Athletes incensed after Jean Lopez's readmission
The U.S. Center for SafeSport temporarily removed taekwondo coach Jean Lopez from its database of sanctioned individuals this month after telling women who reported him for sexual misconduct that it wouldn’t defend his ban without their in-person testimony at his appeal, according to the women’s attorney.
That stance goes counter to SafeSport’s code, which does not require a reporting party to testify during an appeal hearing, nor must it be done in person.
The center declared Lopez permanently ineligible in April after finding him in violation of the SafeSport code for sexual misconduct and sexual misconduct involving a minor. SafeSport found that Jean Lopez had assaulted Mandy Meloon, Heidi Gilbert and a third woman with whom he had also engaged in a consensual sexual relationship with starting when she was 17.
“(SafeSport is) a paper tiger. They’re hollow. They’re not fulfilling their obligation to the athletes,” attorney Stephen Estey told USA TODAY Sports.
Estey represents Meloon, Gilbert and three other women in a federal lawsuit against the Lopez brothers – Jean and Steven – the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Taekwondo that was filed in May in U.S. District Court in Colorado.
“When (SafeSport is) charged with keeping athletes safe and they don’t do their job we’ve got a problem,” Estey said.
It’s not clear when SafeSport removed Lopez’s name from the database of disciplinary records on its website, but he was not on it Thursday 16 night or for most of the day Friday 17. He reappeared late Friday 17 in the afternoon, after SafeSport had been asked about the appeal by USA TODAY Sports, but it lists him with an interim restriction and does not give a reason for the sanction or decision date. It is not clear what those restrictions are.
In a statement, the center told USA TODAY Sports it wouldn’t speak about specific cases.
“When a sanction is changed the Center will typically discuss it with all of the involved parties and/or their advisors,” the statement said. “As each matter comes with its own unique set of circumstances, the Center’s decisions are dependent on factors such as the availability of information, the status of the matter or arbitration, the parties’ willingness or ability to participate, etc.”
Howard Jacobs, an attorney for Jean Lopez, declined to discuss the specifics of the SafeSport process.
“The main thing is that he had been barred from coaching and he’s no longer barred from coaching,” Jacobs said.
Asked about the interim restriction added on Friday afternoon, Jacobs said Lopez is prevented from having contact with the women.
Jacobs said it is “unclear” if this is the final step in the case.
“We hope that this is the end of it,” he said.
Jean Lopez, 44, has coached Steven throughout his career as well as siblings Mark and Diana, who also medaled in the 2008 Olympics.
Steven Lopez is taekwondo’s biggest star and the most decorated athlete in that sport. He is a five-time Olympian with gold medals in 2000 and 2004 and a bronze in 2008, as well as five world titles.
Jean Lopez has denied all of the allegations, both in interviews with SafeSport and last spring with USA TODAY Sports.
“I’ve never been inappropriate with anyone,” Jean Lopez told USA TODAY Sports.
Meloon and Gilbert were among three women who spoke with USA TODAY Sports and described sexual misconduct by Jean Lopez dating back to 1997.
Meloon first filed a complaint with USA Taekwondo in 2006 that Jean Lopez had sexually assaulted her at a tournament in 1997. She was 16 at the time.
While USA Taekwondo dismissed her claim then, SafeSport’s investigation found it to have merit.
“This matter concerns a decades long pattern of sexual misconduct by an older athlete/coach abusing his power to groom, manipulate and, ultimately, sexually abuse younger female athletes,” SafeSport said in its decision obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
“Given the number of incidents reported over a span of several years and by multiple reporting parties, most of whom have no reasonable motive to fabricate an allegation – much less multiple, distinct incidents – of misconduct, the totality of the circumstances clearly shows a recurrent pattern of behavior on the part of Jean.”
Lopez, who coached his brother to two Olympic gold medals, exercised his right to appeal the SafeSport decision. The appeal is to be heard by an arbitrator, and the rules state the arbitrator “may receive and consider the evidence of witnesses by declaration or affidavit and shall give it such weight as the arbitrator deems appropriate after considering any objection made to its admission.”
The rules also state that both the reporting party and the responding party “shall be subject to questioning by only the arbitrator unless the Responding Party or Reporting Party agrees to direct examination and cross-examination by the opposing party.”
Gilbert, Meloon and the other woman in the SafeSport decision offered to provide written declarations “under penalty of perjury” for Lopez’s appeal, Estey said. If that wasn’t acceptable, he suggested waiting until the women gave their depositions in the civil case, which would be taken under oath, and using those.
But Estey said Joe Zonies, an attorney for SafeSport, told him the women had to testify in person. Estey said he rejected that because the women are already going to be subject to questioning for the civil lawsuit, and he didn’t want them to have to be cross-examined multiple times.
“When you have a defense attorney cross-examine (sexual abuse victims), it opens up wounds,” Estey said. “I don’t want to do that multiple times. I don’t want to put them through unnecessary trauma.”
Zonies then said SafeSport would not defend its decision in the appeal, Estey said, and would instead lift the ban on Lopez.
“They just chose, ‘Because you won’t appear in person, we’re going to lift the ban … without even going forward with the arbitration,’ ” Estey said. “They didn’t even try. Why not take the declaration and put them in front of the arbitrator?”
“It’s not the arbitrator,” Estey added. “It’s SafeSport that ultimately decided to drop it.”
SafeSport’s decision will have far-reaching implications beyond the Lopez case, Estey said. It gives people who have been banned a blueprint for how to get them lifted, he said. It also could have a chilling effect on those who’ve been abused, he said, because it sends the message that SafeSport will only go so far to protect them.
“Why should any sexual abuse survivor come forward if they know SafeSport is not going to do anything about it?” Estey asked.
For Meloon, the decision was frustrating because an arbitrator had not made a decision on the merits of SafeSport’s decision.
“For me, I really wanted to believe in SafeSport. I was completely cooperating with them and I believed in the process,” she said. “And now I’m just, I don’t know. It’s not helpful because now people who have been assaulted and will be assaulted by these guys are not going to have anywhere to report it.”
SafeSport’s sanction came three years after USA Taekwondo began its investigation into complaints against the Lopezes. The national governing body handed over the investigation to SafeSport when it opened in March 2017.
Though the center had been closing cases in an average of 63 days, it took more than a year to reach a decision in Jean Lopez’s case.
USA TODAY Sports reported in June 2017 that Jean and Steven Lopez were allowed to participate in the 2016 Rio Olympics even though both had been accused of sexual assault and USA Taekwondo had been investigating them for more than a year. USA Taekwondo never held hearings that would have brought a resolution to the cases, but the attorney who conducted the investigation was concerned enough that he alerted the FBI.
In an interview with USA TODAY Sports last spring, Steven Lopez denied the allegations.
SafeSport issued an interim suspension for Steven Lopez in May. It had previously put him under interim restrictions starting in June 2017.
“How can you drop the ban because you’re trying to force victims to testify in this way?” Meloon said. “I’m really seeing that the whole process is not for the athlete, but it’s so disappointing because at least the ban was something.”
Source: USA Today (Nancy Armour and Rachel Axon)