Alen Hadzic, the Montclair High School graduate and Olympic fencer under investigation by a congressionally designated nonprofit group for allegations of sexual misconduct, has been named a member of USA Fencing’s 2022 Senior World Team.
USA Fencing acknowledged the controversy of Hadzic’s inclusion in a press release posted to its website, saying the organization understands that many in the community will question his place on the team, but that the organization has little ability to exclude him.
In October of last year, USA Fencing had issued a statement saying Hadzic would not be allowed to compete "for the foreseeable future" and that it would only enter Hadzic into competitions "to the extent it is legally compelled to do so,” according to USA Today reports at the time.
But in the statement this month, USA Fencing said that as long as the outcome of an investigation by the U.S. Center for SafeSport remains unresolved, it is “obligated to allow Hadzic to compete internationally.” The center reviews allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse in the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Movement, under congressional authorization through the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017.
“We had hoped the U.S. Center for SafeSport would’ve reached its decision by now — more than a year into the investigation. We share in the frustration of fencers and fencing fans seeking resolution,” USA Fencing spokesman Bryan Wendell told Montclair Local by email
Wendell said Hadzic had challenged USA Fencing’s decision barring him from events to Safesport, and an arbiter ordered that he be allowed to compete at “protected events” — fencing tournaments where athletes earn points qualifying them for future competition, in this case the World Fencing Championships.
“In situations involving investigations into sexual misconduct allegations, SafeSport has the sole jurisdiction over who gets to compete. That said, it’s important to note that we at USA Fencing can impose safety measures short of removing his right to compete — and we’ve done just that,” Wendell said. “In consultation with our athletes, we have put in place a safety plan designed to protect our athletes before, during and after competition. The plan includes a chaperone and separate accommodations away from the rest of the team.”
Hadzic has not been charged with any form of sexual misconduct, according to his attorneys.
But he remains under investigation by Safesport for sexual misconduct allegations filed by three different women for incidents said to have taken place in 2013, 2015 and 2019, as described in an August decision by the American Arbitration Association available through USA Fencing’s website. All three allegations were filed after May 7 of last year, as the Tokyo Olympic games approached, according to a recounting of events in the decision. Most prior media accounts have described the incidents as allegedly taking place from 2013 through 2015, and have not mentioned a 2019 incident.
That decision addressed Hadzic’s own complaint, unsuccessfully seeking to overturn a USA Fencing “safety plan” that restricted Hadzic from staying in the Olympic Village during last year’s games.
During that process, fellow Team USA fencer Katherine Holmes wrote a letter on behalf of her teammates, saying they would feel unsafe were Hadzic allowed to stay in the Olympic Village. The arbitrator’s legal analysis cites Holmes' testifying she obtained electronic signatures or text messages from every other member of the team, signing onto the statement. Coaches and some other team members also testified about the team’s concerns.
The USA Fencing release this month redescribes SafeSport as “the exclusive authority to adjudicate reports of alleged sexual abuse and sexual misconduct,” and notes it is a separate organization.
Allegations against Hadzic
Montclair Local first reported Hadzic had been temporarily suspended from competition over misconduct allegations in June of last year, citing a record in Safesport’s public Centralized Disciplinary Database; that record and that report didn’t include details of specific allegations. Those followed in various media reports over the next several months.
The suspension was later lifted — clearing the way for Hadzic to participate in the Olympics — even as the inquiry continued. A spokesman for SafeSport told Montclair Local at the time temporary measures by the organization “are not an indication of what the ending [of] the investigation will ultimately uncover.”
Hadzic’s attorney, Michael Palma, last summer told Montclair Local his client has never been accused of rape in any forum, including the SafeSport investigation. But he acknowledged that one of the incidents under review was the same that prompted a Title IX investigation, when both Hadzic and the woman who filed the complaint were fencers at Columbia University in 2013. And Palma acknowledged to Montclair Local that complaint, which resulted in Hadzic’s suspension from Columbia for a year, involved an issue of consent.
“Hypothetically, it can be a situation where the parties are mutually, willingly and affirmatively engaged together in a sexual act without any impropriety or coercion and everyone is of sound mind and, several days later, one of the parties decides to retract their consent after the act has occurred,” Palma said at the time. And he said he found the ruling inappropriate given the facts in the record, without describing what they were.
But attorney Jack Wiener, who has represented some of the women who have reported allegations of sexual misconduct to Safesport, called Palma's description of a hypothetical incident one that “slithers around his admitting the following — under New York criminal law, a person commits rape when he has sex with another person ‘without [her] consent.’”
The Title IX claim and its ruling have not been made public. The United States Department of Education declined to confirm or deny the existence of records related to the investigation in a response to an August 2021 records request by Montclair Local.
The New York Times reported one woman said Hadzic had grabbed her buttocks and pushed her against a dresser after she went to his apartment with a female friend whom she didn’t want to leave alone.
Wiener has declined to say what specific claims any clients he represents or represented have made.
Palma told the New York Times in 2021 USA Fencing had known about allegations against his client for years — saying the allegations were “serious” but that “the fact is, they’re not true.” But he said the organization only placed restrictions on Hadzic after he qualified for the Olympic team. Buzzfeed, in a report last year, also described USA Fencing's being put on notice about the allegations years ago. It said a lawyer for the woman involved in the 2013 case had urged USA Fencing to bar Hadzic from competitions, but the organization determined at the time Hadzic hadn’t violated any of its policies, as he wasn’t a coach or authority figure, and the alleged conduct didn’t take place at a USA Fencing event. Former USA Fencing CEO Kris Ekeren told Buzzfeed she wished the organization’s policies at the time had been different, and said they’d been updated since.
Protests of Hadzic
Hadzic, an alternate on the U.S. men’s epee team, would only have competed in this year's games had another fencer become injured or unavailable. But he appeared alongside his teammates as part of the epee team at the games, where they ultimately fell to Japan and finished ninth. Hadzic, seen in videos and images that quickly spread through social media, was wearing a black face mask. Fellow fencers Jake Hoyle, Curtis McDowald and Yeisser Ramirez were in pink masks — in apparent protest of Hadzic’s presence and support of the women who’ve accused him of misconduct. He told USA Today in July he confronted teammates who “never asked me for my side of the story.”
Several USA Fencing executives resigned last year, in the months after Hadzic was at the Olympics. The group took heavy criticism from athletes and parents at a board meeting in August called by then-USA Fencing president Peter Burchard, meant to focus on the issues around Hadzic’s participation, Business Insider reported. Ekeren, communications director Nicole Jomantas and general counsel Jim Neale all resigned in the weeks following, according to multiple reports.
USA Fencing eliminated its membership-elected president role in 2021, replacing it with a board chairmanship, Fencing.net reports. Burchard, who transitioned into that new role, was ousted by the board Oct. 16, just a year into his four-year term, the report said.
That day, David Arias, his replacement, said in a statement from USA Fencing there are "serious problems that demand our attention."
— Includes previous reporting by Louis C. Hochman
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