KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For Ron Harris and the athletes he coaches, each hook and each jab is about more than boxing.
“Most of them are dying at a faster rate than we can make champions out of them,” Harris said.
Boxing is Harris’ way of keeping St. Louis kids off the street by putting them in the ring.
“I felt it was important for me to be there for them and help them get out,” he said.
That’s something his boxers said he has always done and, in the process, helped change their lives.
“He took us in and treated us like daughters,” one of his students, Jayla Jones, said.
Deirdre Rhodes, another boxer, added, “He’s the type of man that will go to the store to get some food for you, if he knew you hadn’t eaten in a couple of days.”
Despite such glowing assessments, a KSHB 41 News I-Team investigation discovered Harris’ name on the list from the U.S. Center for SafeSport along with the troubling allegation of sexual misconduct. He’s been engaged in a years-long fight to clear his name.
For months the KSHB 41 I-Team has been looking into the system set up to protect athletes. The center was created in 2017 with the mission of protecting athletes in Olympic sports from abuse.
Part of its mission now includes publishing a list of coaches and athletes in the Olympic movement who were sanctioned for misconduct, much of it sexual in nature.
The center said the database is designed to inform the public of disciplined individuals.
Jones and Rhodes said Harris is not the type of man whose name belongs in SafeSport’s disciplinary database, especially for sexual misconduct.
Harris has a 2019 letter from USA Boxing that said its findings after an investigation determined the center should not be required to post his name in the database, yet there it was for the world to see.
“They told me they took it down, and then you call out of the blue,” Harris said. “I thought it can’t be a fluke.”
Harris’s fight to clear his name dates back to 2016.
It all started with a boxing tournament in Branson which Jones, then 16 years old, participated in with special permission from her dad.
“My dad did not want me to miss this boxing event that I was training so hard for, so he went ahead and gave Coach Ron (permission) to let me go as a younger minor as long as there was a chaperone,” Jones said.
Harris called fellow boxer Monae Ward, then 18, and asked her to come along.
“I figured out something quickly, because I’d already registered her,” Harris said. “We’d already paid the money. I had another man who was supposed to fight also. I didn’t want to disappoint them.”
Harris had to make a tough decision. He could only afford one hotel room, so he shared that room with the two girls and a teenage male boxer.
“I slept in the room for two days with everything on, all my clothes,” Harris said. “I didn’t take a shower for two days. When they had to take showers, I would go to the lobby with the young man.”
Jones and Ward corroborated Harris’s recollection of the weekend.
“I never felt uncomfortable,” Jones said. “I always felt like he gave me the highest and most respect and most privacy as I needed.”
But the Ozark LBC, or local boxing committee, filed a complaint against Harris for violating USA Boxing’s SafeSport policies, which prohibit a minor athlete from sleeping in the same room with an adult non-parent or guardian.
Witnesses for Ozark LBC claimed Harris violated the same rule in 2013.
The I-Team asked Harris what he would say in response to those who feel his behavior was inappropriate.
“Don’t be so sturdy on your rules when you don’t know the situation,” he said. “When you don’t know where these kids come from and where we come from, don’t be so sturdy on your rules.”
Harris’ athletes fought for him during a USA Boxing hearing, but they lost that round. It was a painful blow that knocked Harris out of his beloved sport.
“I felt like our opinions didn’t matter,” Jones said. “Our parents’ opinions didn’t matter.”
The judicial committee ruled that Harris violated SafeSport policies twice, so he was suspended indefinitely from USA Boxing in 2017.
“Our coach can’t even get into our corner,” Ward said. “It’s sad.”
Harris went round after round with USA Boxing, trying to fight his suspension. He even won the support of the club that initially reported him.
Ozark LBC called for his reinstatement in a 2019 letter to USA Boxing — noting that, in the time since Harris’s suspension, SafeSport amended its travel rules to allow a parent or guardian to consent to having a minor athlete stay in the same room as an adult coach or teammate.
Still, boxing officials refused to allow Harris back in the ring.
During his fight over the suspension, things got worse for Harris when SafeSport listed his travel violation as sexual misconduct with a minor in its database.
“He did not do anything,” Jones said through tears, “and his name does not deserve to be on that list.”
During our investigation, SafeSport finally removed Harris’s name from its database, but the scars from that listing remain.
“I started having anxiety problems,” Harris said. “I had two strokes. I’m 47.”
The outside-the-ring fight also took a toll on Harris’s young boxers.
“My boxing career, it ended,” Jones said. “I had a baby.”
Harris said the center never apologized for incorrectly listing his name in the database along with an allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor. He’s now suing SafeSport and remains determined to return to the ring.
“I ain’t gonna stop fighting,” Harris said. “Ain’t no quit in me.”
Neither USA Boxing nor Safesport responded to our questions or interview requests for this story.
The KSHB 41 I-Team conduced a four-part investigation into Center for SafeSport. You can read our coverage at the links below:
Part 1 | Sexual-abuse survivors demand accountability for predators in Olympic sports
Part 2 | Survivors recount claims of abuse at hands of coaches
Part 3 | Missouri boxing coach goes rounds with SafeSport after incorrect addition to database
Part 4 | Protecting young athletes from predators in sports