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Outside Hotlines for Athletes Are a Sign of Strained Trust in Sports

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As revelation after devastating revelation emerged last month about soccer executives ignoring reports of male coaches sexually abusing or harassing female players, the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association hired an outside company to provide an anonymous online platform for athletes to report abuse and other concerns.

Three days later, the N.W.S.L. rolled its own anonymous hotline, set up by a different company, to also allow anyone with knowledge of any misconduct to report issues anonymously.

Then four days after that, the league’s franchise in the state of Washington, OL Reign, made its own agreement — with the same company that the league hired — to report misconduct and policy violations at the club level.

While the flurry of activity stemmed from the gravest crisis to hit the top professional women’s soccer league in North America, the decisions to rely on anonymous third-party hotlines were not made in a vacuum.

In the last few years, the companies that specialize in third-party hotlines have seen a surge in deals with sports organizations of many types, including the N.F.L. Players Association, P.G.A. of America, U.F.C. Gym, U.S.A. Gymnastics and a slew of university athletic programs. The latest deal, reached on Monday, was with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

The platforms, while empowering athletes, staffers or anyone connected with a sport to lodge a complaint, have also become emblematic of a deepening loss of faith in the informal and sometimes clubby methods that coaches and leagues have deployed to address allegations of misconduct.

Athletes, advocates and the companies themselves caution that these efforts depend on the willingness of the sports entities to take complaints seriously. They also stress that the victim of an assault should always go first to the police and law enforcement agencies.

But given the disillusionment over how institutions have ignored or covered up rampant abuse, doping and other issues, they are not surprised by the push to establish a record, especially when a complaint may not rise to the level of a crime or may need more review.

“We tell people, we’re not for 911 emergencies — this is for reporting unethical and unsafe behavior, and not for reporting laws that have been broken,” said Raymond Dunkle, the president of Red Flag Reporting in Akron, Ohio, whose sports clients include baseball and basketball youth and adult leagues and, because of a more recent controversy, jiu-jitsu gyms. “The idea is to empower people to speak up, anonymously, if they see anything unsafe. You can very sincerely say my door is open but people sometimes sincerely fear management.”

Fans held up signs supporting athletes at a game between the Red Bulls and Inter Miami on Oct. 9 in Harrison, N.J.Credit…Dennis Schneidler/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

The trend in sports mirrors what has happened in the corporate world since the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which strengthened corporate governance and established a hotline reporting option for employees, said Thomas O’Keefe, the president and chief executive of Syntrio. O’Keefe’s company owns Lighthouse Services, a compliance training and reporting hotline company based near Philadelphia that was hired recently by the N.W.S.L. players’ union.

This is how these online platforms generally work: Say an athlete has a complaint or a concern. The athlete would use a mobile device or computer to report the issue anonymously, and upload any documentation. The platform would automatically send the complaint to several people — never just one — like a human resources manager, general counsel and financial officer. The athlete, still anonymously, would be able to correspond with one of those recipients designated by the company, who could provide guidance or more information until the matter is resolved or at least recorded.

“There’s a hierarchy of people in any organization that can see the report and subsequent follow-up,” O”Keefe said. “There is no way for people to change it or edit it.”

For sports entities, the annual cost can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. The N.W.S.L. players’ union, for instance, is paying about $50 a month, said Meghann Burke, its executive director.

Burke said the association, a new affiliate of the AFL-CIO, had initially asked the league to include an anonymous third-party hotline in its anti-harassment policy, adopted earlier this year, because of “the lack of trust the players have in the league handling these complaints.”

But the league demurred, so she said she “literally started Googling anonymous hotline options” before getting assurances from associates about Lighthouse.

Now, just two weeks after finalizing the deal with Lighthouse, Burke is receiving reports, and already seeing patterns.

“It’s not a panacea, but it’s certainly one tool in the toolbox,” Burke said.

The hotline certainly got the attention of the league’s powers. Within a week, both the N.W.S.L. and the OL Reign had announced separate deals with Real Response, a company in Charlotte.

“We understand that we must undertake a significant systemic and cultural transformation to address the issues required to become the type of league that N.W.S.L. players and their fans deserve and regain the trust of both,” the league said in a news release.

Even though having multiple hotlines for players may seem redundant, some issues — like financial abuses, business practices, or health concerns — may be more germane to a specific level, such as a club, according to the companies.

Real Response was founded in 2015 by David Chadwick, a former college basketball player at Rice and Valparaiso. When his Rice team was reeling from allegations of racist behavior by its athletic director, he struggled to figure out who and what to believe. There was no obvious way, he said, for an athlete to immediately raise questions or get feedback from the administration on issues such as drugs, hazing, inappropriate relationships or mental health.

“We can’t wait for those end-of-year surveys; we need a mechanism in real time,” he said.

Real Response now works with more than 100 college athletic departments, with recent additions including Syracuse, Wichita State and Tulane. The company also has been hired by the N.F.L.P.A., U.S.A. Gymnastics and USADA.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a lawyer and former Olympic swimming champion, cautioned that while she supported the concept, “the question is whether any third-party hotlines are given the authority to do the investigation, whether members of the sports organization are required to be cooperative, and whether their findings are to be recognized and enforced by the sport organization.”

Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, a decorated and recently retired hockey player who has frequently challenged USA Hockey, the national governing body of the sport, on gender equity issues, said if her sport’s fledgling professional leagues ever embraced these hotlines, there could be potential benefits — if done right.

“It’s a right step in the right direction, but there are too many people in positions of influence and power that don’t do the right thing,” said Lamoureux-Davidson, who, with her twin and fellow three-time Olympian, Monique Lamoureux-Morando, now has a foundation to support disadvantaged children. “Each pro league, all the N.G.B.s, they all have policies and procedures, but what’s the execution? How well does it protect the athlete? Sometimes it’s not policies but the personnel.”

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