There are lots of things I love about my job as a journalist, and one of them is that you never know what will come from an interview. When I called Larry Glefke and Kelley Farmer’s attorney for a statement regarding their decision to file a complaint with the U.S. Olympic Committee over their doping suspension, I assumed I would get the typical boilerplate response. And you know what happens when you assume.
As I neared the end of the conversation with their attorney, Bonnie Navin, I started to say goodbye and that she’d have to let us know how the hearing went, as press are not allowed in U.S. Equestrian Federation hearings. I was caught completely off guard by Navin’s response—she said that she didn’t know what USEF’s objections to it were, but she would love to have press at the hearing, and she would tell USEF that she wanted a reporter from the Chronicle to be allowed into the hearing.
I hung up with Navin and emailed my editors, and they were as surprised by the offer as I was. It’s quite common to have respondents in doping hearings refuse to answer our calls or even give a statement regarding their hearing. When we receive a press release from USEF and the punished party doesn’t respond to our calls, emails or texts, we publish they “could not be reached for comment.” This was turning that situation on its head.
So I reached out to USEF’s legal counsel, Sonja Keating, and explained that Navin invited me to the hearing, and would USEF allow me to attend. After conferring with the Hearing Committee, Keating relayed USEF’s decision: Despite Glefke and Farmer’s lack of objection (and in fact, invitation), USEF would not allow it.
This answer isn’t surprising, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t alarming. As a national governing body for a sport, USEF is not unique in how it handles hearings over rules violations. USA Swimming, USA Track & Field, and the U.S. Tennis Association are all national governing bodies overseen by the U.S. Olympic Committee (also the overseeing body for the USEF), and all three do not open their hearings for rule violations to the press or public. The USOC does provide NGBs with template bylaws to help structure their organization, which could explain the very similar wording and practices these organizations have regarding their hearing processes.
These organizations, including USEF, allow respondents like Glefke and Farmer to pay to receive written transcripts of their hearing, which they could theoretically then release to the public, but there’s no guarantee that either USEF or the respondents wouldn’t redact or edit the transcript.
The World Anti-Doping Agency held a panel discussion dedicated to the media’s relationship with doping at its symposium in 2015. WADA oversees NGB’s human doping violations, and its hearings are also closed to the public and press. After a hearing, WADA releases a statement with the name of the offender, the substance abused and the punishment enacted. WADA’s senior manager for media relations and communications Ben Nichols published an opinion piece on why WADA hearings are private. He wrote, “It is every athlete’s right, following a positive test, to have their ‘day in court’ hearing outside of public display, or, ultimately, by the Court of Arbitration for Sport… It is simply right and fair for the athlete that these organizations are able to carry out their work without having to react to abundant rumor and speculation.”
All these organizations—USEF, WADA, USOC—have every right to make their hearings private. These national sports governing bodies don’t function as democracies. They’re free to make their own rules, and athletes are free to not become members if they don’t agree with them (and don’t want to compete). So it’s a hard position to change as a member, and for the organization there’s no incentive to change it. As it stands, they are the sole arbiter of any and all information that is shared in that room. Why would they willingly give up that monopoly?
What I take fault with is that USEF has made a huge marketing push to present itself as a transparent organization. “Increased transparency and accountability” was one of the six points USEF President Murray Kessler highlighted in his letter to members in January of this year. There’s a disconnect when an organization is keeping the press and public out of its hearings (even when the subject of those hearings invites the press in) yet is claiming to be transparent. The subject is essentially saying they have nothing to hide, so you have to wonder: What does USEF not want the press or public to see at this hearing, or any hearing?
Before I jump to the conclusion that USEF is hiding something, it’s only fair to publish the reasoning Keating emailed in regards to USEF’s decision:
“We recognize that Ms. Navin [Glefke and Farmer’s attorney] consents to your request to attend the Glefke/Farmer hearing next week but we have a long-standing policy that the hearings are closed. Confidentiality has always been a cornerstone of the hearing process and one that we believe our members value. For transparency purposes, we have moved to a new policy of publishing expanded findings on the website and you can expect more details published on this case as well if the Hearing Committee finds a violation and imposes penalties.”
Let’s take that answer apart, starting with the “we’ve always done things this way” argument. Precedent is of course a powerful concept, but there’s nothing to prevent the USEF from altering this approach. If the past justification for not allowing press into hearings was the confidentiality of the persons being accused, that clearly doesn’t apply to this case. Glefke and Farmer’s attorney invited press to come!
“Confidentiality has always been a cornerstone of the hearing process and one that we believe our members value,” the email states. I have my doubts as to whether the membership base of USEF, the thousands of amateur riders including myself who pay our dues every year and have never been called to a hearing, place any value in keeping what goes on behind a hearing’s closed doors confidential, but I won’t try to speak for the membership.
I can only say that as a member myself and as a journalist I find the statement absurd. On any day of the week, I can go down to the Fayette County court house here in Lexington, Ky., and sit in open court listening to any number of cases. Civil disagreements, criminal trials, custody hearings—it doesn’t matter if the person accused would like “confidentiality.” In all but a few select instances, it’s all open to the public, and it’s not hard to see why. We don’t want punishments to be handed down in the dark with nothing but a promise it will be done fairly, and we don’t want respondents striking shady deals or otherwise skirting the law in their closed door proceedings. I cannot help but laugh at the idea that a criminal trial can be open to the public, but a hearing regarding doping horses is somehow so sensitive and confidential it requires a closed-door meeting.
That leaves the transparency issue. USEF is correct that when this hearing is finished, regardless of whether or not I was there, the organization will eventually send out a press release listing who the offenders were, what their violations were, and when their punishment will begin. At the bottom there is almost always a statement about clean sport and transparency being of the utmost importance to the organization. The boilerplate stuff.
That’s all well and good—I want my national governing body to be committed to investigating and punishing violations of rules, and I want them to be transparent. But USEF’s attempt to equate a press release with transparency points to a larger problem. The organization wants to be credited with being tough, fair and transparent without actually delivering on the promise. A press release sheds light only on the USEF’s version of events.
Transparency literally means being able to see through something, to see the inner workings. Transparency would be allowing press to virtually all hearings, like we do with real court proceedings, and one thing it decidedly does not refer to is cherry picking facts and figures to be sent out in a press release. How can an organization that won’t let the public see how its hearing process works claim to be transparent? If even the accused are openly inviting a reporter to their own hearing, what excuse can USEF possibly have to not allow it?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not so naive as to think Glefke and Farmer’s attorney doesn’t have some angle in inviting a reporter to the hearing. That angle could be as innocent as wanting to shed light on her clients; it could be more nefarious, but it’s not the point. I shouldn’t have to get a personal invitation from a respondent’s attorney to attend a hearing at an organization trumpeting its transparency. In the future, I should be able to come to any hearing and do what journalists do best—report the facts as an independent source who is neither the accuser nor the accused, someone with no dog in the fight.
Until the day I can walk into virtually any hearing ready to report the facts, it would seem the USEF is confusing a closed frosted glass door with a window.
Ann Glavan is an editorial staffer for The Chronicle of the Horse. Originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Ann grew up competing at A circuit shows in the hunter and equitation divisions. Ann interned for the Chronicle for two summers before finishing up her undergraduate degree in economics and journalism at the University of Missouri, graduating with honors in the fall of 2015, and is back with the Chronicle as a full time staffer.
Read all the coverage of Kelley Farmer and Larry Glefke’s suspensions in 2017, including each update, statements from them, responses from others and more.