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

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 out 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.”

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