Equestrian coach, rider Robert Gage dies by suicide after recent SafeSport ban for misconduct

A longtime equestrian coach and rider died by suicide Wednesday in north San Diego County after recently being banned for life for sexual misconduct with a minor.

Robert Gage, a three-time World Cup Grand Prix rider, had been banned on Feb. 1 by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which investigates allegations of abuse and misconduct in Olympic sports. Details of the Center’s investigation into Gage were confidential, but many of Gage’s friends and associates on social media said it played a role in his suicide. 

It is one of at least two suicides this year that some blame in part on SafeSport investigations. Figure skater John Coughlin, 33, a two-time U.S. pairs champion, hanged himself in his father's Kansas City home Jan. 18, one day after he received an interim suspension from SafeSport. USA TODAY Sports, citing a person with knowledge of the situation, reported in January that there were three reports of sexual misconduct against Coughlin. His death effectively ended the investigation into those reports, SafeSport announced in February.

“(Gage) was fighting SafeSport for allegations against him back in the late '70s, early '80s,” Emily Karp, a longtime friend and former pupil of Gage, told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday night. “It was very depressing to him, and it was really wearing him down, especially on social media. It was like cyberbullying. A lot of people didn’t know the whole story and didn’t know him. It was pretty devastating to him.”

Gage’s death was confirmed by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, which provided no further details. Karp confirmed the suicide but declined to share further details, including about the SafeSport investigation, saying that Gage didn’t want her to share the allegations.

SafeSport spokesman Dan Hill told USA TODAY Sports on Friday that investigators found Gage was guilty of sexual misconduct with "a number of minors." He added that Gage had the opportunity to refute the allegations and provide evidence during the investigation, and that he could have appealed SafeSport's ban before an independent arbitrator.

"Permanent ineligibility is the harshest sanction the Center can impose and is reserved for the most egregious offenses," Hill said. "The sanction issued here was implemented following an exhaustive investigation.

"The Center does not have a statute of limitations, as we disagree with those who seek to invalidate abuse that occurred many years ago. To change the culture of sport, individuals must be held accountable for their behavior, regardless of how long ago it occurred."

As an independent agency, SafeSport fields complaints, investigates them and issues discipline such as suspensions and permanent bans. Its mission is to end abuse, including bullying, harassment, physical and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct.

National governing bodies in Olympic sports, such as the U.S. Equestrian Federation, then enforce SafeSport disciplinary decisions. 

“Rob Gage’s death was a shock to the equestrian community,” the U.S. Equestrian Federation said in a statement provided to USA TODAY Sports. “USEF was notified on 2/1/19 by the U.S. Center for SafeSport (the Center) that Rob Gage was permanently ineligible to participate in the sport following a full investigation by the Center for sexual misconduct involving a minor. The Center completed their investigation and issued sanctions in accordance with their jurisdiction over cases involving sexual misconduct. The decision was under appeal. Details of the Center’s investigation remain confidential to protect the reporting parties and the responding party.”

As news of Gage’s death spread Thursday, many in the equestrian community took aim at SafeSport and USEF. Karp voiced a common perception among them that there isn’t sufficient due process in SafeSport proceedings.

“The way SafeSport works is guilty until proven innocent,” Karp said.

The agency publishes a public list of disciplined individuals in Olympic sports, including those who are given interim suspensions or whose cases are still subject to appeal.

One supporter of Gage started an online petition at Change.org that sought to get USEF members to withdraw from USEF, which is bound to enforce bans handed down by SafeSport. The petition was entitled, “USEF Membership withdrawal due to Rob Gage suicide over Safesport allegations.”

“By signing this petition, I agree to not renew membership to USEF, come November 30 2019, if a significant and meaningful change is not made to ensure a full hearing on Safesport allegations.”

In addition, Hill warned against harassing those who report allegations of misconduct.

"The Center also wants to remind individuals covered by the SafeSport Code that bullying, harassing and retaliating against any person involved in the Center’s processes (including Claimants) is an offense that the Center takes seriously and will pursue as independent violations of the Code, subject to potential sanction," he said.

Gage was in his 60s and was unmarried with no children, Karp said.

Gage trained under Show Jumping Hall of Fame trainer Jimmy Williams, who was accused of child molestation involving young riders after his death in 1993.

Gage also served as an equestrian judge. A community Facebook page associated with him said Thursday that “we lost a legend” in the equestrian world.

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