In the past two weeks, two of the country’s most prominent amateur hockey programs, USA Hockey and the University of Michigan’s men’s ice hockey team have come into the limelight for their involvement in outside investigations.
The U.S. Center for SafeSport, an independent organization designed to investigate allegations of abuse and misconduct for sports controlled by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, reported USA Hockey, the national governing body for organized ice hockey, for interference with an investigation. As reported by Katie Strang of The Athletic, the U.S. Center for SafeSport is required by law to report any type of interference or attempt to influence an investigation within 72 hours of being made aware of such interference or influence. The law, 36 U.S. Code § 220541(f)(4)(B), is part of a larger legal framework that codifies the U.S. Center for SafeSport and its obligations.
In response to the notification, Senator Chuck Grassley sent USA Hockey’s executive director, Pat Kelleher, and president Mike Trimboli, a letter on the 11th, expressing his concern with the organization’s cooperation and compliance with the investigation. Grassley referenced the investigation into Larry Nassar and his sexual abuse of women within the U.S. Gymnastics program.
While it is not entirely clear what the nature of the issue is, USA Hockey has been under fire for its handling of allegations of sexual misconduct within the past few years. In May 2020, former USA Hockey President Jim Smith was investigated for his handling of allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct against a Chicago-area youth coach. The Center for SafeSport reported that Smith was aware of the alleged abuse and did not take any action. Smith denied these allegations, but did not run for re-election in 2021. Additionally, USA Hockey is a co-defendant in a 2021 lawsuit related to these allegations.
There is a certain irony that the women’s team is competing tonight for a gold medal on the world’s largest stage, while the organization they represent is being called out in front of Congress.
University of Michigan
The University of Michigan’s men’s ice hockey team is also in hot water. It was reported that in late January that the team was under a private investigation conducted by D.C.-based law firm WilmerHale for a number of allegations. It was recently confirmed by the firm that the investigation began in October.
The investigation is looking into the team’s COVID-19 policies and procedures during the 2021 NCAA tournament, the creation of a toxic workplace environment for female employees, and that head coach, Mel Pearson retaliated against a player for voicing concerns. More specifically, it was alleged that Pearson told players to lie on their COVID-19 tracing forms before the tournament and that women employees were denied access to the team’s locker room, sometimes making it impossible for them to complete their duties supporting the team. The restriction on women entering the team’s locker room is a departure from the policies implemented by former coach, Red Berenson.
It was reported that in May 2021, the University’s Athletic Director e-mailed the coach to address some of the concerns, asking them to conduct an environment survey to fix some of the “issues that may exist in your team environment.” To make matters seemingly worse, a federal judge recently ruled that Michigan’s Title IX Director showed “deliberate indifference” to sexual harassment claims in a previous position at Nebraska.
Mel Pearson denied all claims of wrong doing, stating that he believed the “truth will come true at the end of the investigation…and I feel very confident that the allegations will be proved wrong.” The Michigan Wolverines are currently ranked number 2 in the nation with a 23-7-1 record.
Photo via: George Walker IV-USA TODAY Sports
3L & Editor-in-Chief of the Buffalo Environmental Law Journal. Sad fan of the Philadelphia sports teams and Tottenham Hotspur. I enjoy writing and learning about the intersection of sports and business law, with a focus on the NHL. H2P!