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Why is the U.S. Olympic agency meant to stop sexual abuse investigating its top critic?

Salon 9/24/2022 Irvin Muchnick

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This is a tale full of Kafkaesque twists about the efforts of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) and its affiliated national sport governing bodies (NGBs) to make it look as if they're doing something about their sexual abuse problem. It's also a story that gets pretty deep in the weeds and one that bumps up against a basic reality: Although many millions of viewers watch the Summer and Winter Olympics and debate the internal or international drama hyped up by multibillion-dollar broadcast rights holder NBC, very few of them know or care anything about USOC's lords of the rings or their apparatchiks' day-to-day operations, far from the flag-waving captured on TV.

One effect of that is near-total public indifference toward the exploitation of local age-group clubs as faux community-based programs for youth athletes. This is especially true in swimming, where the main purpose of the clubs, from an Olympics perspective, is to serve as precincts for development of the next generation of gold medalists. It's a PR bonus that the accompanying after-school practices and weekend meets are staples of feel-good Americana.

This system offers many incentives that contribute to opportunities for widespread abuse of underage athletes. These clubs enjoy subsidies in two forms. First, high school, community college and recreation center swimming pools are rented at below-cost rates. Second, parents contribute volunteer labor as officials, timers and concession stand operators.

Badminton, of course, is not nearly as popular a sport as swimming, and its athlete age level skews higher. But a new scenario involving an attorney employed by USA Badminton, Jonathan Little, illustrates the dysfunctions and at times the desperation of the American branch of the Olympic movement on the abuse issue.

The story involves a complaint against Little,by the U.S. Center for SafeSport — USOC's de facto internal affairs division. If it goes adversely, Little could be banned from organized sports in this country. To be absolutely clear, no one at SafeSport, or anyone anywhere else, alleges that Little has ever sexually harassed or abused anyone. This isn't about that.

Indeed, you could almost say this is the opposite of that: Little is one of the country's leading advocates on behalf of victims of coach sexual abuse in youth sports. Now 41, Little is a former collegiate runner who competed in the 2008 Olympic Trials in the marathon. He still dabbles in independent coaching and consulting for aspiring Olympians.

What's happening to him now can perhaps best be understood as a case of classic retaliation by SafeSport. It's not entirely unlike the extreme IRS audits of former FBI director James Comey and acting director Andrew McCabe that were ordered under the Trump administration, except that the Olympic agency's harassment of this particular persistent critic is actually even worse. At least Comey and McCabe were under investigation for possible tax fraud (albeit without probable cause and with apparent corrupt intention), which is undeniably the portfolio of the IRS. The Little case amounts to nothing more than a conceptual disagreement between Safe Sport and activists on behalf of youth athlete safety, a disagreement going straight to questions about the agency's fundamental legitimacy and efficacy.

This case of classic retaliation is not entirely unlike the aggressive IRS audits of James Comey and Andrew McCabe during the Trump years. Except that it's worse.

Little is not a member of USA Badminton or any other NGB, and as stated above has never been accused of any sexual misconduct. Instead, thanks to the power vested in it by a vaguely organized nonprofit that was vaguely codified in 2018 revisions of an act of Congress, the SafeSport center is seeking to bust him for violating its procedures.

What is Little's alleged crime? He routinely counsels young athletes who say they've been abused not to waste their time filing complaints with SafeSport, telling them instead to go directly to law enforcement. As we'll see, given the history and practices of both the SafeSport center and the SafeSport departments of the affiliated NGBs, this seems to be good advice.

The U.S. Center for SafeSport did not respond to Salon's request for comment for this story.

Little himself says the following: "Calling SafeSport about a coach committing abuse is like calling the Vatican to report a priest. What you have to understand is that SafeSport exists to limit the criminal liability of USOC and the NGBs. Its purpose is not to protect youth athletes." 

He adds, "The law in Indiana and in two-thirds of the states requires any adult who has a reasonable suspicion of abuse to report it to law enforcement. There is no such law requiring a report to SafeSport."

What makes SafeSport's investigation of Little in his work for USA Badminton even more absurd is that it either amounts to a moot point or is actively damaging with respect to the safety of this group's athletes. Several years ago, USA Badminton's board of directors was taken over by athletes, making it something of a unicorn among the NGBs. Since then, the sport's tally of abuse allegations is a grand total of three: two against one coach, one against another.

According to Little (and contrary to the basis of last year's SafeSport notice of allegations against him), USA Badminton did in fact duly report all three coach complaints both to the police and to the SafeSport center, more or less simultaneously. As if to confirm Little's overall critique of the system, the upshot was that no action was ever taken against either coach by SafeSport. Furthermore, that means USA Badminton cannot discipline these coaches itself, even if the organization were so declined. (Since Salon has not independently investigated those allegations, this article will not name the coaches.) 

Before getting to all that, let's introduce you to Jon Little, an activist who has been a thorn in the side of the Olympic establishment from the moment he began practicing law a decade and a half ago. In fact, it can be reported here for the first time that Little and his wife, Jessica Wegg, a fellow anti-abuse lawyer, were the original assemblers of much of the evidence in the sensational USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal. Superstar gymnast Simone Biles is now part of the group of famous Olympians who have filed a billion-dollar lawsuit against the FBI for botching, over many years, the investigation and cover-ups surrounding Larry Nassar, the infamous doctor who abused numerous gymnasts. 

*  *  *

Little is a Hoosier, which is fitting on several narrative levels. Over the years, the state of Indiana has been ground zero for much of Olympic sport governance, and also abuse cover-up. The current athletic director at the University of Notre Dame, Jack Swarbrick, was a lawyer for both USA Swimming and USA Gymnastics.

Dale Neuberger, a onetime USA Swimming board president and longtime board member of FINA, the international sport governance body, was a partner in an Indianapolis-based consulting company, where he was accused of corruptly steering lucrative and prestigious events to the venues of his company's clients. Part of his handiwork was the 2010 open water swimming championships in unsafely warm seas off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, resulting in the death of swimmer Fran Crippen.

Chuck Wielgus, the late and disgraced chief executive of USA Swimming, was originally part of this network of Indiana sports MBA types when he ran USA Canoe & Kayak.

Little's involvement in fighting coach abuse, which drove  his decision to devote much of his legal career to this cause, began when he was on the track and field team at Indiana University in the early 2000s. His girlfriend at the time was Indiana swimmer Brooke Taflinger, one of the victims of Brian Hindson, a coach at  the Central Indiana Aquatics club in Kokomo who later went to prison for sexual abuse and possession of child pornography. 

A suit against USA Swimming, spearheaded by Little and filed on behalf of swimmer Jancy Thompson, led the California Supreme Court to order the group to turn over thousands of pages of internal documents.

Pointedly, the charges against Hindson included evidence that he clandestinely videotaped his athletes disrobing in the locker room. Testifying in 2010 in a related civil lawsuit against USA Swimming, chief executive Wielgus falsely claimed that his organization had never heard of any controversy involving illicit videos prior to the infamous 2008 viral clip that captured the sport's biggest star, Michael Phelps, taking a hit of marijuana from a bong at a party.

There's a lot of contrary evidence. For starters, there had already been another peeping-tom coach in Pennsylvania, John Trites, who while on the run literally made the FBI's Most Wanted list and was featured on the "America's Most Wanted," prompting USA Swimming to issue an alert to aquatic facilities across the country. That was in 1998. Six years after that, hidden video cameras became  the basis for a compelling (yet never prosecuted) abuse case against Brazilian-American coach Alex Pussieldi, an assistant to the late Hall of Famer Jack Nelson in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Nelson was the coach whom celebrity open water swimmer Diana Nyad has accused of molesting her when she swam for him at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale. And on and on.)

As it happens, Little's girlfriend Taflinger was close friends with another Indiana swimmer, Susan Woessner. When USA Swimming started its SafeSport program in 2010, Woessner, who has social worker credentials, was hired to direct it. Discovery in subsequent lawsuits would establish that this new department to monitor and eradicate abuse was a PR ruse and Woessner acted as a glorified secretary to Wielgus, who continued to call the shots on which complaints rose to the level of full investigations and hearings.

In 2018, Woessner resigned amid allegations that she'd had an undisclosed romantic relationship with a coach named Sean Hutchison, the subject of the swimming SafeSport program's very first high-profile investigation. (Hutchison had groomed and abused gold medalist Ariana Kukors for years, starting at the King Aquatic Club in Seattle. Shortly after Woessner left, USA Swimming settled Kukors' lawsuit for an undisclosed sum.)

Another Indiana University swimmer from Little's circle of campus jock acquaintances was Megan Ryther, who was on the board of directors of USA Swimming and is now on the board of the U.S. Center for SafeSport. 

As an anti-abuse lawyer, Little has spearheaded some of the most groundbreaking youth sports coach abuse cases, often in association with another prominent attorney in the field, B. Robert Allard of San Jose. In 2012, their lawsuit against USA Swimming on behalf of Jancy Thompson, who had been abused by club coach Norm Havercroft, led the California Supreme Court to order the group to produce thousands of pages of internal documents that had been withheld in defiance of lower court discovery orders (amassing tens of thousands of dollars in sanctions). These documents, finally submitted under seal, were subpoenaed by the FBI's field office in Campbell, California. The files would feed investigations of USA Swimming by Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat (since retired), as well as by a grand jury impaneled by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. (The Miller probe fizzled out. The grand jury probe — reported by a few major newspapers in "one and done" fashion in 2020 — likely remains active in some form. Grand jury work is supposed to be secret.) 

Many of these USA Swimming files were leaked to me by an FBI source and have informed my reporting on this subject over the last decade. 

In 2013, the Allard-Little legal team first brought the case of taekwondo athlete Yasmin Brown for her three years of abuse, between the ages of 16 and 19, by her coach Marc Gitelman. Five years later, they had an even larger case in this sport, a mass action on behalf of dozens of taekwondoins and allegations of cross-state and cross-country human trafficking by USA Taekwondo and leading coaches-predators, including the brothers Steven and Jean Lopez. That case is part of a wedge of actions, especially in California, that are slowly piercing the veil of the liability protections of NGBs for bad actors at the local club level, and may eventually lead to exposing USOC itself.

Little's greatest legal hits also have included the sports of diving, tennis, fencing and speed skating. But his involvement in reeling in the biggest fish, gymnastics, has never before been publicized.

In 2009 Little began working with Georgia attorney W. Brian Cornwell on Jane Doe v. USA Gymnastics, which would become the root case of cascading scandals involving coaches and the Indianapolis-based NGB's head, Steve Penny, along with the now notorious Larry Nassar. And Little and Wegg then began a campaign to bring the case to the attention of Indiana-based prosecutors and media.

In 2012 Little had lunch at the Saffron Cafe in Indianapolis with Eric Holcomb, chair of the state Republican Party, who would become governor five years later when Mike Pence became vice president. (If you want to know why a young lawyer was dining with a top local politico, then you need a primer on Indiana's small-town ways. Little lived near Pence before he was governor. He met Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett several times when she taught law at Notre Dame. He has brushed shoulders with former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, now the secretary of transportation.)

Little says he told Holcomb he had culled a dossier of more than 100 cases of lurid allegations and their cover-ups by NGBs. More than half of these were in gymnastics and the cover-ups led all the way up to CEO Penny. Nothing came of that meeting. (Holcomb's press secretary Erin Murphy acknowledged Salon's request for comment, but did not otherwise respond.)

In 2013, Little tried without success to push his information, in phone conversations and various meetings with two Marion County deputy prosecutors: Mark Busby and Abigail Howard. (Busby went on to become general counsel for USA Gymnastics; he resigned last year. Howard would become general counsel for USA Swimming.)

Also in 2013, Little gave his gymnastics information to the U.S. attorney's office in Indianapolis, in numerous emails and conversations with assistant U.S. attorneys Cynthia Ridgeway, Zachary Myers and others. In October of that year, during a fire drill on Monument Circle outside their office, where he had business on an unrelated case, Little had a chance encounter with Ridgeway, Myers and their boss, U.S. attorney Joe Hogsett. Little says he pressed the gymnastics information to Hogsett in a conversation through the ensuing 10 or more minutes of the fire drill, but again, no law enforcement action followed.

Hogsett's communications director Mark Bode told Salon: "Mayor Hogsett does not recall this quick encounter during what you describe as a fire drill. However, since federal law enforcement investigations are undertaken by federal law enforcement agencies rather than the U.S. Attorney's Office, Mayor Hogsett is confident his office would have referred any individual with similar allegations to the appropriate law enforcement agency."

Finally, in 2016, Little and Wegg connected with Marisa Kwiatkowski, an investigative reporter for the Indianapolis Star. The lawyers had a practice of following the local dockets for non-sports sexual abuse cases, and showing up at hearings in the hope of connecting with prosecutors or journalists to advocate pursuit of their sports cases. This time, at the courthouse for a hearing involving the well-publicized case of an Indianapolis public school teacher, Little and Wegg spoke to Kwiatkowski, and she began work on the series of articles that broke open the gymnastics scandal. (Kwiatkowski is now at USA Today.)

*  *  *

As Salon reported last year, the U.S. Center for SafeSport's problems go far beyond its huge backlog of cases and arguably inadequate funding. The bigger problem is that this agency is just another tool for consigning complaints to lengthy and legalistic oblivion. Its highest-paid employee, Michael Henry, was an investigator (previously with a university Title IX bureaucracy) who represented himself as "director of legal affairs" even though he apparently never passed a state bar exam. SafeSport's PR consultant, Dan Hill, has publicly bragged that he works pro bono on abuse issues, even though the organization's tax filings reveal payments to his company of at least $180,000.

The U.S. Center for SafeSport has many problems. The biggest is that this agency is just another tool for consigning complaints to lengthy and legalistic oblivion.

Aside from the occasional steering of a case into a finding that a coach — usually an obscure name — has been banned, SafeSport by and large leans into the criminal justice system's "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard, rather than forging its own path to clean up the administration of NGBs with a "preponderance of the evidence" standard. That is why Little advises his clients to go to the police, not SafeSport, with their allegations. If cops and prosecutors proceed to give the charges traction, Little surmises, then SafeSport just might get around to doing their job. Otherwise, it is a mistake to invest in SafeSport's illusion of a solution. It is only a recipe for open-ended frustration.

SafeSport's Oct. 13, 2021, notice of allegations to Little states:

It was reported to the U.S. Center for SafeSport's Response & Resolution Office that you: were made aware of allegations of sexual misconduct and failed to timely report such allegations to appropriate authorities; discouraged the reporting of sexual misconduct; encouraged the concealment and destruction of evidence on the subject; contested the need to follow federal reporting requirements; refused to cooperate in the Center's investigation; and retaliated against a USA Badminton employee for reporting sexual misconduct to the Center. It has been further alleged that you engaged in Abuse of Process by improperly disclosing the identity of Claimants in communications with both the USOPC and the United States Congress.

Little says it's all baloney. Notwithstanding his standard advice to victim-clients to ignore SafeSport, he directed USA Badminton to pass along the three complaints about the coaches to the agency immediately after submitting them to the police. The idea that he discouraged reporting of sexual misconduct, he says, is ridiculous. The charge that he encouraged concealment and destruction of evidence, he says, is a fabrication. He never retaliated against any employee, he insists, for reporting to the center.

The truly Kafkaesque smear here is that Little improperly disclosed identities in communications with Congress. On Oct. 1, 2021 — 12 days prior to SafeSport's notice of allegations against Little — USA Badminton received an admonishing letter from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The letter concerned reports from SafeSport "about allegations of child sex abuse within USA Badminton, and allegations that USA Badminton is interfering with the Center's investigation of the matter." Grassley's letter concluded by saying he had alerted the FBI, "and I strongly urge you to make appropriate contact with state and local law enforcement."

It is particularly rich that this letter came from a Republican. Though neither party has shown any real eagerness to confront the power of the Olympic brand, Democrats in Congress have been far more active than Republicans in taking measures to combat youth sports coach sexual abuse.

In any event, at Little's direction, USA Badminton wrote back to Grassley with full details of their cases and what they had done with them — including the information that all such allegations had been reported to law enforcement first, and SafeSport second. Less than two weeks later, Little was hit with SafeSport's notice, whose counts included the allegation that he had made improper disclosures to Congress.

What it comes down to is something like this: "In a SafeSport violation, you failed to report to Congress. Oh, you say you did? We mean, in a SafeSport violation you did report to Congress."

There is nothing to see here, as they say, except for SafeSport's whine that Little, along the way, has "contested the need to follow federal reporting requirements." By federal reporting requirements, they mean playing ball SafeSport's way. But in fact SafeSport is just an administrative agency with no legal teeth. There's only one group or entity anyone is required to notify of sexual abuse allegations, on pain of prosecutorial consequences. That would be the cops.

Little says that within the last four years, "SafeSport, in one case, alerted a perpetrator prior to the law enforcement authorities getting organized and executing a warrant. In another case, SafeSport gave cops inaccurate information about an accused abuser's sexual encounter with a teenager – falsely saying that the victim was above the age of consent. In yet another case involving a prominent coach who did not report abuse, SafeSport stonewalled police and refused to comply with a subpoena."

What all this adds up to is a position supported by many anti-abuse activists: It does no good to legitimize the U.S. Center for SafeSport. That, not whatever has been trumped up in an effort to make a critic look bad, is what SafeSport v. Little is all about. 

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