While athlete members of USA Swimming’s Board of Directors released a statement last week largely supporting the organization through mounting allegations of rampant sexual abuse, a group of swimmers have sent a much more critical letter to the Board, calling for an independent evaluation, a publicly released report and a task force to examine the Safe Sport program.
The letter is critical of USA Swimming’s focus on protecting its image in the wake of vast media criticism, rather than fixing the problems for which the organization is being criticized:
“First and foremost, we must end our preoccupation with USA Swimming’s image, while children are suffering at the hands of their coaches,” the letter says. It goes on to cite a 2010 apology letter from then-CEO Chuck Wielgus that opens, not with an apology, but a complaint about negative media coverage, and the recent statement from athlete Board representatives which follows a similar format. “Eight years later, we are still focusing on the wrong problem,” the athlete letter says. “We are completely fixated by protecting our image, at the expense of protecting children.”
The letter to the Board of Directors was circulated to LSC athlete representatives along with a short introductory letter signed by three swimmers who are involved in sport governance at some level: Ceallach Gibbons, Russell Payne and Joe Gazzarato. Gibbons and Payne are both a part of the Athlete Executive Committee and Gazzarato is an athlete representative on Michigan Swimming’s Board of Directors. We reached out to all three for any additional comment, but so far they have no comment beyond the letter itself, except to say that upwards of 60 athletes have currently signed the letter to the Board of Directors.
The trio also ask for athlete feedback on the contents of the letter, saying athletes can reach out to LSC reps if they would like to provide input.
The letter to the Board of Directors ultimately asks for six pieces of action from USA Swimming:
- An emergency board meeting called by Jim Sheehan
- A publicly-released report on the events of 2010 that brought much of this issue to light. (Various media have reported much about this time, but USA Swimming has yet to respond)
- Resignations of Board members who knew about the allegations but failed to address them
- An independent evaluation of USA Swimming’s Board and staff
- A task force (of 50% athlete members) to examine the Safe Sport program
- A specific response from USA Swimming to documents that show they spent more than $77,000 to fight a California bill that would have made it easier for sexual abuse victims to sue abusers. (We’ve asked USA Swimming repeatedly for comment, but have not received a response)
A USA Swimming representative said the organization was not aware that the letter had been sent to the Board of Directors, but did provide a general statement:
“Dialogue among internal groups should be welcome,” the statement says, “and we look forward to working with all the leadership groups to do what is best for the athletes, the members and the sport.”
We’ve republished the full letter below, or you can view is in PDF form here.
To: LSC Athlete Representatives
We hope that most of you have read the letter distributed by the athletes who sit on USA Swimming’s Board of Directors. If not, you can find the letter here. We are writing to LSC athlete representatives to voice our extreme disappointment in the entire Board’s response to the recent wave of media coverage about USA Swimming’s history of sexual abuse. We understand the challenging political position that they are in, as members of a Board that is currently under tremendous scrutiny. We know that as an outsider, it can be far too easy to offer criticism, without having to weigh the consequences of being in an actual Board position.
That being said, this particular topic, at this particular time, demands that we do more. Athletes are not outsiders in this organization. We do not have to passively observe as our organization fails to act. We have repeatedly told you that your voice matters. We have repeatedly told you that you have the ability to usher in real change, to make USA Swimming your organization. Your Athlete Directors failed to wield this power, so we are asking for LSC athlete representatives to take ownership of this issue. We are not only empowered to speak out when faced with a failure of leadership, we have the duty to do so.
Furthermore, we want to avoid the temptation to speak “for athletes” without actually consulting athletes. We don’t expect a singular opinion to represent how everybody feels, and we want to be respectful of everybody’s perspective on such an important and sensitive topic.
Attached below is a letter addressed to USA Swimming’s entire Board of Directors. Please let us know if you, or any other athletes in your LSC would be willing to sign the letter. If you do not agree with the sentiments of the letter, or feel for some reason you cannot sign it, please feel free to provide us with feedback. You should also reach out to your LSC General Chair, your Zone Directors, other members of USA Swimming’s Board of Directors, or USA Swimming staff with questions or concerns.
To: The Board of Directors
Almost two weeks ago, the Orange County Register issued a blistering indictment of USA Swimming’s senior leadership. As we all know, the article contained a combination of old accusations, salient criticisms, egregious misrepresentations, questionable conclusions, but ultimately: a harsh dose of reality.
We are contesting this issue during a cultural moment that will not relent. We cannot turn a blind eye this time. We cannot, and should not try to weather this storm. We must accept that the reason this story was published, and the reason this story gained traction, is because historically we have not done enough to hold sexual abusers and their enablers accountable. This is not for a lack of opportunities in 2008, 2010, 2012 , 2014, and 2017.
Many of these older news stories include the same frustrating blend of verified facts and questionable allegations that are in the OCR piece from February 16th, 2018. We are not demanding action because the OCR piece contained new information. It aired dirty laundry that numerous other news outlets have reported on for nearly a decade. We are demanding action because if this Board fails to act with urgency and purpose, one of two things will happen:
1. We will wait out this current storm of media coverage. Our clubs will have to address this issue with concerned parents. Our enrollment numbers will suffer. Our reputation will suffer, and we will repeat the entire process in 6 months, 12 months, or 18 months. There is always another news article. There is always another victim who gains the courage to come forward.
2. The USOC will demand the resignation of our entire Board.
Before we continue, we’d like to emphasize one point: we cannot understate our confidence in the Safe Sport program. We firmly believe that the Safe Sport program was an essential step forward for our organization in 2010, and we recognize that it has become a model for other NGBs. That being said, we feel that an older guard in this organization is preventing the program from reaching its full potential. We are stuck celebrating Safe Sport’s success as a reporting mechanism, and have failed to be truly visionary about how the program can prevent future abuse from occurring.
We appreciate the difficulty of directly challenging USA Swimming. Many of us devote a significant amount of our personal time to this organization, and are truly motivated by creating a fun and safe experience for all swimmers. We also recognize the desire to defend and protect an organization that is so important to us. However, our usual response will no longer suffice. This time is different. We have sports writers advocating for Olympic sanctions and an overhaul of the USOC. We have Good Morning America anchors calling on our Board to resign. We have nonprofit journals questioning our integrity. We cannot continue to rely on our historical ability to survive this unwanted attention. We must finally change.
First and foremost, we must end our preoccupation with USA Swimming’s image, while children are suffering at the hands of their coaches. In 2010, then CEO Chuck Wielgus opened a letter addressed to USA Swimming coaches by writing “In recent days our sport has been portrayed in a very bad light in the media.” The letter was supposed to be an apology, and it started with lamentations about the organization’s standing in the media. On Monday February 26th, Board Athletes opened their letter by writing “The recent media coverage regarding USA Swimming, combined with the resignations of two of our senior staff, portrays a negative image of USA Swimming.” Eight years later, we are still focusing on the wrong problem. We are completely fixated by protecting our image, at the expense of protecting children.
We are sympathetic to Board members who fear retaliation, a loss of credibility, or who aren’t comfortable with calling on fellow Board members to resign. We understand the impulse to maintain a face of unity during times of crisis. However, Board members have a few primary legal duties, one of which is the duty of loyalty. This is not a duty to be loyal the Board. This is not a duty to be loyal to individual Board members. This is a duty of loyalty to the organization. This is a duty of loyalty to the organization’s members.
The organization deserves action. With the exception of the resignations of Pat Hogan and Susan Woessner, the only response that anybody has been able to muster so far is to condemn the sexual abuse of children. While this is obviously important, it’s not exactly a bold or courageous statement. We cannot accept a leadership structure that continues to fail its members. We cannot accept a leadership structure that speaks in innuendo about “events” and “tragedies,” when children are being sexually abused by USA Swimming coaches. We cannot accept a leadership structure that is incapable of atoning for its failures.
We cannot accept leaders who think of image first. We cannot accept leaders who have failed to facilitate a cultural change. We cannot accept leaders who protect their friends and colleagues from facing real consequences. We cannot accept leaders who are blinded by hubris. We cannot accept leaders who advocate for athletes and victims of sexual abuse with their words, but who cower at the opportunity to act.
Today, we start the process of moving forward. To begin this process, we call for:
1. Chairman of the Board Jim Sheehan to call an emergency Board meeting. This issue demands the Board’s immediate, serious attention.
2. A detailed, publicly released report on the events of 2010. Why did decades-old accusations come to the surface in 2010? Numerous articles in 2010, (cited above), referred to multiple incidents of sexual abuse as some of the “worst kept secrets in swimming.” Did the Board members who were present in 2010, (many of whom continue to sit on the Board today) know about the accusations before they became public?
3. Board members who do not endorse these acts of reconciliation to resign. Board members who knew about the abuse of children and protected this organization’s image in lieu of protecting swimmers to resign. Board members who failed to ask questions, who failed to challenge the status quo, and who failed to uphold their duty of loyalty, duty of obedience, and duty of care to resign. Board members who did not know of these events failed to exercise due diligence and are not fit to serve; and Board members who knew and did nothing failed to protect athletes and are not fit to serve.
Going forward, we will be asking for the following:
1. An independent evaluation of USA Swimming’s Board of Directors and USA Swimming’s staff. Did the resignations of Hogan and Woessner address the organization’s cultural problems? Have we responded appropriately to the accusations of widespread misconduct in our sport? Where can we do more to enhance our existing Safe Sport program?
2. A Task Force comprised of 50% athlete members, to examine the Safe Sport program and establish new goals for the program moving forward, based on the independent evaluator’s assessment.
3. A specific response to the accusation that USA Swimming paid $77,627 to lobbying firms to lobby against legislation in California that would have made it easier for sexual abuse victims to sue their abusers and the organizations they worked for or represented in civil cases. If the accusation is false, we want the Board of Directors to publicly say so. If the accusation is true, we want to the Board of Directors to publicly explain why protecting the organization from accusations was more important than protecting future violations from occurring.
We deeply regret the pain and suffering that numerous children have survived under the organization’s watch. We will hold everybody accountable who contributed to this problem. We will create a system that encourages and enables wronged members to obtain justice quickly and transparently.
We must move forward. We demand progress. And we ask firmly that the Board deliver, or step aside.