This episode contains content which might be triggering for some listeners, including suicide and sexual misconduct. Click here to access a list of international suicide hotlines.
Lae: You're In The Loop - we're here to discuss the ups, downs and sideways of the sport of figure skating, and maybe give you +5 GOE along the way. Let’s introduce this week's hosts.
Kite: Hi, I’m Kite, and I’m enjoying the brief break we have from skating before it all starts again. You can find me on Twitter @mossyzinc.
Nina: Hi, I’m Nina, and I’ve been studying neuroanatomy and wanting to, appropriately, claw my brain out. You can find me on Twitter @yonkaitenpooh.
Lae: Hi, I’m Lae, it’s been a while but I’m ready to be sleep deprived and deeply emotional over my skating children again. I’m on Twitter @axelsandwich. So we're going to briefly run through some figure skating news that's been happening these past few weeks. Carolina Kostner, unfortunately, has announced she's not going to Worlds due to injury and that's really sad because we haven't really seen her this season because she's skipped out on the Grand Prix Series. We do wish her the best of luck in recovery and we hope to see her soon.
Kite: In more news, the Russian Cup Final happened, which is the last domestic competition before the Russian Worlds team is announced. So for our winners, in Ladies, we have Evgenia Medvedeva, in Men, Andrei Lazukin, in Dance, Tiffani Zagorski and Jonathan Guerreiro, and in Pairs, Alina Pepeleva and Roman Pleshkov.
Nina: Russia also has announced their team for [Winter] Universiade. For the Ladies, they're sending Stanislava Konstantinova and Maria Sotskova, for the Men, they're sending Alexander Samarin, Andrei Lazukin and Maxim Kovtun, for Pairs, they're sending Alisa Efimova and Alexander Korovin, Anastasia Poluianova and Dmitry Sopot, and Alexandra Koshevaya and Dmitry Bushlanov, for Dance, they're sending Sofia Evdokimova and Egor Bazin, Betina Popova and Sergey Mozgov, and Anastasia Shpilevaya and Grigory Smirnov.
Lae: Russian Ladies to Worlds is going to be interesting, I think the [federation] has announced that they're going to be announcing their allocations February 25 to 26, so by the time this episode airs, we would have already known but it certainly will be interesting. [Note: Russia published their list of entries on 2/27]
Nina: Right now, it's honestly pretty up in the air.
Kite: Yeah, there's about four Ladies who could be on the team, and they have three spots.
Lae: Don't envy whoever has to make that decision.
Kite: Just hope they make the right one.
Lae: And also, by the time you're listening to this, you will have known who won the Challenge Cup, which is a senior B competition happening in The Netherlands at the moment. But, thankfully, we do know that Sota Yamamoto from Japan won the Men's event, which is his second, I believe, Senior victory since a very horrific set of injuries [that] took him out of competition for two years. So, congrats to Sota! I love him, and I just wanted to specifically shout him out. Also, Shun Sato and Yuhana Yokoi won the Junior Men's and Ladies, so it's been a very good track record for Japan in this competition so far. And Minerva Haste and Nolan Seegert from Germany won the Senior Pairs competition, and there's no Ice Dance, for some reason. And we're just waiting for the Senior Ladies, which also includes Wakaba Higuchi who is returning to her "Skyfall" Free Skate for this competition.
Nina: I don't think there's anyone who was sad to hear that.
Lae: No, I'm so excited!
Kite: Such a good program for her. I liked it so much more than the "Four Seasons" that she had.
Lae: Yeah, Wakaba's struggled this season a lot with injury, so she said in Japanese media that she wanted to return to a program that would give her a bit of confidence going into next season, so fingers crossed she'll have a good skate. [Note: Ladies podium at Challenge Cup was Rika Kihira (JPN), Starr Andrews (USA), and Wakaba Higuchi (JPN)]
Nina: And, in the last bit of news, Kaori Sakamoto from Japan has graduated from high school. So, congratulations, Kaori! (Kite: Yay!)
Lae: That little video of her graduation was so cute. She was beaming like the sun and she seemed to have a really good relationship with her classmates, it was very adorable.
START: A Look Into John Coughlin And SafeSport
Lae: We're going to move onto our main segment now and this requires quite an extensive disclaimer because we are going to be discussing the John Coughlin case and SafeSport and everything that sort of went on in the last few months that has been an undercurrent and developing story throughout the skating world. So, disclaimer, this episode will cover sensitive and potentially triggering subject matter including suicide and sexual misconduct - and we will be going into quite a bit of detail with regard to this. If all of this is particularly sensitive to you, we do recommend you not listen to this episode, to be honest, because that is going to be the main focus of everything that we talk about from now on. Opinions expressed here are only that of the hosts, in light of the publicly available facts at the time of recording. Any opinions on legal issues expressed in this episode are not to be taken as legal advice and any factual inaccuracies are also unintended.
Nina: And if you have any responses to this episode, In The Loop encourages the use of our official communication channels for any corrections, we have a contact form available on our website. The transcript for this episode is going to have links to sources for any articles or tweets that we cite.
Kite: Just briefly before we get into it, a little bit of information about John Coughlin and the whole situation. John Coughlin was a two time US National Pairs champion, and he was also quite involved with skating events in the skating community. He was part of the ISU Athletes Commission and he also worked with the US federation, the US Olympic Committee, and was a commentator for figure skating events. And so, in early December of 2018, allegations surrounding sexual misconduct were submitted to SafeSport, which is the national watchdog for sexual abuse in Olympic sports, and John Coughlin was given a restriction on participating in figure skating until the investigation was completed and the verdict would be known. And in the time afterward, two more reports were submitted to SafeSport, and as a response, SafeSport and USFSA suspended Coughlin from all official activities. He committed suicide the day after these restrictions were put into place. Of course, all of our deepest sympathies remain with his family and his loved ones during this time.
Lae: The purpose of this episode was to really try to have an in-depth look, a hopefully objective look, at the way this entire situation panned out and give a bit of background understanding based on research that we've done on both SafeSport, the response and the issues that have arisen out of this really unfortunate and tragic series of situations.
Nina: Especially because there was a lot of discussion in the days and weeks afterward about the role of media and, as a skating media organization, we thought that it was an important topic to raise for our listeners.
Kite: We are just going to walk through a brief timeline of events to get everyone oriented on what we're going to be discussing in this episode. So, on December 17th in 2018, the first report against John Coughlin was filed with SafeSport and his eligibility to participate in figure skating was restricted just as an interim measure before the investigation had really started.
Lae: And so, on January 7th, Christine Brennan, who's a journalist for USA Today, published her first article reporting on that particular suspension being filed. And then, on January 9th, The Skating Lesson, which is a quite well-known American-based podcast on figure skating commented on their Twitter: “Isn’t it amazing how NBC and the USFS haven’t covered or addressed the recent SafeSport claims? They’re busy covering important issues like Marissa Castelli not wanting to use the word retirement.” So that, understandably, given TSL's following, brought quite a bit of attention onto Christine Brennan's article and the entire issue.
Kite: And then on January 17th, SafeSport and USFSA suspended John Coughlin from all official activities and he was not allowed to participate in any capacity with activities tied to the USFSA, the US Olympic Committee, and any member national governing bodies. So quite a stronger stance than when the allegations first came out. And then, also on January 17th, Christine Brennan tweeted an update: “SafeSport has just elevated his disciplinary record to “Interim Suspension” in the wake of what are believed to be more complaints against him.” And that was the first time that the community heard that there might be more than one complaint that was filed.
Nina: And then on January 18th, John Coughlin committed suicide, one day after the interim suspension was handed down.
Lae: And so after that, understandably, there was a series of social media responses from the skating community surrounding the incident. We'll be discussing this in more detail a little bit later, but there was a mix of skaters posting tribute to the loss of John himself, some of them made reference to the alleged victims, such as [the posts by] Mervin Tran, who's a US Pairs skater, and Tim Koleto, who's a Japanese Ice Dancer. But also there were skaters who focused on acknowledging the loss of John himself, and this was met with a mixed response from the skating community as a whole.
Kite: And then, on January 19th, John's former coach, Dalilah Sappenfield, launched a GoFundMe page for his funeral and legal expenses and this also led to quite some mixed responses given the allegations that were against him.
Nina: On January 20th, SafeSport removed John Coughlin’s suspension notice from their website and said that further investigation into the Coughlin case is “unlikely.”
Lae: And Christine Brennan, the journalist who broke the news of the accusations, revealed that they were indeed related to sexual misconduct in an interview with The Skating Lesson, where she discussed the case and her obligations as a journalist to report the full story regardless of how unsavory it might be.
Nina: Also on January 20th, Christine Brennan reported for USA Today that, following the first complaint, there were two more complaints filed, both reportedly by minors at the time of the alleged instances of misconduct.
Kite: And The Professional Skaters’ Association, which is a group that represents current and former skaters, or at least speaks to their interests, issued a post on Twitter, [Instagram] and Facebook urging the USFSA to do more to protect coaches in situations like these.
Nina: Also on January 20th, The Skating Lesson took down their Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts, and made all their past videos from the last year private. And Dave Lease of The Skating Lesson canceled his trip to US Nationals, and on one of [the hosts] personal Twitter's, announced that it was due to them having reportedly been receiving death threats due to their coverage of the case.
Lae: So on January 24th, USFSA Officials say it was "imperative" for the U.S. Center for SafeSport to complete its investigation of Coughlin and encouraged it to hire a “third-party investigator or outside counsel” to provide assistance. This was also during US Nationals.
Kite: After US Nationals, The Skating Lesson reactivated all of their social media accounts, with the exception of the interview with a SafeSport representative which, as of recording, still has not been reposted.
Nina: And then on February 12th, most recently, SafeSport announces that they will no longer be investigating the John Coughlin case since there is no longer a threat to safety.
[Note - As of the time of recording, the USFSA has released a letter asking SafeSport to reconsider their decision to close the Coughlin investigation]
Lae: So, the two controversies that arose out of this that I think we are going to try and focus on in this episode are, firstly, issues around SafeSport’s investigation approach and, secondly, the skating community and media’s response to the issue as it broke, which were the two main themes that arose out of all of the mixed responses to the John Coughlin case. The first thing to talk about then would be SafeSport itself as a body. I think it's important to have a better understanding of what it is because it's quite a complex organization and there's a lot to understand about how it's run and what sort of challenges it faces and not to have either a very negative and demeaning view on it and also to not hold it up as this angelic body that does everything perfectly either.
Nina: [From Team USA’s website] In 2010, the US Olympic Committee created the Working Group for Safe Training Environments to try and focus on figuring out how to cover misconduct in sport and how to deal with it. Based on the Working Group, in 2012, they launched the SafeSport initiative, which was meant to be an abuse prevention program working with [National Governing Bodies] and Multi-Sport Organizations and it was meant to be tailored the for the different sports. And then in 2014, the US Olympic Committee approved the creation of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which is an independent entity designed to basically run the initiatives that they wanted to run like education programs, investigations, and adjudications of sexual misconduct claims. Participation in the entity, which fully launched in March 2017, is required to be a member of the US Olympic Committee.
Lae: So there are sort of three broad issues we're going to touch on about SafeSport as an organization: the first being independence, the second being its power and processes, and the third being funding and manpower.
Kite: SafeSport is fully funded by the US Olympic Committee and National Governing Bodies, or NGBs, which are the entities that oversee individual sports that are part of the US Olympic Committee. The organization is tasked with investigating issues within the sports that are part of the USOC, so there is quite a wide perception of conflict of interest due to the fact that SafeSport is supposed to be investigating issues within the body that gives it all of its funding.
Lae: What may help is a clearer idea of Safesport’s processes, which can all be found in its various policies and procedures papers. The first thing to understand is that SafeSport follows a series of rules called the Safesport Code. This is not a law though it functions beside the law and can sometimes overlap with it. For example, in cases of alleged child sexual abuse, they have separate dual obligation to both report to the Center and also to the police under US law. SafeSport also has exclusive right to investigate sexual misconduct, which is a broad term that includes a bunch of offences to varying degrees of severity, including assault, stalking and harassment [& etc].
Under the Safesport process, anyone can report and they can do so anonymously. Under Section 3B of the Polices & Procedures, the office will undertake a preliminary inquiry to determine if there’s a reason to believe the individual violated the Code, and then if there’s reason to do so, they may initiate proceedings, including undertaking interim procedures set out in Part V, which include suspending the accused from the sport. This may include a hearing - in which the office may determine if there is reasonable cause to impose interim measures. This is where I believe we were at with the Coughlin case at the time of his suicide - he had been restricted and then suspended as an interim measure.
If the Office determines that a formal resolution process is necessary, it will appoint trained investigators to investigate the case. Then if found guilty, SafeSport may hand down sanctions under Part VI, which can include permanent bans from the sport.
Now following on from that, if the accused OR the accusor wants to challenge this ruling, they can submit a request for arbitration. Now bear with me here - arbitration is a form of dispute resolution but it’s not a legal process, which generally tends to make it faster, it’s usually private and less expensive than a court trial, which is why people use it. The standard of proof for arbitrations is generally lower around things like what kind of evidence can be heard and follow their own rules, which are not laws. But it’s important to note this doesn’t mean arbitration is not legitimate, but it means that arbitrators don’t have the same amount of power as a court to make parties do certain things to prove their case.
So we’ll take you through a brief example, because in April 2018, Lindsay Gibbs, who is a sports journalist, reported that Jean Lopez and Steven Lopez, who are prominent Taekwondo athletes and coaches, were found guilty of sexual contact with minors as a result of a SafeSport investigation and were permanently banned from their sport after that investigation and ruling. The accusers were actually named unlike here in the Coughlin case. But the brothers challenged this ruling in arbitration and SafeSport lost the case. This actually meant that - just like an appeals process in the court - the ban was overturned and the brothers were allowed to resume coaching, months after they had been explicitly found guilty of multiple counts of sexual contact.
One of the key reasons for the ban being overturned in arbitration was because, in arbitration, SafeSport didn’t present testimony from the accusers (Meloon, Poe and Gilbert) or any witnesses with first-hand knowledge. They also could not present sworn testimony under oath - which is generally considered reliable evidence - and this all contributed to weakening their case. The reason why they didn’t have that first hand account, however, was because those accusers were suing SafeSport, the US Olympic Committee and USA Taekwondo in a civil lawsuit in court for obstructing investigations. So specifically they called out SafeSport for suspending investigations - their own internal ones - so the accused athletes could compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics and 2017 US Nationals. So there are a lot more details in the article but essentially, the accusers were saying that SafeSport had mishandled the process by not having their best interests in mind and so that’s why they didn’t provide the evidence that could’ve helped SafeSport contest the arbitration case that the brothers were appealing.
Nina: A Deadspin article reported in July 2018 that the overall budget for SafeSport was only $4.6 million. A point of comparison is the anti-doping USADA [US Anti-Doping Agency] had total expenses in 2016 of close to $20 million, so that's about five times more. This article that we will link mentions aspects of SafeSport that are complicated and make investigations more difficult. For example, the organization is understaffed and underfunded and there isn't a lot of uniformity in the arbitration process. For example, from March 2017 to the time of publishing of that article, the US Center for SafeSport issued 365 final decisions, including making 262 individuals permanently ineligible. But of those only 11 went to arbitration. For the record, the arbitration supported that the accusations of violations in 8 of the 11 matters, but that's a very small percentage. And between March 2017 and April 2018, the SafeSport group had received more than 800 complaints, covering 38 out of the close to 50 national governing bodies. As of June 2018, SafeSport only had 14 employees. They had five full-time investigators, nine staff that work in other areas, and seven external, contracted investigators.
Lae: This really does raise two key doubts about SafeSport. Firstly, the center's capacity to fairly investigate given its conflict of interest in both the bodies that give it funding and also the fact that - as we see in the Taekwondo case - SafeSport has simultaneously had to advocate on behalf of the accusers while defending itself against the accusers’ accusation they aren’t handling the situation properly. Essentially, they’re advocating against the appeal for accusers who are actually refusing to help them because they claim SafeSport had already screwed up in the investigation. As you can imagine it’s basically a mess.
The second related question is - what is their capacity to properly investigate? Are SafeSport given resources, funding and enough power in general to gather reliable evidence at any stage of either the investigation or the arbitration and appeal? And I think the answer - based on what we’ve heard - is not really. But essentially, the question for me is having this body better than nothing?
Nina: A lot of the discussion around SafeSport and SafeSport's ability to be impartial or to properly investigate claims and their ability to enforce claims given they do not have legal weight is very reminiscent of a lot of the debates going on about sexual misconduct boards at universities. These are definitely topics people are discussing with that because the issue of not having legal weight has come up in multiple investigations in that case. I think it's just interesting to note this is something people are struggling with in many realms of how to investigate things in extralegal manners.
Lae: I think the rationale behind this idea of forming an independent body specifically tasked with the mandate of investigating sexual misconduct is ultimately still a good one. It acknowledges that situations like sexual abuse, especially when children are involved, requires specific expertise, and understanding of things like grooming and how not to trigger PTSD in survivors and a general sensitivity around the topic that the law is often not so flexible on. But I think it’s really worrying that in situations like sexual abuse where the reliability of evidence and evidence gathering is so crucial that the organisation doesn’t have a lot of power in that area and it’s also worrying for me that allowing accused athletes to compete in their events merits suspending an investigation for so long - it took 3 years and it just makes me question their priorities here. It’s a very lofty mission they have and it's not one that you can just realistically expect an organization with $5 million in funding every year, and covering 50 or 60 sports to do with the amount of rigor they would have to apply in what you hope would be their investigation of any claim that is brought to them.
Nina: I think another point that people have brought up in favor of having an independent body to investigate this is so that it can move faster than legal investigations. For example, being able to take interim measures as SafeSport does.
Lae: Absolutely. A court process and trying to file with a lawyer is a costly and long process, and not one that a lot of people can afford or can resort to as their first point of call. In that sense, having a body that is visible as a representative body for these sorts of situations of sexual misconduct is something that is duly needed in these spaces. There are things to be aware of when it comes to this organization and the various conflicts of interest and issues they do encounter in their day to day processing.
Kite: To bring this episode back to focus, which is John Coughlin and the accusations against him. We're going to talk in the rest of the episode about the social media and media responses and responses from the skating community to this case. The main source of controversy was the skater and the figure skating fandom's response. You can basically break them down into three key groups. In one group, you have the defenders of Coughlin and in the second group, you have skaters who posted tribute posts on social media to Coughlin and expressed generally positive sentiments about him without addressing the allegations against him. And in the third group, you have the rest of social media — people who are not directly involved in the sport but do have some say in the social atmosphere, so fans, commentators, etc. On one side, we have defenders of Coughlin who were mainly people that are deeply immersed in the sport. They are either coaches or part of governing bodies, or they are elite skaters themselves. It's important for us to acknowledge that they do have quite a position of influence over the skating environment. So their response sets the tone of the discussion and has a much bigger impact on shaping the organizational response than anything that's said on social media, which does have more people but by definition is more scattered and has less direct influence than what happens in skating organizations. Within this group, one of the biggest subgroups was Dalilah Sappenfield, who is the former coach of Coughlin, and the Knierims, Chris and Alexa, who are US pairs skaters. They very vocally supported him on Instagram and on Facebook, and very staunchly defended his innocence before the true nature of the allegations were known. Chris Knierim did engage on some dialogue on Twitter with users, just figure skating fans commenting on the situation. He basically said that we couldn't jump to any assumptions and he did make some strong implications that the allegations didn't have any weight to them. Others who were supporting Coughlin on social media also did use some damaging language, for example, calling the accusers liars. Then, there is the matter of Dalilah's GoFundMe description for the crowdfunding effort to collect money for Coughlin's funeral and his legal expenses. This is a quote that's lifted directly from that GoFundMe in which Delilah wrote, "John lost everything....his name, reputation, his ability to earn a living and what he loved most, skating. Words on social media can be just as powerful as a bullet. Unfortunately, the accusations that were made public before no distinguishing factors about what’s actually being investigated led to so much misinformation being spread around. For John this was too much. He wanted to be heard but couldn’t be and wasn’t allowed to be."
Lae: So I think this touches upon one of the key criticisms of Coughlin supporters is that he was denied the chance to be heard. He was denied due process, presumption of innocence, and places the responsibility of his suicide — or part of it, at the very least — to the media outlets and the social media responses, which is what they claim drove him to take that final step. I think what we'll be doing now is break that down a little bit because it is a loaded accusation essentially. Nina is going to start with one of the key accusations that is contained within a lot of the criticisms on various social channels, including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and all of these GoFundMe pages as well.
Nina: One of the things that many of his defenders brought up is that there were no details given about the accusers, the people who filed allegations. There was no information about their gender, whether the incident had allegedly taken place in the present or in the distant past which would affect issues of age, for example. They felt that this viewpoint was imbalanced. That being said, it's important to remember that generally allegations of sexual misconduct anonymous to protect the victims while investigators look into the case to see if they hold merit. Furthermore, this is especially relevant in a sport like figure skating where it's very close-knit and someone who makes an allegation could feel very uncomfortable having people know who they are, especially if the person is still a minor. It's good to give alleged victims that support while they're being investigated.
Kite: The second of the three key accusations is the belief among some supporters of John Coughlin that the media coverage of the case actually drove him to suicide by publishing the details of the case before the full investigation results were released. This information was publicly available and widely circulated on social media. Basically, journalists like Christine Brennan and fans and podcasts like The Skating Lesson spoke out about the Coughlin case before the community really knew what the nature of the allegations were. They did receive a lot of backlash and attacks for it, which in my view, they really did not deserve the amount of vitriol that was flung at them, as a matter of journalistic practice. What a journalist should be aware of is not trying to editorialize or sensationalize a story, and I think this is obviously a fine line to walk for anybody who is reporting on a case as sensitive as sexual misconduct involving minors. In my opinion at least, I think that Christine Brennan who was the author behind the initial articles did a good job at balancing her job as a journalist to report on the story with framing this appropriately given the context.
Lae: One of the things that I read from some of Coughlin supporters was that anger towards how the investigation hasn't been completed. Why are you reporting on this now when no details have been released? I just want to say that, in my view, reporting on an alleged investigation is something that happens all the time when it comes to legal cases, when it comes to investigations into all sorts of issues, like a robbery, a murder, a terrorist attack. There are processes in which people are named in that entire investigation process, and I think it seems unrealistic to say that anyone who's name is published in relation to an alleged situation that happened is automatically deemed to be guilty or that article is deemed to be defamatory. I think it's understood that there is some cause for them to be tied to that case, for them to be named to that case. But that doesn't equate to an accusation, that doesn't equate to a condemnation until they've gone to trial. Those USA Today articles were initially published was stating the fact that there was an investigation, there was an interim restriction that was filed. It didn't attempt to paint the story in one way or another, so I do question the accusation that that was not allowed or defamatory in some way.
Nina: Additionally, if I remember correctly it wasn't that Christine Brennan made public information that was private. It was available if you went onto the SafeSport website and looked at who was suspended.
Nina: What they specifically felt was that she drew attention to it, but the information was out there and it was publicly accessible knowledge.
Kite: I think that the information on SafeSport website just listed a suspension and I don't believe it had any details about what the allegations actually referred to and so I believe that Christine Brennan was the first journalist to come out and say that yes the allegations were of sexual misconduct and then later confirmed that some of the accusers were minors. I think that was what led to quite a bit of backlash given how sensitive of a topic that is and given the closeness in time of this case to some other very noticeable and high profile cases in sports where children compete. Like just a couple of years ago the Larry Nassar case and I think that definitely played a role in how vigorous the response was.
Lae: I think that's fair enough to say. But I think if you look at Christine Brennan's January 7th article about the eligibility restricted by SafeSport, it doesn't actually state anything about the details of why he was suspended.
Nina: When the news came she was saying that he was suspended, but she didn't say until after he had committed suicide and she was releasing more information that it was allegations of a sexual misconduct nature as well as the information that they were minors. Those both came out posthumously.
Lae: But I do remember that, at least from an online perspective, I think because these things didn't happen in a vacuum because, I think, the spectre of Larry Nassar and all of those case is still very much live in the minds of sporting fans, that I remember at the very least when they were coming out that there was definitely a section of the community and some commentary online that suspected him of (or assumed) that that was the nature of why he was suspended. Even without information being released. So I think it's important to acknowledge that in such a loaded environment as the sporting world is right now in relation to sexual misconduct against children and minors in particular, it was a very inevitably loaded article no matter how neutral and how little details were revealed. So even though I don't think you can hold her responsible for the impact, it is undeniable there was an impact given the context in which the articles were released. And we'll talk a little bit about that response a little bit later. Both before and after Coughlin's suicide.
Nina: So the third point that many of Coughlin's defenders have brought up is the idea that he was denied a presumption of innocence or denied due process in some way. They feel that as soon as the accusations were made public he was presumed guilty and that this lead to some of what them called a witch hunt. So Nina Edmunds, a coach and mother of 2014 Olympian Polina Edmunds, said [in the comment’s of PSA’s Facebook post] that according to the 6th Amendment, "an accused individual has the right to confront their accuser or accusers and that the victims' names should be made public". In this case [that] two of the alleged victims are minors is worth reiterating. Additionally, the right to confront the accuser is true in a court of law. I think this is the issue that came up a lot is that SafeSport is not a legislative body, SafeSport is not a court, and runs on its own practices that are not the same as the US Constitution.
Lae: Yeah, I think a lot of the confusion and a lot of this controversy stemmed from, I guess, not a very detailed understanding of what SafeSport actually does. At the beginning, I outlined how SafeSport conducts its investigations. Personally, I don’t really see how it’s a valid argument that he was denied due process just on the basis that he was suspended, which is kind of the argument I kept reading from people who were defending him on social media. Because for me, suspension was only the first step in a much longer process. Investigations would have been carried out, he would have been given an opportunity to defend himself and even if he had been found guilty, he could appeal that through arbitration. So it wasn’t like the doors were completely closed to him. As we’ve said before with the Taekwondo case, there are certainly weaknesses in how SafeSport investigates or present a case in arbitration and maybe how it hands down its rulings. My key questions surround what is the standard of proof that SafeSport needed to have thought it necessary to file a suspension because I read the Code and I actually don’t think that’s very clear in there - what kind of proof do they need to be given to activate the right to suspend the coach? Do the accusers have to give a testimony under oath? Do they need to give any evidence? I genuinely am curious because at least from reading the Code and procedures, I don’t think that’s very clearly outlined. But ultimately, it’s hard to argue the mere step of suspending him was some abuse of process. I just don’t see where that reasoning comes from.
Kite: And continuing to kind of hammer home the point that SafeSport is not a legal body, it's not required to follow the same criteria to prosecute a case in a court of law. So their standard of proof to enact interim measures in the wake of an allegation is called reasonable cause and they follow what is called fair process instead of criminal due process. So basically if they believe that there is reasonable cause based on their internal investigations to question the safety of the environment in which the accused is working, then SafeSport does have the right to deliver interim measures to ensure the safety of the athletes who are also in that environment. And so this again is quite different than having someone being brought into a court of law and basically the prosecution having to prove that they are guilty of what they are charged of. Like Lae just said. the interim measure was just the first step in what would've been a hopefully thorough investigation into the allegations that was not able to continue. But SafeSport was following their standards for the investigation of this case.
Nina: I also just want to add that personally it's worth noting that even if this had been a legal case, people are arrested and then held or released on bail before trial. It is not unheard of for situations to be taken that can affect the individual that's accused before a verdict has been handed down. Simply as a matter of safety and as a means of furthering an investigation.
Lae: Yeah so sort of building on that point then, the reporting that has happened and the fact that these interim measures were carried out, I think does not mean that he was denied due process. It actually is an indication that due process was being carried out and you know due process isn't a situation where you are not allowed to investigate until all the investigation details are all gathered and released. There are definitely measures to be taken in the interim before all of that stuff is compiled, for the protection of athletes and for the protection of say like the safety of those who the accused may further affect. So it's just important I think to make that distinction that this was not the conclusion of an investigation, it was the beginning. And so accusations about being denied that fairness and being presumed guilty should take that into account. I think before as well when we touched on the fact that as journalists and as media, the primary duty is when publicizing accounts of these cases, to be wary of language that editorializes and puts forth a particular viewpoint about the situation. And so like while we can have a look at the tone and the language that was used to report the initial findings of SafeSport and that initial interim suspension, I think it's also worth noting that not all media outlets do that. So in contrast if you want an example of editorializing language that is very damaging to one particular side, I think it's worth noting a recently released Kansas City Star article about the entire case.
Kite: So to kind of summarize what was kind of said in this article: basically the blame for John Coughlin's suicide was placed on SafeSport for the investigation that they conducted or were beginning to conduct and the response on social media following the fact that allegations had been filed against John Coughlin. And it does quote some members of John Coughlin's family in kind of backing up the organizations around him and the people around him played a role in the fact that he choose to take his own life. And his family and his loved ones are grieving understandably and so it just seems like they're still coming to terms with it and trying to rationalize the sudden and very tragic loss of someone who was close to them. On the other hand for this to be the position of media outlets and journalists is, in my opinion, pretty inappropriate. Because as we already mentioned in this episode, journalists with a unique power and influence in the community and it's their job to ensure that yes they report the facts but that they report the facts without injecting personal biases or sensationalizing the case. Especially when it's a topic that's as heated and as sensitive as this. But for a newspaper report to place the onus of John Coughlin's suicide on an institution, SafeSport, that is primarily designed to protect athletes and minors from abuse, simply because it was carrying out the tasks that are prescribed to and that they are very open about their investigative process. I think it sends a pretty dangerous message to the rest of the community following this case that it's acceptable to hold accusers responsible for how the accused chooses to act and react to the allegations. Again not to draw many unnecessary parallels, but we saw with gymnastics and the Larry Nassar case that the fact that he was able to continue his abuse of many young gymnasts is because of the fact that they weren't believed when they approached their coaches, [when] they approached other people in positions of power to report the fact that they were being victimized and abused by this trusted team doctor. So that kind of attitude is already out there in the sporting community and among minors who participate in elite sports. And perpetuating that viewpoint I think does not do anybody any good.
Lae: Yeah I think the way that the article kind of frames the entire case by kind of putting it as a situation takes the entirety of that responsibility does tip that reporting objectivity and neutrality where you're impliedly then accusing one side or the other of having the main bulk of responsibility for the situation. So I definitely think that it's a situation where media outlets need to be mindful I guess of the kind of language that they use to frame the stuff that they're reporting. I do however think there is a question to be asked about whether John Coughlin was given presumption of innocence by social media and sort of the court of public opinion. Because I do think that to sort of ignore the fact that social media and the community, especially in such a tight knit community such as the skating community, to kind of ignore the impact of that also would kind of be disingenuous. So I think that at the same time that we acknowledge that the voices of those such as renowned coaches and elite skaters have a greater impact due to their greater position of influence and power over the skating community. I think at the same time we can't ignore the fact that social media backlash and kind of the nature of the conversation being held in response to all of these revelations probably did have an impact on both Coughlin himself, the victims, and everyone that is involved with this entire situation.
Nina: Some people have talked about the fact that they felt that the reactions on social media after the revelation of his suspension were rather knee jerk, given that there wasn't any more information about the nature of the ban nor any details of the allegations, and it is unfortunately common in these sorts of situations. But it is worth noting that many times people can have very black and white interpretations as soon as they hear anything, before there's any information given, to found an opinion. And some people definitely take very strong opinions about [the fact that] either you're supporting child abusers or you're taking an active stance against it and condemning them. And while no one wants to be supporting child abusers, people often can jump to this position before there's any information. Before, in this case, anyone knew that the situation did involve any minors.
Lae: Personally, from how I experienced the situation on Twitter for example. I did read, only a handful I think, but I did see that there were people already labeling Coughlin an abuser and a pedophile and assuming the worst - not only before the details were released, but after Brennan had released the article detailing that the allegations were by minors, after the suicide. So I think there was quite a strong reaction and there was definitely a body and a response of people who were very quick to take one side or the other and I think the impact of having someone immediately label him as an abuser, as a pedophile, and take a very strong stance against that is, I would say, another extreme. And potentially something that maybe was not proportionate to the amount of information we knew at the time. I also think though that it's important to note that if you look at Coughlin’s official Twitter and Instagram pages, there were no accusatory messages that you can publically see being sent or being visible on his tweets and posts. Obviously, we don't know if those were deleted at some point, that's always an issue, but when we talk about the response was that people were reacting very extremely, very negatively, I think it's also important to be realistic about how many people were actually doing that. And from my, admittedly limited, experience in my own Twitter circle, there were only a handful that I saw. I think if there's not a huge outpouring of accusation and negativity on his official channels and his official social media, it does make me wonder where his supporters were saying there was a witch hunt, I suppose. Because it definitely is publically visible, I've no idea if there were emails and private messages being sent, but I think it does merit examination, these claims that there was a witch hunt and that people were attacking him left and right.
Nina: I also want to add that, for example, on Twitter, a lot of people use it as a personal outlet and I don't necessarily know if it's right to call something a witch hunt if these things were being posted not at the individual or any of the individuals involved. But I personally feel that if someone's tweeting something on their own account with their interpretation of events as they're seeing it, and some people have, of course, personal reactions to situations like this. Especially if maybe they were fans of gymnastics and saw the Larry Nassar case or if they have tragic personal experiences, I don't know if it's also fair to limit people's right to have their own sort of strong response on their own Twitter account.
Kite: To continue the discussion of how responses to John Coughlin's suicide were regarded in social media, there was quite a bit of fury that came out in response to skaters responses to the suicide. For example, there was a list that circled extensively on Tumblr that was a lift of "canceled skaters" who were identified because they had posted memorials or tributes to John Coughlin on social media, or even if they had just liked a post of somebody memorializing him. And the list was quite long, it was basically everyone who competes internationally for the US in Seniors, plus skaters from other countries. So I guess, was this response fair given the nuance we have to approach this case with?
Lae: I think personally for me, it's important to acknowledge that the situation was super gray because I think it's very easy when it comes to hot topic issues, such as sexual misconduct against minors, that it's easy on social media as a knee jerk to really condemn anyone who made be perceived to speak out in support of that person. But I think that ignores the fact that people are very complicated, human relationships are extremely complicated and one person's experiences and memories with the accused could be very different to what another person experienced. I think, especially in the wake of a tragedy such as suicide, people's emotions for someone they knew personally and who they considered a friend don't just switch off that easily, even in the face of very horrific accusations. So I do think that it was a situation where to just simply say that interacting, being sad, or posting commemoration of a skater that had taken his life that someone personally knew and sort of automatically equate that with being in support was, in my opinion, was a bit extreme.
Kite: And one of the points that people who were holding skaters accountable for not addressing the allegations more directly, is that they were saying basically the skaters were guilty by not addressing the concerns that were the allegations against him. It suggests not talking about the accusations inherently means that you're supporting the accused which, again, I think is a very black and white way of looking at a situation that has all kinds of layers and nuance to it.
Nina: I just want to add, before we get into talking about how skaters or anyone who knew him personally may have reacted and what we can take away from those responses, while I agree I think there is nuance there in terms of how people mourn, I don't think that the existence of the list that was circulated is necessarily a bad thing because, again, I recognize that there are people who may find the topic very triggering and want to just avoid anyone whom they feel is being supportive. I think there is discussion to be had about what merits inclusion on that sort of list, but for people who want to know what to avoid for the sake of their own mental health, there is benefit in that.
Kite: Well the list actually, I think, was not quite as black and white as it sounds by just talking about it. So basically, the person who compiled the list broke it down into people who made a tribute post, people who just said something like "Rest in peace," people who were kind of reflecting on their own memories with John and then there were a handful of individuals who did come out and say basically that the accusations were false full stop. And so it did take into account the variation of opinions that were voiced in the wake of his suicide. So that is something to be cognizant of when talking about something that was seen by a lot of people in the fandom.
Lae: I think that's really fair and I think that acknowledgment of nuance is super important because it is a situation where, as skaters who probably knew Coughlin personally, it was a very difficult balance to not come across as directly defending but also to acknowledge their own memories or wanting to pay tribute to someone they knew personally and their experience and understanding of who he was as a person. So, among the skaters, I think Mervin Tran, a US Pairs skater, was particularly good at balancing both his own memories of his relationship with Coughlin but also acknowledging that his mourning and his response is mediated or caveated by these accusations and that he wanted to also make clear that he stood with any victims of sexual misconduct and sexual abuse and that he acknowledged the complexity of his feelings. And I think he was one of the first, as well, to post that kind of response and I just wanted to sort of point out that that was a particularly well-balanced way of striking that middle ground in a really complicated situation.
Nina: I think another thing that some people have brought up is the fact that while many individuals lost someone they considered a friend and have absolutely the right to mourn that and mourn the man that they knew outside of what may have been happening beyond their relationship. I've seen conversation around the idea that not every skater or coach involved in vigil had to mourn publically and some people feel that choosing to do so, especially when it came out as there was a lot of fervor going on, could be seen as taking a stand in viewing the situation as ripe to share your memorial tribute, instead of mourning privately or with others in the community that you know in person.
Lae: Yeah, I think it's a really complicated question there. Because I definitely do see that query of "If you choose to speak out given the context which is happening, is that really just as innocuous as just wanting to pay tribute or can that be interpreted as taking a stand?" Even if it was meant to just be a straight forward tribute. I think it all boils down to the [the fact that] it's really complicated.
Kite: I don't really know that I'm comfortable, I guess, dictating how people should mourn and how they should memorialize the loss of somebody who they personally knew and how they should seek closure. Because that is an intensely personal decision, I think, and again, this is a complex story with a lot of layers. And, at the heart of it, I think, for the skaters who knew John personally, is that it is a tragedy to them. And I think that in kind of evaluating how they responded to it, we need to appreciate that there's a difference between posting something in remembrance of a life lost, even if you didn't really personally know him, I know some skaters just posted a black screen on their Instagram Stories that said something like "Rest in peace." There's a difference between doing something like that and actively going on the warpath and saying that "The accusations were false and that SafeSport and media ruined his life and that he felt like he didn't have another choice," and just kind of making this a very black and white, you're either with us or against us, kind of situation. I think, especially in a case like this, that's a nuance that we really need to appreciate and we need to take into consideration when we're evaluation how people with sway and with a voice in the skating community chose to react.
Nina: As we've mentioned the Larry Nassar case a couple of times, some individuals who have been fans of gymnastics gave their viewpoint and how they felt about seeing this sort of memorial tribute from other skaters. One person posted on their Tumblr account pointing out that it's always impossible to know what's going through someone's mind when they make a post and that they may be dealing with their own issues and that, for example, in the gymnastics case, there was a gymnast who made remarks that were not supportive of the [victims of the] incident and then it was discovered that the gymnast in question had been a victim themselves and what they said was based in some internalized stigma. We don't necessarily know what's happened in the personal lives of anyone who posted anything, whether they have personal experiences, whether anyone close to them has personal experiences, what they intended by trying to post. Some of them could have been so busy with training that they hadn't been following the news as much, especially if they were international skaters or rather far removed from him, for example. It's very complicated to know what someone intended when they made a simple tribute, as opposed to the people who spoke out more directly and generally are a little more meritorious of being discussed.
Kite: That said, at the US Championships in January, we did see some pretty egregious examples, in my opinion, of just flat out denying that anything, any misconduct could have possibly occurred. So, for example, we saw in the Kiss and Cry that Dalilah Sappenfield and her skaters, she coaches a large swath of the US Senior Pairs team. She and many of her skaters and others were wearing Kansas City Chiefs hats in support of John Coughlin, because he was from Kansas City, and they were also wearing indigo ribbons which were in protest of online harassment and cyberbullying. And they were referring to the fact that they believed that the social media response had spurred him to take his own life. From Dalilah's previous comments on the case, we do know that she has refused to see merit in the accusations and has held the skating public explicitly responsible for the fact that John Coughlin committed suicide. And so that is the flip side of trying to approach the skaters responses with some nuance, is that there were very public displays by prominent members of the skating community of just erasing the possibility of truth in the accusations.
Lae: I think it's really important to be mindful of how that would have read to those who had accused Coughlin of sexual misconduct because there's a balance to be struck between the right to mourn a dear friend and the loss of his life. But when you are carrying also that tribute and impliedly saying that the only reason he took his life was because of that online harassment and bullying and denying that there's any credibility to the claim, even if it's not explicitly said that "I don't believe the accusers." But even those actions of unquestioning support of one side of the party it essentially reads as a denial and as an implied accusation that those who accused him were lying and had no merit in their claims. It's an underlying theme in why abuse cases and why these types of cases are so difficult to investigate because this tradition of silencing the voices of the victims and impliedly accusing them of being the liars and not believing them is just a repeated thing that we'd seen in many cases in the past and is a reason for why these cases can sometimes be allowed to carry on for years and years.
Nina: Not even just silencing them, wearing ribbons in protest of cyberbullying and saying that they felt that his death was in response to the social media outcry is putting blood on the hands of these accusers.
Lae: So, I think as a whole, the approach of only attributing the death of John Coughlin to one cause or refusing to acknowledge that there was any grounds for investigation, that is definitely the other extreme of taking a side and it's really important to acknowledge that this sort of behavior doesn't happen in a vacuum and it definitely contributes to the apprehension that a lot of people feel about coming forth with allegations, especially against very beloved and prominent figures in the skating community, and to see that kind of vehement and very extreme response from his supporters definitely doesn't create an environment where further accusers may feel comfortable coming out and speaking up. Just to comment on the way that conduct was handled, I think it was very much a contributing factor to that feeling of hostility towards the accusers and also what merited a bunch of skating fans creating a teal movement in support of the accusers in response. So that was definitely a thing at US Nationals.
Nina: And even at Four Continents, I believe there were both ribbons and people wearing teal in support.
Kite: So this goes into what this says about US skating culture as a whole. Dalilah Sappenfield, like all coaches who are recognized by the USFSA, is a mandatory reporter of sexual abuse to SafeSport. So the fact that she is coming out now and saying that the allegations against John Coughlin were false and holding skating public and social media and SafeSport responsible for his death is quite a troubling aspect of this case, to say the least.
Lae: I think especially given that no evidence came out as well, there was no further information, I think that's what was the most confronting about the degree of her response, at least publicly, we didn't know anything that she knew and there was that degree of response just based on what was reported.
Kite: Yeah, so we obviously don't know what she knew about the case or how much she knew about the case, but at least SafeSport seemed to think that there was some credibility in the accusations, hence why they put forth those interim measures. So it does raise the question of how much Dalilah was aware of and the way that she chose to perform her job as a mandatory reporter to SafeSport.
Nina: And what it says about the culture of people who are supposed to be mandatory reporters and whether or not they're creating an environment that fosters making people who may have something to report comfortable.
Lae: So, the final segment that we want to move on to is: where do we go from here, and looking into the future. So one of the things that I felt very very strongly about in SafeSport's response, at least, was that insistence that now that Coughlin is unable to provide any defense that there was no threat and that this warranted the cessation of any further investigation and for me, I think that's one of the most difficult to understand approaches of SafeSport in this entire handling of the investigation because I think, even from the very beginning, as soon as Coughlin's suicide news came out, it was a situation where they were like now that the threat is over, there is no reason to continue the investigation because the source of that threat is no longer here. And just from a perspective of investigations, it feels like it cut off any further potential for any systematic things, any contributing factors to be investigated, because it was basically just saying there is nothing further, and the onus was placed on, I assume, the accusers or anyone else to prove them wrong about that, instead of a response, for example, where they said okay, even though the accused is no longer with us, if there are any further contribution to be made in this investigation or if there is any further information, we're still open to investigating the general issue of misconduct and abuse in the sport of figure skating, I think personally that kind of tone would have opened the doors and created a more welcoming and supportive atmosphere for anyone who, even unrelated to the case, anyone for whom this case may have triggered some memories or triggered an indication that there was a body willing to listen, I just think that their response of cutting that off was very damaging from the perspective of anyone who has suffered from abuse or sexual misconduct.
Nina: To me, at least, when they say that they're no longer going to investigate because it's no longer a threat, it also sends the message that you interpret these cases not just to find out the truth but only to stop the situation from happening, and obviously it's important to stop a situation from happening if something's going on, but it provides no justice, it provides no closure in the situation.
Lae: Even the USFSA said that they heavily encourage SafeSport to continue the investigation, not only for any potential accusers, but also as Nina said, as closure for the accused. And by kind of dropping the investigation halfway and leaving the accused's supporters and family to basically still be at a stage where they're insisting that he was driven to suicide by the mishandling of the case and by the media response, and then also denying any further information to be coming to them from anyone else - it's just - it was the worst of both worlds essentially, it provides no closure and it leaves this entire situation as kind of a lingering question, and I think it also ignores that fact that, as the Nassar case has showed us, sexual abuse and abusive power in many situations doesn't happen in a vacuum, it's not a one-off case most of the time, it's often aided and abetted by systematic weaknesses in organizations, ways of people reporting abuse, the ways that abuse claims are handled, it's all kind of wound up and I think to just say that because the accused is no longer with us that there is absolutely zero threat, it blows my mind, I can't emphasize this enough. I think it very much misses the point that these things don't happen in isolation.
And I think finally, the one thing that we just want to briefly touch on, given that there was no kind of further concrete information released, was this idea of emotional and mental support for all parties, both the accusers and the accused. It's always going to be question mark of not knowing how things would have turned out had the investigation continued on, but it seems very clear that in situations as complex as this one where you have a side of people defending the accused, you have people with past history and with very strong opinions about the subject matter in general speaking their minds pretty blatantly on social media and speaking out in support of the accusers, you have a governing body that in itself is not perfect and struggles with its own issues, I think it's so important in these situations to acknowledge that there is such a need for people to be measured and for there to be support on both sides so that situations like this that simply end in tragedy and with unresolved questions on either side don't happen. But again, like we've said as a theme throughout this entire episode, it's incredibly, incredibly complicated, and nothing is clear, nothing is black and white, and so as people responding to a situation like this, as outsiders but also if you're a skater involved in the situation, it's just a question of how does one respond and what sort of things should we be considering and keeping in mind when confronted with facts and situations like this.
Kite: Thank you for listening, we hope to see you again for our next episode which will be about the World Junior Championships!
Nina: If you want to get in touch with us, then please feel free to contact us via our website inthelopodcast.com or on Twitter or Tumblr. You can find our episodes on Youtube, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and Spotify.
Lae: If you enjoy the show, and want to help support the team, then please consider making a donation to us on our ko-fi page, and we’d like to give a huge thank you to all the listeners who have contributed to our team thus far.
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Nina: If you’re listening on iTunes, please consider leaving a rating and a review if you enjoyed the show. Thanks for listening, this has been Nina,
Kite: and Kite. See you soon!