MacKenzie Loesch says she still has a clear memory of the encounter that broke her.
It was 10 years ago, and Loesch was 12 — a rising taekwondo star from a small town in Missouri. Her training facility was two hours away, and her coach, Thomas Hardin, would often drive her there. One day, she was sitting in his car at a gas station when, she says, he handed her a blue rose. He told her he loved her and told her to say it back. Someday they’d get married, he said, according to Loesch.
Loesch had been carrying the secret since she was 9, all while winning gold and silver medals at taekwondo competitions and hoping she’d earn a spot on the 2016 Olympic team. That was the moment it became too much. She texted a friend and finally detailed the abuse that she says went on for nearly three years.
“I’m freaking scared help me,” she wrote in a text message transcript created by police and reviewed by NBC News. “I can’t tell my mom I’m terrified.”
The texts began a yearslong battle for the Loesch family that would mar Loesch’s high school experience and cause her to end her promising taekwondo career. They dealt with the police, social services and eventually USA Taekwondo, the sport’s governing body for the U.S. Olympic Committee. Hardin was never criminally charged, but Loesch and her family still wanted to stop him from ever coaching children again. They ultimately learned they were up against a system with no mechanism to do so.
“I don’t know how to not be angry about it,” Loesch, now 23, said.
Millions of American kids participate in youth sports every year, yet there are few safeguards to bar coaches with histories of abuse. Youth coaches aren’t licensed or regulated by government agencies, and the one federal governing body that does exist is limited in scope.
In 2018, Congress and the U.S. Olympic Committee created the U.S. Center for SafeSport to investigate youth and adult abuse in Olympic-affiliated sports. SafeSport can ban coaches from participating in Olympic events or activities — including elite youth programs in sports like soccer, tennis, swimming and volleyball — but it has no jurisdiction over the vast majority of youth sports programs.
SafeSport has permanently banned hundreds of coaches, including Hardin. Today, he owns his own taekwondo facility in suburban Missouri and works with boys and girls under 12, the same age as Loesch when she says she was molested.
An NBC News analysis of people disciplined by SafeSport found at least 10 who appear to still be coaching or working with minors despite having been banned by SafeSport after they were criminally charged with offenses involving sexual misconduct. Another 10 people are still coaching or working with minors after they were banned as a result of a SafeSport investigation or investigation by an Olympic governing body, such as USA Swimming. Five more were found to have coached or trained kids after they were banned but no longer appear to be doing so.
The coaches amount to only a fraction of the roughly 1,400 who have been banned by SafeSport, but experts say they illustrate the vulnerability of the estimated 45 million children who participate in youth sports in the U.S.
“If someone has a history of harming someone within the context of sport, they should not be continuing that role,” said David Lee, the director of research and evaluation at Raliance, an organization dedicated to ending sexual violence. “We want to create systems to be able to ensure that people are safe from harm, and we need to be able to prevent those people from continuing doing that.”
How to police sports
The oversight models look remarkably different for schools and youth sports.
In many states, schools are required to conduct extensive background checks for incoming teachers. There are no such state or federal requirements for youth coaches outside of schools.
Little leagues, club teams and independently owned studios don’t fall under the jurisdiction of SafeSport or laws to prevent child sexual abuse in public schools.
“We need some way to better police sports,” said Elizabeth Letourneau, the director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. “It is kind of unfortunate that we have to have sort of bespoke strategies, like this group polices Olympic sports and this group polices public education.”
SafeSport was created in the wake of the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal involving Larry Nassar.
Its main function is to review allegations of sexual misconduct among its adult and youth athletes and impose sanctions on offenders. Along with sexual abuse, it also investigates allegations of bullying, harassment, hazing, physical abuse and emotional abuse. The organization has exclusive jurisdiction over sexual abuse complaints in Olympic sports.
SafeSport uses a lower threshold than criminal courts when it renders decisions — a preponderance of evidence instead of beyond a reasonable doubt. Many people in the database haven’t been criminally charged.
The results of investigations are put into an online database, and the discipline can be challenged in arbitration.
SafeSport’s oversight extends through the sports federations affiliated with the U.S. Olympic Committee, from league tournaments supported by USA Bowling to weekend tennis tournaments run under the banner of the U.S. Tennis Association.
The organization has drawn controversy almost from the start. Athletes, coaches and senators have criticized the pace of its investigative process and its ability to truly hold people accountable.
The NBC News review found at least four instances of a banned person’s going on to work for or own a team or a facility affiliated with U.S. Olympics or one of the governing bodies. At least one banned coach has also found a creative way to still participate in the Games.
SafeSport banned Vasja Bajc, a U.S. ski jumping coach, in 2020, but he went on to coach in the 2022 Winter Olympics as the head of the Czech men’s ski jumping team.
SafeSport doesn’t comment on specific cases. But the organization’s lawyers have in the past addressed the issue of banned coaches’ going on to work with children.
One coach who was banned for drugging and raping an athlete sued SafeSport, claiming his ban precluded him from earning a living. In response, SafeSport lawyers said the coach wasn’t precluded from employment and could, in fact, continue to coach.
“He can go overseas and work for another Olympic committee,” the motion filed by SafeSport says. “He could work in a Taekwondo studio that is not subject to the auspices of the U.S. Olympic Committee or under their purview.”
Lawyers for SafeSport went even further, saying he could continue to put himself in positions where he could commit abuse again.
“He can get a job doing something else that does put him in situations where he might be tempted to repeat the behavior that led to the instant sanction. Moreover, the lifetime ban as limited does not prevent him from potentially engaging in the same behavior that led to the sanction; it only affects activity specifically under the auspices of the U.S. Olympic Committee.”
In response to questions from NBC News, SafeSport CEO Ju’Riese Colón said the effort to prevent abuse in sports “requires a commitment from people at all levels.”
“Every sport entity serving minor athletes should follow the CDC guidelines on child safety and adhere to abuse-prevention best practices, including conducting comprehensive background checks, implementing strong safety policies and offering abuse prevention training,” Colón said.
Colón also said the organization “strongly recommends that every sports organization review our public Centralized Disciplinary Database when screening coaches and other individuals in a position of authority, particularly those working with minors.” She added that although its jurisdiction is limited, SafeSport has worked with more than 900 organizations outside the Olympic and Paralympic movement to provide training.
“I do not think that people who have been banned from Olympic and Paralympic sports should have the flexibility to move on to someone’s local school or university,” Colón said in an interview. “That’s not what the intent of the center was. It’s just something that unfortunately has happened at least 20 times.”
The people who were banned by SafeSport but appear to still be coaching or working with children represent a variety of sports and live in different parts of the U.S. They include:
- James Feltus, who was criminally charged in 2005 with several offenses, including abuse, neglect or endangerment of a child. He pleaded guilty to pandering. Social media pages show that a person with that name works for a youth basketball league in Nevada, the Las Vegas Punishers. (In response to questions, a James Feltus in Nevada with the same middle name and birthdate as the person banned by SafeSport confirmed he works for the Punishers but said SafeSport put the wrong James Feltus in the database.)
- Jimmy Baxley, who was charged with molesting three family members in February 2019. He now appears to coach youth boxing at Heavy Hitters Boxing Gym in New Jersey. Photos from a newspaper article about his arrest match images on the gym’s website, as well as Facebook and Instagram pages. (Baxley didn’t respond to messages left by phone, email and text.)
- Thomas Navarro, who was convicted in 2000 of sodomy and sexual abuse involving a minor. Navarro now appears to be teaching horseback riding at River Chase Farm in Aldie, Virginia. A mugshot of Navarro matches photos on the farm’s Instagram and Facebook pages. (Navarro said he is suing SafeSport and couldn’t discuss anything at this time.)
- Robert Barletta, who was charged with sexual assault with intent to rape a female coach at a hockey camp. He owns an ice skating rink, Rodman Arena, in Walpole, Massachusetts, according to business filings, and a team in a USA Hockey-affiliated youth league. (Barletta has pleaded not guilty, said his attorney, Curt Bletzer. “He didn’t do what he’s charged with doing,” Bletzer said.)
- Ernest Bolen, who pleaded guilty in 1992 to aggravated criminal sexual abuse involving teenagers under the age of 17. A Facebook page for Beardstown Karate Club and Fitness in Beardstown, Illinois, which is in the same county where Bolen was charged, indicates that a man named Ernest Bolen works there. (He didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
- Michael Strickland, who was charged with offenses involving sexual misconduct. A Facebook page for the Rising Stars Basketball Club in Valdosta, Georgia, identifies a Michael Strickland as a coach, and a league spokesman confirmed it’s the same person as the one in the SafeSport database. (Neither Strickland nor the club responded to requests for comment.)
- Heather Adams, who pleaded guilty in 2013 to a charge of aggravated misdemeanor sexual exploitation for having sex with an 18-year-old student who attended the school where she taught chemistry, according to news accounts at the time. The case was handled through a deferred judgment agreement, allowing her to avoid conviction by completing two years of probation. The case was later dismissed. She now runs a hockey league for high school-age players and older — Corridor Hockey Association — in Iowa, according to the organization’s website and state incorporation records. She declined to be interviewed about SafeSport’s action but said in an email: “This was a decade ago. I’ve been cleared of all wrongdoing, and there is nothing on my record except some speeding tickets.”
- Anthony DeSilva, who was charged in 2012 with numerous offenses, including use of a computer to seduce a child, but pleaded no contest to a single count of unlawful computer usage. He now runs a scouting agency for youth hockey, Top Hockey Prospect, in Acushnet, Massachusetts, his publicist, Gail Sideman, confirmed.
- Charlie Mercado, who was convicted of misdemeanor child molestation in August 2017 and was ordered not to work with female minors. He now appears to run a youth basketball program, Gamepoint Basketball, in Oceanside, California. A Charlie Mercado is listed on the organization’s website as the founder, and his photo matches a picture that appeared in a local news article about his arrest. (Neither Mercado nor Gamepoint Basketball responded to requests for comment.)