a business venture 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 at 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,’” 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 refuted.
Seeking evidence the kiss was unwanted, Hawkes said she asked the hotel for surveillance video, but was told she would need 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, which she couldn’t afford.
Nemchik said the center isn’t designed to act like a criminal or civil court system, limiting powers to call witnesses and subpoena evidence — things she said “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 traumatic. It included cross-examination and what she called “slut shaming” by the coach’s lawyer, top sports attorney Howard Jacobs.
It put her in a position to field what Jacobs conceded were tough-but-necessary questions — about Hawkes’ sexual history and her actions the night she met the coach.
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.
USA Fencing CEO Phil Andrews expressed frustration about how SafeSport policies 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.”
Hawkes called arbitration the final step of a frustrating process that left her feeling overmatched and barely heard.
“I felt like I was dealing with this useless, for-show organization that didn’t solve anything,” she said.
Eddie Pells, The Associated Press