News that the U.S. Center for SafeSport had suspended legendary hunter/jumper trainer George Morris reached much of the equestrian community via the man himself, or rather, via an emailed statement sent on his behalf from Phelps Media Group that arrived in inboxes around 5 p.m. EST on Aug. 5.
In it, Morris addressed the lifetime suspension (pending appeal) for sexual misconduct involving a minor: “I am deeply troubled by the U.S. Center for SafeSport’s findings regarding unsubstantiated charges for events that allegedly occurred between 1968 and 1972. I contest these findings wholeheartedly and am in the process of disputing them.”
The reaction across the equestrian community was incredulous and immediate, and it came both from those who had trained under Morris and those who simply knew him as a famous coach, author and arbiter of “the right way” to ride and present oneself and one’s horse in the hunter/jumper ring.
“Throughout my career and in particular in my current role, I have viewed George as a trusted colleague, a mentor and more importantly a dear friend,” said U.S. Equestrian Federation Show Jumping Chef d’Equipe Robert Ridland in a statement from the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru. “[Monday’s] news was very upsetting, however, the system is extraordinarily thorough, and I am confident he will get a fair and just hearing throughout the process. More than anything, George has always championed the American system, and we hope our riders here in Lima made him proud today during these trying times.”
Beezie Madden also sent her statement from the Pan American Games, where she is competing with Breitling LS.
“It was quite a blow to hear the news that George Morris, who has been a great mentor for me, was banned for life by the Center for Safe Sport,” said Madden in the statement. “I fully support the Safe Sport endeavors, and while I don’t know any of the facts of this case or any others, I can only hope that justice is being done for the sake of both the victims and the accused. As I am currently in Lima representing my country in the Pan American Games, my focus is on my team, my country, and my horse.”
Morris was the USEF show jumping chef d’equipe from 2005 through 2012, and he later served in that position for Brazil at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. Ridland was named USEF show jumping chef d’equipe in 2013.
On social media, the reactions were overwhelmingly supportive of Morris, and criticism focused on a perceived lack of due process and on the time that had passed since the alleged incident Morris mentioned in his statement.
A Facebook group called “I Stand With George,” created on the evening of Aug. 5, had swelled to about 4,200 members within 48 hours. The creator of the group, Richard Cyr, whose Facebook profile indicates he is a realtor in Orlando, Florida, did not respond to a request for comment.
Although international show jumping riders stayed mostly silent on social media, Canadian Olympic gold medalist Eric Lamaze offered a full-throated defense of Morris in the Facebook group on Aug. 6: “This is absurd,” Lamaze wrote. “I have known George Morris for 35 years of my life, I have utmost respect for this legend of [our] sport. I’m proud to call him my friend.”
Echoing many, Lamaze pointed to Morris’ long career at the helm of the U.S. show jumping team and the impact he had as a coach, with many of today’s top riders having benefited from his tutelage.
“What he’s [accused] of doing in 1968 is a joke; it sure reads like one. Who’s accusing him after all these [years]?” Lamaze wrote. “Is this an angry client? Is this someone that [wants] to be in the limelight? Who [is] this person?
“George will never shame the sport that he loves, I’m sure of that,” Lamaze continued. “Please, my friends of the sport, [let’s] fight this stupid stupid allegation with all we have. George, we’re with you and we will fight; this is the time for riders and [trainers] to take [a] stand.”
The U.S. Center for SafeSport does not identify accusers. The post was no longer available on Aug. 7 and appeared to have been deleted.
International dressage rider Robert Dover, who was USEF chef d’equipe for dressage from 2013 to 2018, also posted in support of Morris on Facebook.
“George will say, like most men his or even my age, the ’70s especially were a crazy time and men and women, gay and straight, did crazy things,” Dover wrote. “It was not called the ‘sexual revolution’ for nothing. 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.
“Now, rape is rape, regardless of the decade in which it happened and anyone found guilty of it should be charged with the crime,” Dover continued. “But something deemed ‘sexual abuse’ today, brought by an accuser who may themselves be worthy of a stronger look into their behavior and who most likely would have to have been alone when this allegedly took place, put into the context of almost 50 years ago, is setting up a precedent for disaster.
“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 Safe Sport 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 due process.”
Veteran international show jumper Katie Prudent also posted in the “I Stand With George” Facebook group. She posted via Paula Inman Randall, but the Chronicle confirmed with Prudent that it was her message. “I started riding with George in 1969 when I was 15 years old. I spent all day, every day, at his barn, at home and on the road. For years, I watched George teach boys and girls, young and old, gay and straight, rich and poor, talented and not talented. He treated everyone the same,” she wrote. “In my many, many years of observing George, day and night, I NEVER saw one instant of inappropriate behavior with a junior. NEVER! I simply don’t believe it.”
But others voiced their support for SafeSport and addressed long-standing rumors about Morris.
“Investigating allegations and issuing suspensions after the allegations were found credible is not a ‘witch hunt,’ regardless of how long ago the abuse took place. It’s called holding people accountable for their actions – actions that have damaged young lives irreparably,” amateur Jennifer Baas wrote in a public post on her personal Facebook page on Aug. 6. “Safe Sport may not be perfect, but contrary to Facebook drivel, it is not an arbitrary or capricious process that issues suspensions willy nilly. A permanent ban is reserved for ‘the most egregious offenses’ and issued only after the investigation concludes they hold merit.
“One can be an excellent, Olympic medal-winning rider, trainer, coach, chef d’equipe AND be a sexual offender… the former doesn’t excuse or mitigate the latter,” she continued. “The rumors surrounding many [trainers] and their certain proclivities are well known in this industry, and rumors sure swirled about [Morris]. How about let’s get behind cleaning this sport up instead of protecting those who get away with doing awful things because everyone is content to look the other way.”
Baas, who wrote a very popular blog post for the Chronicle about the difficulty riders without means face when trying to compete on the rated circuit, elaborated on Aug. 7 about why she felt it was important to speak out.
“I don’t feel like [the ‘witch hunt’ perception] is in line with what I’ve learned about the SafeSport process, and I don’t feel like that’s super fair, especially to victims coming forward,” she said. “So I felt like it was necessary to say something about that. I guess with social media everybody has an opinion these days, so why not throw mine out there, for better or for worse!”
Baas, who works as an accountant in Loveland, Colorado, noted she got a few comments of support, but most of the public comments disagreed with her assessment.
“Privately I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, and just in talking with my own personal friends and horse contacts about it, I think that the public outcry against it is very different than people’s personal opinions about it,” she said. “For me, I’m a person who tries to stand behind convictions that are important to me, but I also recognize in this sport, especially for a lot of people who are professionals who are operating at more of the top levels, they have a lot more to lose. At the end of the day if somebody doesn’t agree with my post, it really doesn’t affect anything at all for me and my life in my little corner of the world, but it very well could for other people.”
Baas said she considers SafeSport a new process that, like any other process, may need retooling. “I think there’s a lot of misinformation that’s flying around out there about how the process works, and I think there are a lot of people who are saying there’s no investigation, and it’s really arbitrary. I’ve taken a lot of time to research it and to look at stuff on the SafeSport website and on the Chronicle’s website about it, and it really seems like there is a level of process that doesn’t align with this being a ‘witch hunt.’
“The thing I really feel passionate about is that it’s really important that we do have a process in place that allows victims to have a voice, because it’s important to keep our fellow athletes safe. I think we’ve lacked that ability for a long time. We need to fight for a culture that doesn’t tolerate abuse of any kind and that’s really willing to deal with abusers regardless of how famous or successful they are or how good they are at their jobs.”
Read more of the Chronicle’s coverage of SafeSport issues here.