WSF Congratulates Speedskaters and Calls Upon the USOC to Provide Attorneys to Protect Athletes' Rights

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On December 15, 2012, an experienced and well-recognized AAA and CAS arbitrator, Jeffrey G. Benz, Esq., issued an Award finding that he had the authority to resolve a dispute involving allegations that U.S. Speedskating’s national team coaches abused the athletes, under the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act (“Sports Act”). For the first time, athletes who allege they have been abused by their coaches can seek relief under the Sports Act and USOC Bylaws, an impossible result if the athlete’s only remedy was to go to civil or criminal court to resolve these disputes. In the past, athletes could only access the Sports Act when a National Governing Body (“NGB”, here, U.S. Speedskating) outright denied an athlete an opportunity to participate by kicking them off the team or preventing them from being on the team.

Here, however, the Speedskaters quit the Short Track National Team rather than continue to train under abusive circumstances. The athletes alleged that they were constructively denied the opportunity to participate when the U.S. Speedskating coaches allegedly “roughed them up,” subjected them to “punishment training,” repeatedly threw sports equipment, water bottles and chairs at them, repeatedly called the female athletes “fat” and “disgusting”, yelled at and demeaned the athletes and their performances in front of others, over-trained athletes to the point they suffered injuries requiring surgery, ignored (and stopped coaching ) athletes on the National Team for extended periods of time without explanation, poured water over the head of an athlete as punishment for a disappointing performance , banned athletes from team dinners for seemingly insignificant indignities perceived by the coaches, conducted themselves in various other similar ways over an extended period of time, directed skaters to be “obnoxious” toward skaters on other teams, and even allegedly directed a skater to tamper, pre-competition, with the skates of a competitor from another country at a World Championship Competition. [1] 

In addition to finding that jurisdiction existed for the arbitrator to hear and resolve the dispute[2], the arbitrator also ordered US Speedskating to pay for the majority of the arbitration fees and expenses, amounting to over $25,000.

Congratulations to the Speedskaters and their Counsel!

The Women’s Sports Foundation would like to acknowledge the courage and fortitude of the Speedskaters themselves, who bravely stood up and demanded fair treatment in the face of possible retribution, and the outstanding legal services provided the athletes by Olympian and Sports Act attorney, Edward G. Williams. As arbitrator Benz stated in his Award: “The arbitrator wishes to commend the contributions of counsel in this case. The circumstances of this case required greater time pressures, and more work product creation, in a shorter time, with greater complexity, than any other Olympic-related case in which I have been involved ….”

Now, Athletes Have Another Remedy Against Sex Discrimination Within the Olympic Movement

This is significant to us because of our long-standing efforts to curb sex discrimination in Olympic sports, and provide the same sort of civil rights available to athletes that students enjoy under Title IX.

Now, when athletes are pressured to begin or maintain romantic or sexual relationships with the coaches that oversee their athletic progress, they can rely upon this decision in an effort to remedy constructive denials of the opportunity to participate. If an athlete can get redress from a coach that is physically and mentally abusive, surely an athlete can also seek redress under the Sports Act for sexual abuse by her coach as well. In addition, it provides another avenue to get abusive coaches out of Olympic sports.

Next; The USOC Must Provide Athletes With Attorneys, Just Like NGBs

There is still much work to be done in service to athletes’ rights. In addition to allowing athletes to bring cases of abusive coaches to arbitration and shifting the costs of arbitration to the NGB, we must work to provide attorney’s fees for athletes who substantially prevail on the merits of the case. Our country has civil rights laws that protect against discrimination in practically every circumstance (e.g., employment, education, housing, voting, business… ) except Olympic sports. Sexual abuse is sex discrimination, and in all civil rights applications, the attorney’s fees are paid by the defendant if the plaintiff “substantially prevails” on the merits.

We simply cannot continue to rely on the good-will and generosity of a few dedicated and experienced attorneys, like Ed Williams, to step forward to protect athletes’ rights, without an expectation of remuneration. Many NGBs, like US Speedskating, are largely financially supported by the USOC, and pay large sums to their attorneys, as here in the unsuccessful attempt to defeat the athletes’ claims. Few athletes have the same financial resources that NGBs are provided. And without the prospect of being paid for their legal services, there will not be an incentive for new-to-the-field attorneys to develop an expertise in this area to protect athletes from abuse.

We must work to have a provision providing for the award of attorney’s fees included in these types of USOC and NGB arbitrations. Either the USOC must hire attorneys to work with the Athlete Ombudsman’s office to represent the athlete, or at least amend the USOC Bylaws to grant the arbitrators authority to award attorney’s fees in circumstances that are just and equitable udder the circumstances.

Again, congratulations to the Speedskaters and their lawyer, Ed Williams!

You have all done a lot for scores of athletes following in your footsteps.

[1] In the face of these allegations, the arbitrator stated:
“Were an arbitrator to ignore [such] claims by athletes that resulted from constructive or de facto denial of threatened denials of the opportunity to participate, as opposed to direct or de jure denials or threats to deny, it would be ignoring the clear purpose of the statutory scheme favoring arbitration of athlete disputes, the clear case law favoring the resolution of sports disputes in arbitration and not in court, and the clear language of USOC Bylaw Section 9.”

[2] The actual arbitration never took place, since the coaches resigned and accepted a suspension from US Speedskating through Sochi prior to the Hearing, thereby rendering the arbitration moot.

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