I remember sitting in the 2011 U.S. Equestrian Federation annual meeting where David O’Connor, then the president of the organization, was going from committee to committee to promote support for helmets. Some of the breeds and disciplines were more resistant than others, and at one point, he said something along the lines of, “We need to commit to getting this done and changing the culture. The rules and acceptance will follow.”
As SafeSport has developed and the news has come out of one prominent equestrian after another being affected, USEF leadership has remained removed from the heated debates raging between those who support the accused trainers or officials and those who allege abuse.
We well know now that the U.S. Olympic Committee requires USEF to comply with SafeSport and that SafeSport exists because sports organizations like USEF have board members who were told of these allegations about various people and chose to ignore them. We could talk about why USEF leadership silently renamed the Jimmy Williams trophy or the George Morris Horsemastership Training Sessions (well before he was banned by SafeSport yet long after they had heard complaints). But the past is the past, and I’m more concerned about the present.
When our reporter reached out to USEF after the results of George Morris’ appeal, the entirety of an answer she got, after asking to speak to various people, was a mass distributed emailed sentence attributed to Bill Moroney, USEF CEO: “Yesterday’s ruling is the result of the Center’s process, and we respect their decision.”
George Morris is arguably the most famous U.S. equestrian ever. He’s been an employee of USEF. He’s represented USEF on teams. He’s coached USEF teams. He’s taught young riders in USEF clinics for many years. Surely there are more complex issues around the ruling to comment on than, “We respect their decision,” which, honestly, you have to. They don’t give you the choice to not uphold it.
What we need now is cultural support for victims of abuse. Where’s the leadership coming out to support the work SafeSport does? If it doesn’t come from USEF, where should it come from? It certainly hasn’t been coming from top riders.
It feels like USEF is afraid of offending one side or the other on this controversial issue or of losing donations from people who “Stand with George Morris.” And yet there is a real moral imperative.
Imagine if the industry had the back of anyone who feels or has felt threatened in the sport and supported their right to bring allegations against anyone, no matter how famous or well respected. Imagine if the culture welcomed and protected all participants and agreed people should be held accountable for their actions even if it was long ago/different times or they’re really excellent riders.
Most equestrians believe the SafeSport process needs some revamping, and I agree. However, organizations that look the other way at illegal behavior because of a person’s stature in the community is exactly why this organization had to be established.
I’m sad that a legend I grew up idolizing has been banned from the sport, but it’s also sad in some ways that it took so long for the reckoning to happen, that so many rumors had to be brushed under the rug for so many decades. There is truly no winner in this case.
This time, the rules came from outside the industry and preceded the culture change, and now the industry needs some ethical guidance, beyond how to get your SafeSport training. I believe our sports would be better off if the governing body clearly, unilaterally, defended the work that goes into finding that justice and moved the horse world closer to acceptance of it with some stronger words.
The federation has shown the way before. It could do so again, to work toward change rather than backing off in an attempt to offend no one.