This week there has been an intense focus on the sexual abuse issue that continues to plague USA Swimming. NPR aired a report questioning whether USA Swimming has effectively confronted the sexual abuse in the sport, complete with excerpts from an interview with Chuck Wielgus, the Executive Director of USA Swimming. USA Swimming representatives are meeting with Congressman George Miller to discuss the sexual abuse issues. And, the parameters of the external review of the Safe Sport program are revealed.
Getting to this point has been long and winding, and it remains unclear whether USA Swimming will finally be completely forthcoming about the leadership’s knowledge of abusive coaches. This clarity is what the USAS membership continues to demand in order to eliminate coach abuse in the sport.
USA Swimming has faced increased pressure to remove accused coaches off the pool decks since the late 1990s. In response to media pressure and legal pressure in the form of Bob Allard, a plaintiff’s lawyer in California representing many former swimmers who were victims of their coaches’ sexual abuse, USA Swimming started the Safe Sport Program in 2010.
Even with the implementation of Safe Sport, abusive coaches were allowed to continue to coach. Those in leadership positions at USA Swimming purportedly had knowledge of coaches who sexually abused their swimmers in the late 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, and the 2000s. The general membership’s expectation was for the leadership to be proactive and seek to ban these coaches from membership. Instead, these leaders seemed to take the position that they knew nothing about sexual abuse of underage swimmers in the sport.
The most widely known example of this position is Rick Curl. Mr. Curl currently is serving 7 years in prison for his sexual abuse of Kelly Currin beginning when she was 12 and continuing until she was 17. In his NPR interview, Chuck Wielgus stated that action was taken when USA Swimming learned of this abuse in 2011. The action our leaders took was to give Mr. Curl coaching credentials for the 2012 Olympic Trials.
In an email exchange between Dave Berkoff, the current Technical Vice President of USA Swimming, and Jeff Chida in July 2010, Mr. Berkoff made clear that the leadership at USA Swimming was aware for many years of Mr. Curl’s abuse and the alleged abuse by other coaches.
From: David C. Berkoff [mailto:[email protected]]
Sent: 07/26/2010 6:15 PM To: ‘Jeff Chida’ Subject:
RE: Norm Havercroft
Denying knowledge of Rick Curl, Mitch Ivey and others banging their swimmers! It’s a flat out lie. They knew about it because we (coaches and athletes) were all talking about it in late 1980’s and early 1990’s. I was told by several of Mitch Ivey’s swimmers that he was sleeping with Lisa Dorman in 1988. I heard the whole Suzette Moran story from Pablo Morales over a handful of beers and nearly threw up. I was told Rick Curl was molesting Kelly Davies for years starting when she was 12 by some of the Texas guys. That was the entire reason I formed the abuse subcommittee. I was sick and tired of this crap. No one was standing up. No one was willing to take on these perverts.
John Leonard was on the subcommittee and told me he was opposed to an all-out ban on swimmer- coach relationships because he had married one of his former swimmers. I finally threw in the towel out of frustration because no one wanted to stand up for background checks or banning coach-swimmer relationships.
Mr. Berkoff ‘s passion to end abuse in swimming continues today, but he has realized that change in USA Swimming is a slow process. He now feels that change “starts at the grass roots level” and that the “ultimate control and power is with the people.” If the membership is displeased with the actions of the current leadership, the membership should replace them. Mr. Berkoff says that he still meets resistance by some board members in trying to eliminate sexual abuse in swimming. He has told the board of directors that he “is not going away until we make the sport safe.”
The membership has spoken out, victims have come forward, coaches are being banned, judges are handing down prison sentences, plaintiffs’ attorney Bob Allard diligently represents abused swimmers, and the media reports.
This collective effort has captured the attention of U.S. Representative George Miller of California. In June, Congressman Miller has asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate how youth athletics, including swimming, handles child abuse allegations.
“Recent reports about the abuse of student athletes participating in public and private swim clubs have raised a number of new concerns about whether we have adequate laws and policies in place to prevent and address such abuse,” wrote Miller. “Accordingly, I write today to supplement my July 2012 request to include information about the prevalence of abuse among student athletes and the manner in which such abuse cases are reported, investigated and resolved.”
Today, Susan Woessner, Safe Sport Director, and representatives of the USOC are meeting with policy staff of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce to discuss Congressman Miller’s concerns about sexual abuse in swimming. Ms. Woessner previously told us that she was looking forward to meeting with Congressman Miller to discuss the Safe Sport program and the process for reporting abuse.
Congressman Miller’s staff member explained that the next steps after this initial meeting may be meetings with swim coaches across the country and “field hearings,” which are platforms for victims to discuss their individual abuse situations. Congressman Miller has a reputation for being “thorough and aggressive in his efforts to protect children in all environments.”
Having Congressman Miller take an active role in eliminating abuse is commendable, but the government should not be required to solve this issue for USA Swimming. The leadership of USA Swimming should have made this goal the number one priority before the inception of Safe Sport in 2010, but most importantly after 2010. Based on a USA Swimming internal memo dated July 2, 2013, eliminating abuse is still not top priority.
Concussion, Inc. released this leaked memo to the Board of Directors from Bruce Stratton and Chuck Wielgus regarding the updated safe sport action plan. “Our strategy moving forward will have the ultimate goal of improving the overall perceptions of USA Swimming’s Safe Sport Program efforts.” Mr. Stratton and Mr. Wielgus use the word “perception,” not effectiveness. Improve the public image – not the actual success rate. Protecting their image and improving media relationships is the updated safe sport action plan.
The memo continues: “We intend to start talking about the need for an independent third-party to be established as a service to investigate and adjudicate complaints related to sexual abuse.” Such a development would eliminate the “fox is guarding the henhouse” analogy stated Mr.Wielgus. He further wrote, “we’ll need more time to determine the best way to address [more complex issues].” And, it is “unrealistic to expect immediate results.”
The memo is filled with intention and delay. This approach is indicative of why sexual abuse remains a grave concern in this sport.
Another step this memo clearly says he will take is to provide “intensive media training for the Director of Safe Sport and the Executive Director” so they know how to better respond in interviews.
As part of this plan of action, in July USA Swimming announced that it had retained Gunderson National Child Protection Training Center to review the Safe Sport Program. As part of that announcement, the Executive Director of Gunderson, Victor Vieth, previously stated that he will conduct an “independent, in-depth review of the USA Swimming Safe Sport program.” He further explained that he will have “unencumbered access to allow [his] team to scrutinize the program.”
We arranged a phone interview for this morning with Mr. Vieth to discuss the parameters of the review and Gunderson’s expertise in this field. An hour prior to the interview, Michael Richards of Gunderson called to cancel the interview. Mr. Vieth informed us that he was “not speaking to the media until the review is complete” in January 2014.
Karen Linhart of USA Swimming, however, has provided us with the parameters of the review.
She has emphasized that the report will be independent, and that it will be left to Mr. Vieth to decide what he needs to review the program and to decide who he needs to speak with.
Linhart also emphasized that the investigation would not be encumbered by the organization in any manner, and that Vieth would have full access to take his review down any road within USA Swimming that he wishes to.
The review may include, but would not be limited to:
The review may include the Safe Sport Program and its policies and guidelines; screening and selection; education and training; monitoring and supervision; recognizing, reporting, and responding; grassroots engagement and feedback; Safe Sport website, handbook, and other printed program materials; USA Swimming Code of Conduct; Safe Sport educational materials including online training, webinars, articles, and presentations; interviews with USA Swimming leadership, including volunteer and staff; interviews with individuals outside of USA Swimming
Most importantly, any member of the public with information relevant to the assessment of the Safe Sport program may arrange to speak with Mr. Vieth either over the phone or at an informational meeting with him by contacting his assistant at [email protected].
This review may be the conduit that will bring light to USA Swimming’s decisions regarding sex abuse cases and provide answers to the same questions that continue to remain unanswered by USA Swimming. With Congressman Miller now asking these identical questions, the fox may finally be relieved of guard duty.