Group founded to address child sex abuse in Olympic sports struggling to manage its caseload

The Colorado-based organization founded to address the issue of sexual abuse in Olympic sports at the youth level is fielding 55 percent more reports of misconduct this year than in 2018, leading to an increasingly urgent debate over who should provide the lion’s share of money to an organization struggling to manage its caseload.

The U.S. Center for SafeSport received a $1.3 million infusion from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, bringing the USOPC's overall contribution to $7.4 million in 2019. National governing bodies (NGBs) which oversee the individual Olympic sports have contributed $2.05 million for this year. That amount, plus a small government grant and other donations, brings the center's operating budget for 2019 to $10.5 million.

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Officials at the center worry that’s an untenable amount for an organization that is now receiving an average of 239 reports a month, compared with 154 during a typical month last year. Out of those, the SafeSport Center has 1,290 open cases, with 2,237 that have been closed. It has 18 investigators and lawyers (with four vacancies) on a staff of 37 (with six vacancies) to handle them. The center projects it will need to double its staff next year and triple it by 2023 to keep up with the work.

Ju'Riese Colon, the CEO for the U.S. Center for SafeSport, talks about the challenges facing her organization at their headquarters in Denver. (AP Photo/Eddie Pells)

Ju'Riese Colon, the CEO for the U.S. Center for SafeSport, talks about the challenges facing her organization at their headquarters in Denver. (AP Photo/Eddie Pells)

The stark numbers lend urgency to a fight over who should fund the center in the long term. The USOPC, which founded the center, is pushing the federal government to provide more than what it currently allocates — a $2.2 million grant spread over three years, none of which can be used for investigations.

“I think it’s an ‘And’ question, not an ‘Or’ question,” said USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland, who has been lobbying lawmakers to provide government money to help. She and other leaders are pointing to the model that funds the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency; USADA received about $9.5 million of its $21 million in 2018 revenue from government, an additional $5.1 million from the USOPC and $6.7 million from "testing and other services," according to its annual report.

The USOPC brought in around $323 million in revenue in 2018, up from $183 million in '17; the federation's numbers spike in Olympic years and go down during non-Olympic years. It uses the money to support athletes in a number of ways — including training, insurance, prize money for winners of major events and NGB funding. Last year, administrative costs rose to more than 11 percent of total spending ($31.2 million) because of payments to two law firms that did work involving the sex-abuse scandal and severance to former CEO Scott Blackmun.

After the center opened in March 2017 it received an initial average of 31 reports a month. That number exploded at the beginning of 2018 when victims of former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar spoke up during his sentencing hearing for sex crimes. By last fall, the number spiked again.

It’s grown even more in 2019, with each sexual misconduct-related headline triggering more calls.

Meanwhile, an independent consultant hired by the center projects the number of calls will continue to increase until it caps at around 8,000 a year — an average of 667 a month.

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Center officials said many of the reports could become less complicated as the knowledge from center’s education programs seeps into sports communities and issues are reported before they become overly complicated. Eight employees, about one-fifth of the center's workforce, is devoted to education and outreach programs to serve up to 18 million members of national governing bodies across the country. So far, the center has trained about 800,000 of those people.

The independent consultant suggested to Colon that, given the workload, the center could use $35 million in 2020. But the center has more modest hopes — hoping to increase USOPC and NGB donations to bring next year's budget to $16 million.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.