This article was originally published May 8 at http://www.beyondchron.org/taekwondo-sexual-abuse-takes-olympic-sports-bodies-human-trafficking-class-action/
by Irvin Muchnick
The latest explosive sexual abuse story in Olympic sports — a Colorado lawsuit against the U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Taekwondo, and brothers Steven Lopez (a champion taekwondoin) and Jean Lopez (an Olympic head coach) — goes far beyond the #MeToo flavor of the month with which the major media have presented the flood of allegations of widespread and systematic misconduct by youth sports coaches.
For the first time, lawyers representing victims are utilizing a statutory mechanism that should allow them to pierce the veils of not just the bad actors in the coaching ranks, but also the institutions that protect their “brands” by playing dumb and enabling heinous behavior.
For the corrupt, money-mad, patriotism-pandering Olympic movement, the implications are profound. The USOC and its menagerie of phony national sport governing body nonprofits are on the defensive in the wake of the USA Gymnastics scandal of monster doctor Larry Nassar. Now, thanks to a wrinkle emerging from the Safe Sport Act that was crafted by Senator Dianne Feinstein — an angle evidently missed by USOC’s army of lobbyists and fixers — Gilbert et al. v. USOC et al. takes abuse litigation where it has never before ventured: into allegations of global human trafficking, and via the vehicle of class action.
Before explaining the legal technicalities, let’s review the basic facts of the allegations by taekwondoins Heidi Gilbert, Amber Means, Mandy Maloon, and Gabriela Joslin.
The plaintiffs maintain that since the mid-1990s, both the USOC and USA Taekwondo, in knowledge that sport coaches and officials were sexually abusing young female athletes, supported these crimes by subsidizing their travel to competitions throughout the world. According to the lawsuit, hundreds of similarly situated athletes have been exposed to the predatory Lopez brothers since 2007.
It’s the “similarly situated” part that’s the key. Heretofore, alleged victims have had to fight their cases in isolation, one by one, because the fact patterns were too diverse to satisfy “commonality” requirements of Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which governs class action.
As someone who has been investigating sexual abuse, primarily in USA Swimming, for more than six years, I know that it has been impossible to legally lump together the allegations of different athletes. For example, Bill Jewell, the dirty old man assistant to former Olympic head coach Mark Schubert, disparaged girl swimmers about the size of their boobs. That is not the same as, say, International Swimming Hall of Fame coach Paul Bergen, whom Deena Deardurff unrefutedly says molested her in the basement boiler room of a Cincinnati aquatics center several years before she won a gold medal at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
Specifically, the Colorado lawsuit claims the USOC and USA Taekwondo “exposed hundreds of young female athletes to two adult predators” by allowing Steven Lopez to compete and Jean Lopez to be the U.S. coach at the Olympics, world championships and other competitions. Further, the organizations’ role in funding and facilitating these arrangements opens the door not only to class action, but also to the trafficking aspect common to them.
How this all came about is a delicious reverse-loophole of the SafeSport Act. You can count me among the skeptics concerning whether the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which the statute created, will be a difference-maker on the abuse issue. While I believe the center deserves a chance to show its stuff, I don’t regard it as truly “independent” and capable of meting out sport body accountability — any more than its oft-hyped model, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
Some early returns are positive and others are not. To its credit, the center has taken on the complaint of a former swimmer, Sarah Ehekircher, that USA Swimming’s National Board of Review railroaded her in the 2010 hearing of her complaint against her coach, Scott MacFarland, who had groomed and abused her from age 17. To its discredit, the center is ignoring Ehekircher’s plea for transparency by upholding swimming’s bogus claim that the transcript of the 2010 hearing is unreleasable due to a unilaterally asserted “confidentiality agreement.”
(Taekwondo’s Jean Lopez last month was banned for life by the SafeSport Center; a complaint against Steven Lopez is pending.)
But whether or not the SafeSport Act — handiwork of the women’s sports and anti-abuse activist Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a 1984 Olympic swimming champion — proves all it’s cracked up to be, the salient point is that the USOC had to get on board with supporting it, so as to demonstrate being in touch with the problem. In the process, the Olympic bodies failed to notice an obscure related consequence: that the act places the bodies under the jurisdiction of 18 U.S. Code § 2255, which allows victims “civil remedy for injuries.”
Thank goodness for bureaucratic fumbles in our favor.
Through this opening charged the Gilbert plaintiffs against taekwondo. Their 132-page complaint is viewable at https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/4452842-USOC-USA-Taekwondo-trafficking-complaint.html.
Even apart from its application to class action, the importance of the trafficking angle cannot be overstated. As in the Catholic Church, Olympic sport abuse crosses national boundaries. This, in fact, is one of the issue’s least understood aspects. In 2014 my colleague Tim Joyce and I exposed native Brazilian coach Alex Pussieldi (now a commentator for his country’s ESPN-esque network, SporTV), a blatant human trafficker during the decade-plus in which he terrorized the swimming programs of South Florida by importing swimmers from Central and South America and the Middle East; Pussieldi housed and “warded” many of them, and peeped on or abused some of them.
Former Irish Olympic swim coach George Gibney also fits the global abuse theme. Gibney wasn’t a trafficker, per se, of athletes he abused. But he’s certainly a two-continent sex criminal — someone I call the most notorious at-large abuser in international sports. My recently settled Freedom of Information Act case against the Department of Homeland Security for material from Gibney’s American immigration file (following a ruling in my favor by U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer) shows that Gibney has been hiding in plain sight in this country as a resident alien for nearly a quarter of a century — and even since his 2010 citizenship application got rejected because he lied on it about his 27-count indictment in Ireland in 1993 for molesting, and in at least one case raping, untold numbers of swimmers under his supervision. An Irish politician, Maureen O’Sullivan, is spearheading a campaign to solicit Senator Feinstein, Congresswoman Jackie Speier, and other sympathetic sister legislators to coordinate Irish and U.S. law enforcement information and facilitate Gibney’s extradition and trial.
The taekwondo plaintiff group is being represented by a team of attorneys headed by B. Robert Allard of San Jose and Jonathan Little of Indianapolis. In 2012 the now-defunct California Lawyer magazine named Allard one of its lawyers of the year for his advocacy of abuse victims. And no one knows more about where all the bodies are buried than in Olympic sports than Little, who ran track at Indiana University and was friends with two prominent swimmers. One of them, Brooke Taflinger, would file one of the most important early cases against USA Swimming, involving Peeping Tom coach Brian Hindson. The other, Susan Woessner, is the disgraced former USA Swimming safe sport director who was recently forced to resign after acknowledging that she had “kissed” a coach, Sean Hutchison, prior to investigating him — and before recent revelations that Hutchison groomed and abused one of his swimmers, former butterfly world record holder Ariana Kukors.
In the cliche, sex abuse is about abuse of power, not about sex. But going forward, it will also be about s something that hits Olympic potentates where they hurt: commerce.
What might follow human trafficking and class action cases against the USOC and its satellite bodies? I would suggest RICO — the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. They’ve long operated like a virtual mob. It’s past time for the law to start treating them like the real one.
Irvin Muchnick, author of three books, writes about sports abuse and other topics at his website, https://concussioninc.net.