A Colorado Olympic rifle athlete suspended for sexual misconduct will not join his teammates in Tokyo after a federal judge ruled she did not have jurisdiction to reinstate him.
Less than a month before the Olympics began, Keith Sanderson filed a federal retaliation and breach of contract lawsuit against the United States Center for SafeSport, Inc. SafeSport is a Denver-based not-for-profit organization that is authorized by Congress to develop regulatory policies and procedures for preventing emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of athletes, as well as for investigating and evaluating reports.
Sanderson alleged SafeSport had failed to give him a fair trial to challenge allegations of sexual misconduct, failed to resolve the dispute quickly, and sought to punish him for “outright defense of his rights and the rights of other athletes”.
On Thursday, U.S. District Court judge Christine M. Arguello dismissed Sanderson’s lawsuit, ruling that she had no jurisdiction to settle the case because Sanderson had failed to seek arbitration first. The SafeSport Code applicable to Olympic athletes states that arbitration is the “only and exclusive method” to determine a person’s eligibility to participate in sporting activities.
“In this case, SafeSport investigated the allegations against the plaintiff, found that he had sexually assaulted himself and sanctioned him with a three-month ban,” wrote Arguello in a July 29 order. “Ultimately, despite a reminder and an extension of the deadline, the plaintiff did not pay the necessary arbitration deposit, did not apply for an extension or applied for an exemption from hardship; he thereby waived his right to arbitrate the findings of SafeSport and to sanction him.”
Sanderson stated in his complaint that he represented the United States three times in the Olympics and had retired from the military. He also referred to his “main focus” as preventing and reporting sexual abuse among young athletes.
After participating in the Championship of the Americas in Guadalajara in 2018, a 26-year-old competitor at SafeSport brought an allegation of wrongdoing against Sanderson. He reportedly didn’t receive a notification until October 2020. (SafeSport officials have described the organization as understaffed and underfunded, resulting in a backlog of reports.)
In March of this year, SafeSport announced to Sanderson that it would suspend him for three months from May to August. SafeSport then agreed to allow him to participate in the Tokyo Olympics as long as he was given a chaperone and accommodation outside the Olympic Village. According to Sanderson, this amounted to a de facto suspension as the host country needed competitors rather than escorts to live in the village due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite being scheduled for arbitration on June 1, Sanderson spoke to a reporter the day before about the case, prompting SafeSport to reinstate sanctions for allegedly disclosing the victim’s name to the media.
Sanderson admitted in an interview with that Orange County Register about “poking another male competitor in the buttocks and singing crude lyrics from a parody song while they played the US national anthem while standing on the award booth.” The registry reported that there was a “more disturbing account of the incident, “which witnesses have provided SafeSport.
SafeSport responded to Sanderson’s lawsuit by arguing that he had the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses, produce evidence, and testify on his own behalf in arbitration. In addition, the organization claimed that athletes should not be allowed to circumvent guidelines by waiting until the last minute to challenge their eligibility in court.
“Since no further athlete substitutions are allowed, regardless of the outcome of this request, he will not go to the Olympics,” wrote SafeSport’s lawyers. “Sanderson chose to avoid arbitration for his sexual misconduct, which he could have done months before the Olympics. Instead, he tried to convince the center and, at the last minute, this court to overturn his sanction without arbitration.”
Arguello noted that previous court rulings have found that the Amateur Sports Act, which established the U.S. Olympic Committee and its governing bodies in 1978, does not create a civil right to contest selection decisions. In 2018, the U.S. 10th District Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Colorado, dismissed a similar lawsuit filed by a member of U.S. Swimming for violating the Code of Conduct. The 10th District agreed that the Amateur Sports Act anticipated its lawsuit.
The case is Sanderson versus SafeSport.