An arbitrator has overturned a ban on taekwondo coach Jean Lopez, setting aside the U.S. Center for SafeSport’s finding that he’d violated its code of conduct for what it called a “decades-long pattern of sexual misconduct.”
The decision Tuesday reinstates Lopez and allows him to resume coaching after SafeSport had declared him permanently ineligible in April. A procedural issue reduced that ban to temporary restrictions in August.
“He’s happy,” attorney Howard Jacobs told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday evening. “He’s said all along that the allegations were false. He can get back to coaching now. That’s a good development.”
Heidi Gilbert, one of the women who accused Lopez of sexual abuse, disagreed.
“We’ve been guinea pigs through this whole process. SafeSport really hasn’t had it together,” Gilbert told USA TODAY Sports. “I really hope that, in the future, this doesn’t happen to other athletes who speak up. This is ultimately why people don’t talk.
“People say, ‘I’m scared to speak up.’ This is why. It’s sad the (U.S. Olympic Committee) and SafeSport have done this to us.”
The reasoning for the arbitrator’s decision wasn’t immediately known. But when a ban against Lopez’s brother, two-time Olympic champion Steven Lopez, was lifted last month, the arbitrator cited the absence of the reporting party as a reason for his decision to overturn the sanction. That ban also had been issued for sexual misconduct.
SafeSport only brought one investigator to that hearing while Steven Lopez’s sister, Diana, was among several who testified.
SafeSport had asked Gilbert and the other women who’d accused Jean Lopez to testify during the arbitration hearing, but their attorney declined. They were already going to be deposed as part of a civil lawsuit against the Lopez brothers, USOC, USA Taekwondo and SafeSport, and attorney Stephen Estey said he didn’t want them traumatized by having to testify multiple times.
SafeSport’s rules for arbitration do not require reporting parties to participate in the appeal process. If they do, they do not have to appear in person or provide live testimony.
The women had given SafeSport verbal accounts of their allegations against Jean Lopez, and also offered to provide written declarations that could be used in arbitration. Estey said he also told SafeSport that it should depose the women as part of the lawsuit, and use that during the arbitration hearing.
“They chose not to take me up on that offer,” Estey said. “I don’t want to re-traumatize rape victims If have the opportunity to do it all once.”
SafeSport declined to comment, citing a desire “to protect the integrity of the process and the privacy of those involved.” But it said it uses a “trauma-informed approach to accommodate witnesses.”
Of the 365 decisions SafeSport has issued since it opened in March 2017, 11 have gone to arbitration. Only three have been overturned, but the last two – both involving the Lopez brothers – came in the last month.
USA Taekwondo began investigating the Lopez brothers for sexual misconduct in 2015. Despite that, they were still allowed to go to the Rio Olympics – Steven as a competitor and Jean as his coach. Their cases were turned over to SafeSport when it opened in March 2017, and Jean Lopez was sanctioned 13 months later for sexual misconduct and sexual misconduct involving a minor.
SafeSport found he had assaulted Gilbert, Mandy Meloon and a third woman with whom he had also engaged in a consensual sexual relationship with starting when she was 17.
Meloon first filed a complaint with USA Taekwondo in 2006 that Jean Lopez had sexually assaulted her at a tournament in 1997. She was 16 at the time. While USA Taekwondo dismissed her claim at the time, SafeSport’s investigation found it to have merit.
“This matter concerns a decades-long pattern of sexual misconduct by an older athlete/coach abusing his power to groom, manipulate and, ultimately, sexually abuse younger female athletes,” SafeSport said in its April decision, which was obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
“Given the number of incidents reported over a span of several years and by multiple reporting parties, most of whom have no reasonable motive to fabricate an allegation – much less multiple, distinct incidents – of misconduct, the totality of the circumstances clearly shows a recurrent pattern of behavior on the part of Jean.”
Lopez has denied the allegations of sexual misconduct, both in interviews with SafeSport and in June 2017 with USA TODAY Sports.
“I’ve never been inappropriate with anyone,” Lopez told USA TODAY Sports.
Meloon and Gilbert were among three women who spoke with USA TODAY Sports in June 2017 and described sexual misconduct by Jean Lopez dating back to 1997. The third woman who spoke with USA TODAY Sports is Gabriela Joslin and is not the same as the third woman in the SafeSport case.
Joslin has since come forward publicly and is among the group of five women involved in the civil lawsuit.
CREDIT: USA TODAY