The furor over the SafeSport lifetime ban of George Morris has morphed into a movement not only to support the beleaguered trainer, author and former U.S. show jumping chef d’equipe, but also to campaign for changes in how SafeSport operates. The U.S. equestrian community has realized, as James Baldwin put it, “if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”

There is an acute awareness that more people could find themselves running afoul of a system that many consider unfair, citing a lack of transparency in the war against sexual assault and bullying. George was penalized, subject to appeal, for what is termed “sexual misconduct involving (a) minor.” His supporters in the ever-growing “I Stand with George” movement question the process for how such matters are handled.

A campaign has been started to write Congressional representatives and Senators, seeking changes in the way SafeSport does business. Meanwhile, the pervasive influence of SafeSport means that for an increasing number of organizations, an abundance of caution has become the watchword against perceptions of bad behaviour.

The U.S. Equestrian Federation, which on June 1st put rules into effect restricting how trainers interact with minors, now is directing its attention toward, of all people, journalists.

In a statement, it was revealed that “USEF has proactively implemented the following policy: Individuals affiliated with the media, who are authorized or credentialed by the USEF to access or attend a USEF-owned property, i.e. National Championships, and may have unsupervised one-on-one interactions with athletes, will be required to undergo a criminal background check.”

The individuals seeking credentials or their employers will have to pay $20 ($100 for foreign media reps) and wait until they are cleared before being allowed to cover the events. A U.S. criminal background check usually takes three to five days.

USEF is implementing this policy proactively, since the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee will be discussing a similar measure for all its sports at its assembly Sept. 11-13. But Vicki Lowell, the USEF’s chief marketing and content officer, said the federation will stick with the new policy, even if USOPC doesn’t enact something similar.

Asked why announcers, jump crew, vendors, caterers and others working around the showgrounds aren’t being required to undergo the criminal background checks, Vicki said that USEF “will evaluate its background check policy on an ongoing basis against best practices and the USOPC requirements.”

When I mentioned that journalists seemed like an odd group to start with, she cited a controversial reporter from the past who is deceased. However, the man in question was working as a horse show announcer in 1994 when he pleaded guilty to a felony charge of lewd assault involving a minor under 16. The case was very well publicized. He received probation in the judicial system and years later, worked as a blogger and then a photographer and reporter. No one moved to ban him from the showgrounds – although there was discussion about his situation.

The championships requiring criminal background checks for journalists thus far have only been the USEF Pony Finals and the USEF Dressage Festival of Champions, but it’s the sort of thing that has the possibility of expanding exponentially. At this point, FEI events are not included, and when asked if all USEF-recognized events might have to institute such a policy, Vicki said, “not at this time.”

Meanwhile, the board of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists has come out against the practice.

“The IAEJ is opposed on principle to the new USEF requirement regarding criminal background checks for media, as we object to any unfair conditions of accreditation,” the organization stated.

“Media should never have to pay a fee to attend any event they are covering legitimately. Additionally, the onus should be on the USEF to adhere to a strict accreditation process, which if followed properly, is a background check in and of itself.”

~ Nancy Jaffer

USEF Lawsuit Resolved

The lawsuit filed in January against the U.S. Equestrian Federation by its former drug testing laboratory director, Cornelius Uboh, has been “resolved on satisfactory terms,” according to USEF attorney Sonja Keating.

“There was a joint stipulation of dismissal of all claims and counterclaims,” she stated, but no details were revealed.

The director was fired after the mishandling of a sample in the lab prompted an embarrassing reversal of punishment levied against a high-profile trainer and hunter rider, Larry Glefke and Kelley Farmer, for a positive drug test on a horse they competed.

Uboh, who sought compensatory and punitive damages, alleged in his lawsuit that USEF terminated his employment “on false grounds and destroyed his professional reputation in the national and international equine community in the process.”

The lawsuit also contended that “As a newly hired, minority laboratory director, Dr. Uboh became a convenient scapegoat for the USEF’s decision” to drop charges against Glefke and Farmer, a contention the USEF denied in its answer.

The situation prompted a USEF task force to look into the future of the lab, and it was determined that USEF should use the lab at the University of Kentucky for its drug testing in the future. In July, the work was transitioned to the UK Equine Regulatory Testing Laboratory. The UK lab will test samples, but USEF will continue to administer the sample collection process and management of results.

~ Nancy Jaffer