U.S. Center for SafeSport CEO Shellie Pfohl will tell you that playing sports has helped develop her into the leader that she is today, for all the reasons you might suspect: It taught her discipline, teamwork, dedication and all in a uplifting environment that allowed her to grow while making mistakes.
But Pfohl knows that not every young athlete—and even adult athletes—have had such a positive experience through sports. Some athletes suffer from discrimination or bullying from coaches and staff, hazing or harassment from their teammates or peers. Some even experience sexual abuse.
That’s why after years of working with the Obama administration as the executive director of the Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, Pfohl decided to take on a new role as the first CEO of the U.S. Center for SafeSport when the nonprofit launched in March. Though the organization, she wants to help all athletes experience sport and all of its benefits without the fear of bullying or abuse.
Pfohl spoke with Excelle Sports to explain the operations behind U.S. Center for SafeSport, her career and why Michelle Obama has been one of the most inspirational female mentors she’s ever had.
It must have been challenging transitioning from health and fitness to handling such a sensitive topic.
I came into this position with eyes wide open in terms of how hard it is to address these issues [of abuse in sports]. I think that speaks to why it probably took longer than expected to get the center up and running—the complexity of the issues and the difficulty of raising funds. It’s kind of the dark side of sport. Sometimes we like to turn the channel when we are discussing these issues. But the challenge further ignites my passion because these issues need to be elevated to the forefront. So my role is about bringing my leadership skills and forming meaningful partnerships with organizations.
So how did SafeSport come about despite the challenges?
The genesis of SafeSport came from reports of abuse within the Olympic movement stemming back from 2010. The U.S. Olympic Committee then put together a group of subject matter experts over the course of the last several years and have come up with a process and a structure that we think will be able to serve athletes at the Olympic level. Even though the USOC created us, we are and should be independent.
Why is being independent important?
Part of what we do is investigate reports of misconduct and abuse in the Olympic and Paralympic movements. So we have the exclusive authority to investigate every and all reports that pertain to sexual misconduct or abuse within the 47 national governing bodies that oversee the Olympic sports. So we don’t answer to the USOC. We aren’t beholden to them and we feel very good about that.
Does SafeSport do more than just respond to cases of abuse?
We provide education and training not only for the Olympic movement, but for all youth and adult sport organizations at every level. We also have a whole cadre of online training that talks about what is appropriate conduct for themselves and other coaches and how they should relate to athletes. We teach them how to deal with bullying on a team. We go through what grooming behavior looks like in terms of child sexual abuse so adults can be aware and spot these behaviors in other adults. We also want to train the athletes and parents too.
Are you also going to work with the NCAA?
We already have a very strong relationship with the NCAA. Ultimately, what we want is for kids to have a consistent policy from the time they are four years old to all the way through their high school, collegiate and adult life. We need to create a culture that respects all athletes and where the well-being of the athlete comes first. We all know that changing culture is not an easy thing, but I think there’s this momentum being built where individuals and organizations understand that the purpose of sport go far beyond wins and losses.
What is your relationship with law enforcement?
We are a “mandatory reporter.” So are all adults within the 47 national governing bodies (NGB). So from a child sexual abuse standpoint, any adult within the NGB, they have to report child abuse or suspected child abuse to their local law enforcement and they must call us. If we get a call directly, we will call law enforcement ourselves. From there, if law enforcement is involved, we work with them. We look at breaches in SafeSport code which goes beyond just breaking the law. An individual’s misconduct may not be breaking a law but it may be breaching SafeSport code.
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What are you focused on in the next five years?
I want the U.S. Center for SafeSport to be the go-to resource for sports organizations at every level to garner training, awareness and education around bullying, harassment, hazing and all sorts of abuse. Period. I want individuals who unfortunately do experience any form of abuse to feel safe to reach out to us through our hotline to talk through their experience and ultimately to then have us act on it by way of investigation if necessary.
We’ve seen in the news that many female coaches in the NCAA have been accused of (if not fired for) aggressive conduct, which in some cases would be more acceptable coming from male coaches. Do the trainings at SafeSport address how to handle the differences in gender perception in coaching address?
That’s a great question and one that is difficult to answer. But I would concur with those differing gender perceptions. I think even just determining what is emotional abuse from a coach to a player and defining that is difficult. When is it crossing the line? When are you lifting your athletes up versus being detrimental to their well-being?
Name one of your most uplifting female mentors.
Michelle Obama. Being able to work with her on the “Let’s Move Initiative” and as I was directing the president’s council on fitness, sports and nutrition was extremely meaningful. Seeing her navigate the political waters and understand how we truly move our collective mission forward was very uplifting for me.
What’s the best advice Mrs. Obama has ever given you?
Remain fearless. There are always going to be obstacles that have to be overcome. Anything that is worth doing is worth doing well and it’s precisely because there are so many obstacles that it is worth doing. So remain fearless in spite of obstacles.