The US Tennis Association can do more to prevent abuse such as sexual misconduct, a review says

An outside review of the U.S. Tennis Association’s safeguarding system offered 19 specific recommendations for how the group that oversees the sport in the country and runs the U.S. Open Grand Slam tournament can do more to protect players from abuse such as sexual misconduct.

A 62-page report written by two lawyers — Mary Beth Hogan and David O’Neil of New York-headquartered firm Debevoise & Plimpton — was presented to the USTA Board of Directors last week and made public Thursday.

“The USTA complies with all of the requirements of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, and in several respects has policies and procedures that are more protective than the Center’s requirements. … We did, however, identify several ways to increase player safety that the USTA should consider adopting,” Hogan and O'Neil wrote.

The report arrives less than two months after a tennis player was awarded $9 million in damages by a jury in federal court in Florida following her accusation that the USTA failed to protect her from a coach she said sexually abused her at one of its training centers when she was a teenager. O’Neil — former head of the Justice Department’s criminal division — and Hogan wrote that their “review did not encompass the investigations of specific incidents involving allegations of sexual misconduct apart from reviewing whether the USTA met its obligations when abuse was reported to the USTA” and so they “did not investigate the events leading to” that Florida case.

They also noted that the USTA was a defendant in four other lawsuits — one of which resulted in a settlement — related to sexual abuse of tennis players over the last two decades.

The lawyers said they conducted “a thorough independent review” of the USTA’s “current policies and procedures for preventing, reporting, and responding to reports of abuse, including sexual misconduct.”

The review encompassed interviews with USTA employees and access to hundreds of the organization’s documents. It also included an assessment of safeguarding at 51 other national governing bodies for sports in the United States, Paralympic sports organizations and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, along with the guidelines set forth by the U.S. Center for SafeSport.

The report says “the Board expressed its intention to incorporate” the suggestions into the USTA’s Safe Play Program.

“We view this report, including recommendations from the Debevoise team, as an important step forward in our efforts to further ensure a safe environment for all those involved in the sport of tennis," USTA CEO and executive director Lew Sherr said in a written statement. "We are working to implement the recommendations as thoroughly and swiftly as possible.”

The 19 recommendations include:

— seven that “focus on preventing misconduct before it occurs;"

— nine related to keeping “individuals who are known to have engaged in misconduct” away from USTA facilities and events, including by making information about them more broadly known, because, the report says, “one of the biggest concerns parents and players have relates to individuals who are known to have engaged in misconduct — either due to an adverse action by the Center or a criminal prosecution — but attempt to continue participating in tennis,” including by appearing “at USTA-sanctioned tournaments as spectators;”

— two “aimed at expanding the number of individuals who get Safe Play Approved … and individuals who take SafeSport training, particularly parents,” who “are often unaware of the ways in which coaches may manipulate both minor athletes and their parents, and it may be particularly difficult to identify problematic behavior when a parent is hopeful that a coach will help progress their child’s success in the sport;”

— and one that “calls for additional staffing and resources” for the USTA’s Safe Play Program to help adopt the recommendations.

The review says the USTA has only three employees "dedicated to developing and implementing the Safe Play Program and monitoring compliance,” and its three campuses for player development — in New York, Florida and California — “do not have staff members designated exclusively to overseeing athlete safety.”

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This story clarifies that Debevoise & Plimpton is headquartered in New York.

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Howard Fendrich has been the AP’s tennis writer since 2002. Find his stories here: https://apnews.com/author/howard-fendrich

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AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis