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In wake of Olympic sex abuse scandals, USA Wrestling toughens policies — for the media

Nick Gwiazdowski, left, of the United States grapples with Japan’s Nobuyoshi Arakida during a freestyle wrestling World Cup event this month in Iowa City. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)
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With sexual abuse allegations and lawsuits forming a dark cloud over the Olympic sports community in the United States, USA Wrestling is enacting new protocols aimed at scrutinizing one particular group at its events — the media.

The national governing body for the sport in the United States will now require any journalist seeking to cover USA Wrestling events to submit to a background check and also undergo an online training program from the U.S. Center for SafeSport. The move was denounced Tuesday by the Associated Press Sports Editors, an organization of U.S. newspapers and sports publications, which called for journalists to refrain from covering USA Wrestling events under the added restrictions.

A USA Wrestling spokesman said he believes the organization is the first national sports governing body to require athlete safety procedures as part of its media-credentialing process.

“When you start looking at doing everything you can to create a safe environment for kids that are participating in your sport, you look to see who has access,” said Rich Bender, USA Wrestling’s executive director. “Obviously, I think a lot of focus has been placed on coaches and adult supervisors who are around kids in our sport. Members of the media fit into that criteria.”

The new protocols are more stringent than what’s required by other sports entities in the United States, including professional leagues and college conferences. Reporters covering this year’s Super Bowl, for example, had to submit to an FBI security check and provide their social security number, date of birth and race. But no league or team has mandated a training program.

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Jeff Rosen, president of APSE, called USA Wrestling’s new requirements “problematic on multiple levels” and said the organization will advise journalists to refrain from covering any event in which the new credentialing restrictions are in place.

“APSE applauds the effort to protect the safety of USA Wrestling athletes, but making journalists qualify for a membership and take a course in how to identify abuse and bullying is misguided,” Rosen, the sports editor of the Kansas City Star, said in a statement Tuesday. “The lack of specificity on background checks, including the extent and areas of the checks, and the disposal of information and indemnification of the media is both alarming and dangerous.”

Bender said USA Wrestling officials have discussed whether some journalists might balk at the extra measures and whether media coverage of the sport might suffer as a result. Media coverage varies at USA Wrestling events from a handful of accredited journalists to more than 100 at some bigger events.

“Certainly most people would say, ‘Hey, you should be working toward making it easier for people to cover your sport,’ ” he said. “By no one’s imagination would you say wrestling’s not a bit of a niche sport. We don’t have enough media coverage.

“But at the end of the day, it’s more important in our minds to take steps to create a safe environment as opposed to making it easier for the media to cover your sport. We want to do everything in our power to make wrestling more attractive and draw media to our sport. But nothing’s more important than keeping it safe.”

Jason Bryant, president of the National Wrestling Media Association, said he supports the new measures and doesn’t expect them to affect coverage. He did the online training Monday and said it took about an hour.

“I think it’s extremely relevant. Look, we’re not getting The Post, the Star, the L.A. Times,” said Bryant, whose organization includes about 60 reporters, photographers and editors. “We’re dealing with a lot of outlets that are independent. Who’s vetting them? So it’s not aimed at mainstream media. It’s aimed at protecting kids events, which is the largest share of the membership. That’s what these protections are about.”

Bender said no journalist has been accused of impropriety at a wrestling event. The new protocols amount to a proactive measure and are similar to what’s required of coaches, referees, medical personnel, event volunteers and USA Wrestling employees, he said.

The added media requirements, he said, were suggested earlier this year by Gary Abbott, the organization’s director of communications. “We didn’t need to think about it very long,” Bender said. “It just made sense.”

USA Wrestling has not been embroiled in sex abuse controversies like some other governing bodies, such as USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming and USA Taekwondo. Bender said his organization made its decision without consulting the governing bodies of other sports.

“Hopefully, it’s something that others think make sense, and they adopt it as well,” he said.

Bender said USA Wrestling also did not consult with the U.S. Olympic Committee, which has been under fire in the wake of sex abuse allegations that have rocked USA Gymnastics. Scott Blackmun, the USOC’s chief executive, resigned Feb. 28. While the nonprofit umbrella organization oversees Olympic sports in the United States, each sport’s governing body operates independently and has the power to create its own rules and procedures.

“Keeping athletes safe requires us all to evaluate how we operate and identify areas to do better, and offering free safe sport training to the widest possible audience is critically important,” USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky said in a statement. “We look forward to working with everyone involved in Olympic and Paralympic sport to make sport a safe and positive experience for all.”

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Journalists seeking to cover USA Wrestling events will have to undergo online training provided by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, an independent organization formally launched last year that oversees educational programs and is supposed to investigate claims of sexual abuse in Olympic sports. For now, it’s a one-time training, and among those required to undergo the program: USOC employees, coaches and volunteers, as well as athletes training in an Olympic Training Center or attending a USOC event and “individuals the USOC formally authorizes, approves or appoints (a) to position of authority over or (b) to have frequent contact with athletes.” The training includes a series of online videos and quizzes, covering topics such as physical and emotional misconduct, bullying and harassment.

The new credentialing measures go into effect immediately and will affect journalists seeking to cover the U.S. Open Wrestling Championships, set for next week in Las Vegas. As part of the new protocols, the organization has effectively canceled any previous credentials for the 2018 season and is requiring journalists to submit to the new requirements for all of the year’s remaining national and regional events. The procedures will apply to both U.S.- and foreign-based reporters.

“We know this isn’t the end-all, be-all, that this isn’t a magical program that makes our sport perfectly safe,” Bender said. “By no sense of our imagination do we think that’s it. The bigger idea is education — not just education for victims, but education for everyone. We want to create an environment where we’re hypersensitive to it.”

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