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How a Teen Locker Room Butt Slap Triggered a 2-Year Investigation

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Male shadow over swimming pool | Illustration: Lex Villena; Mike

A teenage swimmer is facing a Kafkaesque sexual misconduct investigation over allegations that he slapped another swimmer on the butt as a middle schooler.

According to a story in the Associated Press (A.P.), an organization designed to protect athletes from horrific abuse has devolved into a bureaucratic nightmare for others, who can find themselves dragged into opaque investigations over minor allegations of wrongdoing.

“I think the guilty-until-proven-innocent aspect is what bothers me the most, because right now, he’s still [considered] guilty until the case is finalized,” the teenager’s mother told A.P.

The U.S. Center for SafeSport is a nonprofit organization established in 2017 after sports physician Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of hundreds of gymnasts sparked outrage over how the case was handled by athletic organizations. SafeSport now has the authority to investigate allegations of abuse and hand down sanctions in dozens of sports.

According to A.P., a 13-year-old competitive swimmer, who was not named in the story, received an email from SafeSport last year informing him that “between approximately 2019 and 2022, [he] allegedly engaged in a pattern of behavior which constitutes Sexual Misconduct.” Despite the ominous email, the teenager wouldn’t be informed of the actual allegations against him until three months later, eventually learning that he had been accused of slapping a teammate’s behind in a locker room in June 2021, nearly a year earlier. 

The teenager and his mother claimed that the boy and the teammates who accused him had a falling out, and had lobbied claims of bullying at each other. However, this apparent dispute had been seemingly resolved by the boys’ school and coaches.

A.P. reports that the investigation has now dragged on for nearly two years, with little indication of ending soon. The family says they’ve reached out to SafeSport multiple times for updates on the investigation, only to receive vague responses. According to A.P., a glut of complaints may explain the delay. SafeSport has received 7,000 allegations as of 2023, and a spokesperson told A.P. that “the center needs more financial resources to support the growing number of reports,” adding that SafeSport uses a “lower standard of proof … which at times allows it to act on cases law enforcement may not.”

Another factor for the delay? The teenager denies the accusations against him. The boy says he was told that the easiest way to resolve the complaint would be to agree to an “informal resolution” that would allow him to go back to swimming after a six-month probation, provided he admitted guilt.

“We asked my son, ‘Are you OK with this?’” the boy’s mother told A.P. “And he said ‘No, I’m not going to admit to something I didn’t do.’”

In the meantime, the teenager says his budding swimming career has faced major setbacks. While under investigation, the teen was required to be chaperoned on the pool deck of several USA Swimming events. At one event in November, the teenager’s mother “briefly turned away” from her son. As a result, the teenager was “approached by a meet referee who notified him he was breaking the rules and wouldn’t be allowed to come back for the second day of the competition,” according to A.P. “That deprived the teen of swimming in his best event, where he had previously swam times that could’ve qualified him for a key junior national meet in December.”

While organizations like SafeSport exist to fulfill a noble goal—protecting athletes from horrific abuse at the hands of powerful individuals within elite sports—the case of this teenager shows what can happen when these systems become opaque and all-powerful, providing almost no due process for the accused. The result is nothing short of a bureaucratic nightmare with little hope of due process for those accused of wrongdoing, no matter how slight.

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