A tidal wave of reaction met the news that former U.S. show jumping coach George Morris – the world’s most famous trainer in that discipline – had been issued a lifetime ban by the U.S. Center for SafeSport in connection with “sexual misconduct involving (a) minor.”
The decision is being contested and disputed by the 81-year-old Olympic medalist, who said in a statement he is “deeply troubled by the U.S. Center for SafeSport’s findings regarding unsubstantiated charges for events that allegedly occurred between 1968 and 1972.”
In response to SafeSport’s action, a Facebook movement called “I Stand With George” has drawn support from a wide range of people, including former U.S. dressage coach Robert Dover and show jumpers Candice King and Olympic gold medalist Eric Lamaze among others.
“I have devoted my life to equestrian sport and the development of future riders, coaches and Olympians,” George commented in a statement.
“Any allegations that suggest I have acted in ways that are harmful to any individual, the broader equestrian community, and sport that I love dearly are false and hurtful.”
While SafeSport’s disciplinary database says the decision is “subject to appeal/not yet final,” it also includes the words, “permanently ineligible” highlighted in red.
In a statement, the U.S. Equestrian Federation pointed out, “The Center investigated the allegations against Morris, found them credible, issued their ruling, and banned Morris for life. US Equestrian and its affiliates will enforce this ban, which is subject to appeal.”
Robert noted “the 1970s, especially, were a crazy time. But retroactively attempting to judge one’s behavior in today’s world based on those times, what was for instance, going on in Studio 54 or Studio 1, is not only impossible but is unfair.”
Candice, who said George was there for her throughout her career (starting with a clinic when she was eight) stands with George, but added, “for me, it’s not just about George. This is all against the American system, it’s bigger than our riders and George.”
Robert said much the same thing, noting, “I hate that my friend, George, is going through this but it is even bigger than George and so in standing with George, I am standing up for the rights of us all and calling for SafeSport to be overhauled. We need to protect our youth and all our athletes in sports but with a correct system using the rule of law and jurisprudence.”
Eric stated, “I have the most respect for this legend of our sport I’m proud to call him my friend…he has done so much for the American team as well as having produced some of the best professionals in our sport today… What he’s accused of doing in 1968 is a joke…Is this an angry client? Is this someone that wants to be in the limelight; who’s this person?
“To see my friend accused of something like this without any info is ridiculous. George will never shame the sport that he loves.”
There have been many objections voiced to SafeSport’s process of publishing such decisions before an appeal is concluded.
Dan Hill, on behalf of the Center for SafeSport, explained, “The process is that a responding party can request a hearing within five days of the notice of decision. After that, it’s a process that usually unfolds within 45 days. If there is a hearing it would be in front of an independent arbiter.”
When I asked Dan why SafeSport does not wait until the arbiter rules before publishing someone’s name and their punishment, he replied, “the Center’s decision is final. In many cases, if not most, it ends there – only a few go to a hearing.
He added, “It’s akin to other aspects of society, such as allegations against a classroom teacher. The district may put the teacher on admin leave pending the investigation and then when the investigation is concluded, the teacher may be terminated if there’s ample reason, even if he or she can still appeal or take other action; the public, parents and others would want to know right then, not at the conclusion of whatever hearings and or appeals the teacher may be afforded. Same holds true every single day in the criminal justice system – imagine if there were no consequences for crime until all appeals were
“The Center and the SafeSport Code are designed to keep sport participants safe while being fair in holding individuals accountable, which is why the opportunity to request a hearing in front of an independent arbiter is so important.”
SafeSport is an independent non-profit “committed to building a sport community where participants can work and learn together free of emotional, physical and sexual abuse and misconduct.” Abuses involving the U.S. women’s gymnastics team cast a spotlight on such situations, and in 2017, the U.S. Congress passed legislation giving the authority to respond to reports of sexual misconduct and the responsibility “to develop national policies and procedures to prevent the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of amateur athletes.”
Growing up in California, Candice rode with the late Jimmy Williams and the late Rob Gage, neither of whom ever abused her and both of whom helped her, she said. However, she did add, “I’m a victim,” explaining she was abused as a young person and an adult by others, but did not press charges. She mentioned that experience enables her to see both sides of the situation.
Jimmy Williams, who died in 1993, was removed from the Show Jumping Hall of Fame after revelations of sexual abuse involving a number of riders, including Olympian Anne Kursinski, were exposed following his death. Rob Gage, a former American Grand Prix Association Rider of the Year who was banned for life by SafeSport on charges of sexual misconduct with minors in the late 1970s and early 1980s, killed himself in June as his appeal was pending. His memorial service was held Aug. 5, the day that news came about George’s ban.