USTA accused of downplaying sexual abuse and trying to quiet Pam Shriver

USTA accused of downplaying sexual abuse and trying to quiet Pam Shriver

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The United States Tennis Association is defending itself against allegations that one of its top lawyers has repeatedly tried to cover up sexual abuse, including warning the 22-time Grand Slam champion and abuse survivor Pam Shriver to show caution when she discussed the issue.

On Monday, Stevie Gould, a former college player, who successfully sued the USTA in 2020 over its failure to protect young players in California from a known sexual predator now serving a 255-year prison sentence, filed a complaint with the U.S. Center for Safesport seeking punishment for Staciellen Mischel, the USTA’s deputy chief legal officer and the top lawyer for the USTA Foundation, for her actions in both his case and another involving a predatory tennis coach.

Safesport is tasked with investigating sexual and physical abuse and harassment claims in sports.

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The Safesport complaint mentions an incident in the spring of 2022, when Mischel walked Shriver, a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, to her car following a fundraising dinner and told her to “be careful” about her public statements on sexual abuse in tennis.

Shriver has said she interpreted the message of the conversation to be to not “say too much”.

Gould said in his complaint that Mischel used a similar approach nine years ago, before he was abused by his coach. In a 2014 email to the leader of the Northern California section of the USTA, Mischel stated that information about a police investigation of a prominent coach named Normandie Burgos and his suspension from USTA activities should remain confidential. Burgos started abusing Gould the following year, and was convicted of numerous counts of molestation.

In his complaint to Safesport, Gould said Mischel was “morally unfit to continue to serve in her current capacity for a national governing body.” He wrote that she “poses a grave danger to children as long as she continues in that role. Simply stated, children are not safe in tennis as long as this person is able to make decisions about their welfare.”

Chris Widmaier, the chief spokesman for the USTA, said last month the organization would never stifle anyone from telling their story of abuse, and certainly not Shriver. The organization has declined to make Mischel available for an interview.

In a deposition, Mischel testified that since Shriver had previously done fundraising work on behalf of the USTA, she was acting in her capacity as a lawyer for the organization and privately warning Shriver to keep her distance from Robert Allard, a top lawyer for plaintiffs in cases of sexual abuse in sports, whom Mischel described as not “a nice person.”

In a statement Wednesday, Widmaier said police investigating Burgos in 2014 requested “that this sensitive matter be treated confidentially to protect minors, avoid re-victimization, and to not interfere with an on-going investigation by law enforcement.  We properly and promptly reported information to law enforcement and cooperated in the investigation. We are confident Ms. Mischel, in all matters, acted properly and in accordance with the law.”

Shriver has become an ally of sexual abuse survivors in tennis since going public with her own story of abuse last year. In a pre-trial deposition in the case between the USTA and Kylie McKenzie, a once-promising junior, Shriver testified that Mischel approached her following a USTA fundraising dinner in California last year, to speak with her about her participation in the case.

When a lawyer representing the USTA in the McKenzie case asked Shriver whether anyone at the USTA had discouraged her from speaking out about sexual abuse, she responded: “Depends how you interpret the conversation from Staciellen. Part of my interpretation was that I needed to be careful. And in that interpretation, meaning don’t say too much.”

Shriver says she was asked to keep quiet. (Roy Rochlin / Getty Images)

That interchange between Mischel and Shriver has set off an awkward conflict between the USTA and one of the most decorated players in American tennis history, a prominent television commentator on ESPN and the Tennis Channel, and a figure who has served as a high-profile volunteer for the organization.

After Shriver testified on McKenzie’s behalf, with only limited time for cross-examination, lawyers for the USTA tried to serve her with a subpoena for further questioning in the days following the U.S. Open. Not wanting to submit to further adversarial questioning, Shriver spent most of her time inside and near her home until the deadline for additional testimony passed.

McKenzie, a 24-year-old from Arizona, sued the USTA last year, and was represented by Allard. She claimed the USTA had failed to protect her from a coach who inappropriately touched her after a practice in 2018, when she was 19 and he was 34. That coach had previously touched a USTA employee years before the interaction with McKenzie, though the employee did not report her experience to anyone until McKenzie’s allegations were under investigation.

Gould, a 23-year-old from California who played tennis for the University of San Francisco, reached a lucrative settlement with the USTA in 2021 over its failure to protect him and other players from Burgos, a prominent coach known for training working-class, immigrant children at half the cost of other top coaches.

Burgos had previously been accused of sexually assaulting young players at Tamalpais High School in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Jurors could not reach a verdict in the 2010 case against him involving players from the school and a mistrial was declared.

The USTA took no action against Burgos, and he set up a private training base in the East Bay city of Richmond, where he trained young players at his condominium complex. The USTA even provided travel grants that allowed his teams to represent Northern California in national tournaments.

Then in 2014, a player told police that Burgos had demanded sex acts, and when the boy refused, Burgos withheld gear or practice time and threatened to derail his college recruitment. After learning of the police investigation, the USTA suspended Burgos from participating in any USTA tournaments, events or programs.

However, in the same email in which she informed Steve Leube, the leader of the USTA’s Northern California section, of the Burgos suspension, Mischel also requested that Leube remain as quiet as possible about the allegations.

“All information regarding this matter should be handled with care and treated as confidential,” Mischel wrote.

Burgos then abused Gould, who did not become aware of the email Mischel sent until years later, an experience he described as “mind-blowing.”

“If my parents had known about this there is no way they would have let me spend countless hours practicing at this man’s private complex,” said Gould, who has been coaching junior players in Marin County in recent months. He said the decision to delve once more into the issue, two years after he settled his case was not an easy one, but ultimately it was something he couldn’t pass up on. 

“There’s this disconnect between how this should have been handled and how it was,” he said. 

(Top photo: Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty Images)

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