USTA institutes player safety review after abuse allegations

US Open Flushing Meadows at night
US Open Flushing Meadows at night.

The United States Tennis Association (USTA) has hired two lawyers to investigate its safeguarding rules and processes to protect players from sexual misconduct and other forms of abuse.

In an email written Thursday to the USTA board of directors, different staff and volunteers, and obtained by reporters, Lew Sherr, the CEO and executive director of the organisation that operates the US Open and regulates the sport in the United States, wrote about the pending review.

This decision comes off the back of serious allegations of widespread abuse of young players.

The subject line of the email reportedly reads “Reviewing Policies to Ensure Safety.”

ESPN report that Sherr had written to stakeholders to inform them that the lawyers were being brought in to aid with efforts “to prevent harm to athletes and respond to reports of inappropriate conduct … the USTA has retained David O’Neil and Mary Beth Hogan of Debevoise & Plimpton LLP to review our policies and procedures for preventing, reporting, and responding to reports of abuse, including sexual misconduct.”

The examination comes almost two years after a tennis player sued the USTA in federal court in Florida, saying that the governing body failed to protect her from a coach who she claims sexually assaulted her when she was 19 at one of its training centres.

Kylie McKenzie accused coach Anibal Aranda of improperly touching her and McKenzie agreed to have her identity revealed in news coverage of her case in the hopes of ensuring that other possible victims may come forward.

The complaint, filed in March 2022, claims that Aranda, who worked for the USTA for roughly seven years before being sacked, exploited his position as a USTA coach to obtain access to vulnerable female athletes and sexually assault them.

Sherr has been quick to point out that this is simply a review of the USTA policies not a probe into any sort of alleged sexual misconduct.

“To be clear, this is a review of USTA policies, not an investigation of any specific allegations of sexual misconduct,” Sherr wrote.

Sherr stated that the study will focus on how the USTA protects athletes from abuse and reacts to accusations of wrongdoing. According to his email, the Debevoise attorneys will have “full access to employees involved in any way with these aspects of our organisation.”

Stevie Gould, a former college player who successfully sued the USTA in 2020 for failing to protect young players in California from a known sexual predator who is now serving a 255-year prison sentence, filed a complaint with the US Centre for Safesport in October seeking punishment for Staciellen Mischel, the USTA’s deputy chief legal officer and the USTA Foundation’s top lawyer. Mischel’s activities in both his and McKenzie’s cases, according to Gould, constituted a risk to young athletes.

Mischel allegedly told Pam Shriver, a 22-time Grand Slam winner and abuse survivor, to exercise caution while discussing abuse. Gould also claimed in his lawsuit that Mischel acted equally rashly nine years previously, before he was exploited by a coach who was already being investigated for abuse. Mischel indicated in a 2014 email to the leader of the USTA’s Northern California branch that information concerning a police investigation of a notable coach called Normandie Burgos and his ban from USTA activities should be kept hidden. Burgos began molesting Gould the next year, according to Gould, and was convicted of multiple instances of molestation resulting in his extended prison sentence.

READ MORE: Iga Swiatek on sexual abuse claims against Polish tennis chief: ‘As leader of women’s tennis I can’t be silent’