A member of the United States weightlifting team who claims she was raped by a team-mate who, at the time, was an athletes’ representative on the board of the sport’s national governing body, has issued a lawsuit against the alleged perpetrator, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and USA Weightlifting.
The original complaint by Jennyfer Roberts, a 30-year-old national champion, was made to USA Weightlifting, which passed it on to the US Center for SafeSport, an independent body set up by the USOC in 2017 “to protect athletes’ safety”.
Roberts said Colin Burns, who has denied the allegations from the outset and successfully overturned a 10-year ban imposed by SafeSport, had raped her while she was incapacitated by alcohol and sleep after a pre-Olympic test event in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
She did not immediately lodge a complaint to sporting officials or the law but after months of anguish, she wrote to USAW to begin a complaints procedure.
Two years later she feels let down and says she is worried about her mental health.
USA Weightlifting has been criticised by Roberts and by prominent former national team members, including the triple Olympian Kendrick Farris, for its handling of the case but insists it acted with propriety and could not deal with the complaint itself because of a conflict of interest, with Burns on its board.
"The matter was not in our own jurisdiction," said Phil Andrews, chief executive of USA Weightlifting.
USAW had no influence on the investigation by SafeSport, which was set up by the USOC after sexual abuse scandals in other Olympic sports, and its entire board knew nothing about it until its decision was announced little more than a year ago.
USAW also had no input to the subsequent arbitration hearing by a panel comprising two former federal judges and an attorney.
Nevertheless, Andrews apologised for the delay in proceedings, which was one of Roberts’ many complaints.
“The fact the complaint took 11 months to investigate is unacceptable and we apologise for that,” he said.
“As a survivor of abuse myself, this subject is tremendously importantly to me.
“I want our athletes to feel nothing but supported and empowered by USAW and I will take every step necessary to ensure that is the case.”
Burns, 35, has been coached by Ursula Garza Papandrea, the president of USAW who also chairs the International Weightlifting Federation’s (IWF) women’s commission.
Papandrea has voiced misgivings about the way SafeSport operates and believes there is “a huge infringement on due process” in its handling of reported complaints.
Details of SafeSport investigations are usually kept confidential but Roberts made the case public by agreeing to be interviewed by Scott Reid, an award-winning reporter who led a six-month investigation into the way SafeSport handles complaints by athletes of sexual abuse.
Roberts filed a lawsuit last week in Orange County Superior Court against Burns, the USOC and USAW, after two lengthy reports by Reid were published in the Orange County Register, a 250,000-circulation daily newspaper in Southern California.
She declined to talk to insidethegames while the case is ongoing.
A third report by Reid is due to be published, on the way appeals against SafeSport decisions are dealt with.
Reid’s revelations about sexual abuse within other sports have led to high-level investigations by governing bodies, policy changes, a lifetime ban for a top USA Gymnastics coach and the banishment of USA Swimming coaches.
After an 11-month investigation SafeSport, which has dealt with more than 1,800 reported cases of abuse within a range of sports in its two years of existence, banned Burns for 12 years in February last year.
SafeSport decided Burns had committed non-consensual sexual acts against Roberts, and banned him for 10 years for that offence, plus two years for repeatedly lying to investigators, the Orange County Register reported.
Burns, who has won national and Pan American titles, denied the assault allegations, said he had been invited by Roberts to her hotel room and told investigators he lied about being in the room at first because he feared his girlfriend would find out, Reid wrote.
Burns took the case to an arbitration panel comprising two former federal judges and an attorney.
Reid reported that the panel ruled last July that SafeSport “had not proved by a preponderance of the evidence that Burns had non-consensual sexual contact with Roberts”, and the 10-year ban for the alleged assault was rescinded.
The two-year ban for abuse of process was reduced to 18 months, expiring in August this year.
When Burns was contacted by the Orange County Register he declined to be interviewed and said he could not comment because SafeSport cases are “entirely confidential”.
Roberts told Reid of her personal meltdown in the months after her return from Rio, and how it sent her into “a panic tailspin” at every training session.
“One day I knew I wasn’t going to get better at weightlifting or in life, I wasn’t going to get better period if I didn’t do something,” she told Reid.
That was when she decided to make her official complaint, little suspecting that the investigation would drag on for 11 months.
“The whole thing was really frustrating,” she said of her experience with the SafeSport investigation.
“The more time passes, the more I struggle with it.”
Roberts was especially upset that Burns continued to compete during the investigation period and she attended events knowing that Burns might be there as an athlete or coach.
Roberts also told Reid that she felt “every descriptive word for anger” when USAW's Andrews praised Burns on social media for his gold medal performances at the 2017 Pan American Championships at a time when the SafeSport investigation was ongoing.
Farris, who competed for the US at the Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympic Games, voiced his support for Roberts on social media.
“I stand in solidarity with Jennyfer Roberts and those voices that can’t seem to be heard for whatever reason,” he said.
“There seems to be a common thread within USAW when it comes to choosing power and positions instead of protecting athletes.”
Derrick Johnson, who competed at the 2014 World Championships for the US and is an international coach, also spoke up for Roberts.
“This is not an individual issue but a systemic problem representative of how USAW treats women and the powerless while protecting the powerful,” said Johnson, who has also been coached by Papandrea.
USAW’s Andrews said, “Whenever an athlete has the courage to come forward with a complaint, we do everything we can to make sure it is taken seriously, no matter whom that complaint is against.
“SafeSport was created specifically to deal with issues like this.
“We took the complaint very seriously and looked to SafeSport to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation and the arbitration panel to decide the outcome.”
As for the views of Farris and Johnson, Andrews said, “Regarding Kendrick and Derrick’s comments, each and every member of the national team has the freedom to think whatever they wish.
“I am happy to sit down with national team members and walk them through what the processes we went through are.
“I would also point out that USAW has tried to be in front of the curve on athlete protection and we continue to look to be so.
“We were the second national governing body to have background checks for our entire national team and the first to have SafeSport training in our national team, to the best of my knowledge.”
Andrews had also set up – before SafeSport concluded its investigation into Roberts’ complaint – a specific non-profit fund, The Athlete Fund, to help athletes to deal with any mental health problems and their recovery in any sport.
USAW also has a similar fund specifically for weightlifters.
Explaining why USAW did not deal with the investigative process internally, Andrews said, “Within two hours of receiving the complaint from Jennyfer Roberts, we had our outside legal counsel and the US Center for Safe Sport on the phone and agreed very soon with both the reporting and responding parties that SafeSport, correctly, would have jurisdiction.
“It was not realistic for us to adjudicate given the conflict of interest, with Colin Burns on our board.
“Even if we had handled the matter internally, about a month later all national governing bodies were asked by the USOC to hand over any cases concerning alleged sexual abuse to the US Center for SafeSport.
“The investigation by SafeSport took 11 months, during which time we were directed to abide by SafeSport’s rules of strict confidentiality.
“Most of the staff and the entire board of USAW did not know about the allegations and Colin Burns continued to coach and compete, as we were instructed to continue business as usual at that time.
“We had to respect the confidentiality of the case.
“I have never seen any copies of the files and papers from that investigation – any details I have seen have been in the media, aside from the initial report.
“The final decision of SafeSport was announced in February 2018, a 12-year suspension for Colin Burns, at which point he was removed from the USAW board.
“He elected to go to an arbitration hearing, at which the ban was overturned and he was suspended for contravening the SafeSport rules, an abuse of process.
“We are bound by this decision, as the complaint has been entirely in the hands of the US Center for SafeSport.
“We are also not party to the investigation or arbitration of this or any other complaint.”
“I was not in contact with Jennyfer Roberts as often as I was with Colin Burns because of his position on our board, but I did speak to her, or one of my staff did, a number of times throughout the period of the investigation.”
In reply to Roberts’ complaints about his comments on Burns’ Pan American medals in 2017, Andrews said: “On my personal social media, I routinely share the results of US athletes.
“I have not looked back at my social media activity but I would expect I congratulated every US medallist that week, as is my habit.
“You can look at it in hindsight but it’s difficult, because at that point there had been no result of the investigation and I was following the instruction to maintain business as usual and confidentiality from the US Center for SafeSport.
“Did I mean to cause any anguish to anybody by commenting on social media?
“Absolutely not, and I regret that my effort to follow the guidance to conduct business as usual caused mental anguish as that was certainly not my intent.
“While the investigation was ongoing, I did not want at any point to be for or against either party.”
Papandrea also emphasised that the matter was out of USAW’s jurisdiction.
“As Safesport is a completely separate agency, there is no ability by the USAW board or USAW in general to affect or impact a case being decided (by SafeSport),” she said.
“USOC created a separate agency specifically to remove themselves and all the governing entities from the process.
“Learning about the process itself, my concern was the lack of procedures as basic as notification.
“I later learned a single investigator may write a report and there is no hearing for the accused athlete until after the report has been made public.
“I am concerned that the actions by Safesport, especially the release of the investigator’s opinion before the accused has been afforded a hearing, is a huge infringement on due process.”
There was criticism for SafeSport from women who complained about alleged sexual abuse by two brothers in taekwondo, coach Jean Lopez and double Olympic champion Steven Lopez.
The brothers were banned from the sport for life by SafeSport but both had their bans lifted by subsequent arbitration hearings within the past three months.
Hundreds of complaints have been successfully dealt with, including one made via USAW that is due to be heard in court soon, concerning a CrossFit gym owner.
SafeSport recently had a change of director.
USAW’s Andrews said: “The recent changes at the Center have been very helpful in improving confidence in the Center.
“We are looking forward to continued improvement in this agency that we all need to be successful.
“We also need all sporting bodies and the federal government to continue to look for ways to improve the funding of the Center similar to the successful and best-practice model of the US Anti-Doping Agency.”
Kira Wilson, who speaks on behalf of the Center for SafeSport via a public relations company, said the Center did not comment on specific cases, although she was happy to clarify points “generally”.
“The Center’s process is built on fairness,” said Wilson.
Its investigators, she said, “are highly qualified and average 10-15 years’ experience in investigating sexual misconduct”.
SafeSport “wants every arbitration to go its way but in a system designed to be fair recognises there are times independent arbiters will see a matter differently.
“When a matter goes to arbitration, it’s because we believed there was wrongdoing, which is why a sanction was issued.
“As seen in so many venues, including criminal courts, sexual misconduct cases are very difficult but that’s no excuse to not do the right thing… these are complex and extremely sensitive matters that deserve fair, compassionate and factual discussion.”
About a year ago, Larry Probst, then chair of the USOC board, said SafeSport was “under-resourced”.
It has dealt with 1,832 reports of abuse since being founded two years ago, of which 658 have resulted in disciplinary action of varying degrees up to lifetime bans.
Asked if funding was still a problem, Wilson said: “The Center continues to expand its staff and is asking for additional funding to support its efforts in addressing the large number of reports received since opening in March of 2017.
“The non-profit grew from four employees when it opened its doors in 2017 to over 30 in 2019.
“The US Olympic Committee recently announced it would double its funding of the Center.”
The USOC did not respond to a request for a statement from insidethegames.