DeSantis: SafeSport Needs ‘Absolute Transparency’

In the interest of Safe Sport, USA Swimming should adopt a system of transparency that includes publication of the ‘flagged’ list, the release of all complaints filed to USA Swimming, the publication of all internal communication related to the Safe Sport program and the end of all confidentiality agreements, says swim coach, blogger and outspoken critic of USA Swimming Chris DeSantis.

DeSantis has been one of the more outspoken voices critical of USA Swimming’s commitment to Safe Sport and athlete welfare, and his blog posts even led to high-profile meetings with former USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus.

Last month, he wrote an open letter to USA Swimming’s Board, calling for more transparency and answers about the Safe Sport program. (DeSantis references the letter several times in our conversation – you can read it for context here).

We asked DeSantis for his own suggestions on what USA Swimming needs to incorporate in its Safe Sport program moving forward.

Redefining & Rebuilding NGBs

“First off, I believe that we need to re-conceive what an NGB [National Governing Body] is,” DeSantis wrote to us. “The Ted Stevens Amateur sports act is 40 years old, and it was written at a time culturally when we did a terrible job of identifying and punishing sexually abusive or otherwise abusive behavior.

“If you look in the Amateur Sports Act, it basically has nothing to say about Athlete well-being. And USA Swimming was not founded on the idea of Athlete well-being.

“Any new effort needs to start with this value first: kids should be safe and have a good experience doing sport. That should be loud and clear from the top down that medals and results are not our mission. USA Swimming should be primarily concerned with kids (an overwhelming number of our competitive members are kids) being safe and having a good time participating in the sport of swimming.”

DeSantis advocates the entire rebuilding of national governing bodies on that principle of athlete welfare – and that NGBs as they are currently established should be entirely removed from the investigation process.

“Safe Sport has shown us that NGB’s are simply not equipped to be in the investigation game,” DeSantis says. “The conflict of interest for an NGB is too big, and in swimming’s case we made a totally unqualified hire.”

DeSantis says some of the blame also falls on coaches organizations that focus more on performance improvement than athlete welfare.

“To build on this, we need a coaches organization that focuses on the experiences of young people in the sport,” DeSantis says. “To borrow an idea and quote from Irvin Muchnick. John Leonard, the Executive Director of ASCA, has publicly stated that his organization does not deal directly with children. Shame on him. Can you imagine the executive director of the American Pediatrics Association saying the same thing? A new coaches organization should be developed and we can continue to have conferences and education, but those conferences and education should be focused on the experience and well being of the young people in our sport, period.”

‘Absolute transparency’

DeSantis calls for the concept of “absolute transparency,” asking USA Swimming to be much more forthcoming with information as it relates to Safe Sport. For DeSantis, that includes:

  • Who is on USA Swimming’s “Flagged list”
  • The end to any and all confidentiality agreements that USA Swimming has set up during its existence.
  • Full disclosure about the creation of the “Centers of Excellence” in all locations.
  • Release all complaints reported to USA Swimming (complainants may choose to have their names redacted)
  • Every piece of internal communication related to the creation of the ‘Athlete Protection’ and ‘Safe Sport Programs’

“We need absolute transparency, looking backwards and forwards,” DeSantis says. “So much damage has been done because of secrecy, and that secrecy has protected powerful people at the expense of victims and everyone else.”

“The most important thing USA Swimming can do right now is be completely transparent about what has happened, as I’ve requested in my letter. Otherwise we cannot truly understand the problem. The example of Scott MacFarland is a great one- people hiring should be able to know that he admitted to having sex with a 17 year old swimmer of his while he was her coach. The secrecy of matters like that have hurt victims and allowed unethical coaches like MacFarlane to continue in our sport.

“Beyond that, USA Swimming should establish a strict and transparent system that gives the maximum possible assistance to independent investigative authorities. They should stop giving “best practices” as suggestions and enshrine them into rule. We can also expand and improve by copying from some of the leading K-12 schools out there, who have had for a long time better policies for protecting kids.

“Finally, USA Swimming must be responsible for background checks. If they are going to certify coaches they must have a system for verifying those coaches.  USA Swimming has the money to have the best background check system in the game.”

We followed up with DeSantis on two points: first, the effect of total transparency on the privacy rights of victims, and second on the fear of false reports against innocent coaches:

“On transparency, I don’t have great concerns over victims privacy rights,” DeSantis said. “As I said in my letter, victims should be given the opportunity to redact their names if they would like to. But the concealment of these reports overwhelmingly protects abusive coaches and does not help the victims.

“As far as protections from accusations, I think that concerns in that regard are overblown. I’ve never met a coach who did things the right way who was actually worried about false accusations. False accusations are exceedingly rare.”

Never Closing an Investigation

We asked DeSantis for his thoughts on when an NGB or an investigator should close an investigation into allegations against a coach.

“I don’t think they should ever close cases. First, what we’ve learned from the failure of previous measures is that the exonerations don’t help anybody but the perpetrator. Up until a couple weeks ago, the first thing USA Swimming did when they learned of sexual abuse was clothe that allegation in secrecy, except to the accused coach, giving them the chance to destroy evidence, silence witnesses or flee.

“So, as I said above, NGB’s are not equipped to do investigations and they should stop. What they can do in the situations you describe above is preserve absolutely all the evidence and forward it to independent investigative authorities.

“So if there is a complaint against a coach, they should absolutely keep that complaint (and retain it publicly, unless for some reason the victim does not wish it to be public) and they should document their transmittal of that complaint to an outside authority.

“But while we are reimagining what an organization can do, lets talk about another area: ethics. The fact that USA Swimming took until 2013 to ban coach-athlete relationships shows we are way behind in this department. Abusers thrive in an environment where boundaries are unclear. We need to make it clear to coaches, swimmers and parents what are appropriate boundaries from the get go. This will equip parents and kids to more effectively combat the blurring of boundaries by coaches. A coach, for instance, doesn’t need to touch a kid in any way to do their job. Kids, and their parents, should know from the get go that their body is their own and they get to decide who they allow to shake their hand or give a hug to.

“So, we need a radical reimagining of where the appropriate boundaries are. Another big area is social media relationships with people you are coaching- no one needs this to do their job effectively so we can put a stop to that. This again equips parents and kids with another way to flag inappropriate behavior way ahead of where it gets to abuse.”

Female Representation in Coaching

“In a sport where more than 50% of the competitors are not male, we need way more non-male representation throughout all the institutional structures,” DeSantis says. “I would like to see a majority non-male Olympic coaching staff as soon as possible. We need to clear the good old boys out of the sport immediately. They are hurting all coaches, but particularly hurting us in this regard.

“The simple fact is women are much more likely to be victims of sexual violence. Many more men occupy a privileged position where we can choose whether sexual violence is something we want to confront. For a lot of women, that simply isn’t an option.

“We have more than enough qualified women that could really help on international staffs. We (men) need to communicate to them strongly that we really want them to succeed and actively offer them more opportunities to break the cycle. The fact that Teri McKeever broke through in 2012 and then was effectively locked out of 2016 sent a terrible message.

Re-Reporting Of Bergen To the U.S. Center for Safe Sport

Most recently, DeSantis put one aspect of the U.S. Center for Safe Sport system to the test, submitting a report about Paul Bergen, a former swim coach accused of abusing Deena Deardurff Schmidt, who would go on to win Olympic gold in 1972. Bergen has not been banned by USA Swimming because he is not a member and because USA Swimming was not yet founded when the alleged abuse occurred. He is still enshrined in the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

DeSantis says he filed the report with the U.S. Center for SafeSport’s online reporting form and was promptly contacted by an investigator. You can read more about DeSantis’s reporting experience here.

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JimSwim
3 years ago

The link on the very last line goes to the safe sport reporting link instead of the Chris’s report

DP Spellman
3 years ago

Good Read.
Some solid ideas here.

DP Spellman
3 years ago

I would also add we need some Board Of Directors members to move on / get out of the way as well.

Swimmer A
3 years ago

“I’ve never met a coach who did things the right way who was actually worried about false accusations.”

Guy
Reply to  Swimmer A
3 years ago

I know plenty. It actually happened to me.

Hangry
3 years ago

Who did Chris ever coach? Anyone on the US National team? The one statement that i Don’t agree with is the 50% female coaches. Not that simple since many women get out of the profession to raise their kids. Should men be blamed for that ?
Usa swimming safe sport is one of the leaders in this respect and most of the stories brought up are 20-30-40!years old. Let’s not fight these battles but make our sport safe going forward.

coacherik
Reply to  Hangry
3 years ago

Living up to your handle, I see..

Observer
Reply to  Hangry
3 years ago

Chris is not a coach, he is just a blogger.

AYFKM
Reply to  Observer
3 years ago

AYFKM?

A friend of Chris (and others)
Reply to  Hangry
3 years ago

Yes, because only coaches that have had national teamers should be allowed a voice in this conversation. Other coaches obviously have nothing to contribute. In case you didn’t realize it, I’m using sarcasm. Men should not be blamed for choices of others but we could certainly be looking to make our sport better for the families of coaches and be more aware of the quality of life for everyone involved.

AYFKM
Reply to  Hangry
3 years ago

You must be living in an alternate reality. Yes all people who were abused 20,30,40 years ago, should be told: we’re sorry that happened to you (I’m sure you’re lying anyway), but we are only going to deal with abuse that is currently happening, happened recently, or within the last 10 years.
Why does it matter who Chris coached, it is not relevant to this.
My favorite part of your comments, women get out of the profession to raise their kids. Wow!
Thank you for your enlightening thoughts, these thoughts, and actions that surround them, make up why there needs to be a total house cleaning at USA Swimming.
This is 2018, not 1950

Boorhes
Reply to  Hangry
3 years ago

Why does Chris have to be a “US National Coach” in order to have a firm opinion on what’s wrong with USA Swimming and the underhanded coaching fraternity that exists and fed many of the problems that have come to light over the last few years?

Beverly Drangus
3 years ago

Can we vote Chris into office?

chachabugatti
Reply to  Beverly Drangus
3 years ago

check please!

swim coach
3 years ago

chris has made many statements, blogs, etc on this issue. he has met with many top usa-swimming executives, asca executives, etc. he consistently and constantly brings attention to the fallacies within usa-swimming. but… what lsc is chris a member? does chris hold any positions within the lsc or on a committee within usa-swimming? he did coach in denmark, i believe… what about now? i would propose chris get on a committee, either existing or new, and start working on change from the inside. seek guidance from those in and out of the sport to serve on such a committee. real change can only begin on the inside versus being an observer. just my opinion.

Hangry
Reply to  swim coach
3 years ago

He is all talk. Back seat driver. If he truly cared, he would be involved in the committee system and be part of of the solution!

Coach John
Reply to  Hangry
3 years ago

…said by the classic anonymous armchair quarterback

Steve Schaffer
Reply to  Hangry
3 years ago

Because the committee system and USA Swimming leadership has been so effective in responding to this issue??

My personal experience with the USA Swimming committee system is that committee leaders are beholden to USASwimming leadership, and new ideas and directions are not pursued without the blessing of the leadership.

It took acting as an outsider to help Dagny Knutson because USA Swimming would not do the right thing. Had the committee system been relied on, nothing would have happened.

Jerry
Reply to  Hangry
3 years ago

And you, unfortunately, are the blind driver.

hammerhead
Reply to  Hangry
3 years ago

Mr HANGRY ask USA SWMMING TO SHOW you the pics on the Alex Pusseldi case, they covered up this one, also and it was not 20 /40 years ago, just status quo! cover up and move on. Go ahead call the new Safe Sport director and see if she returns the call….

AYFKM
Reply to  swim coach
3 years ago

What are you doing to make changes within the broken culture of USA Swimming? Fallacies? I believe what he says, comes from research, interviews, and common sense.
Your comments are not surprising to me, because this is an anonymous forum. I am 100% sure that if your identity had to be revealed, you would not even comment.
Like so many others, you are part of the problem.
Reveal yourself, and then back up your comments.

TAK
Reply to  swim coach
3 years ago

I highly doubt that USA swimming would accept Chris in any capacity. USA swimming wants loyalty and solidarity in the face of criticism. This is not a culture willing to accept change from within. I am a dues paying USA swimming coach and I welcome Chris calling out executive management and holding their feet to the fire. I am very happy that Swim Swam does the same. We need more external pressure on USA swimming.

Swim coach
Reply to  TAK
3 years ago

My statement was not to criticize Chris, but rather challenge him to get inside USA Swimming to affect change from within. From the inside, new blood can be pulled in to make greater change. Unfortunately, I agree with tak in that it would be tough for Chris to get inside… but maybe others could achieve the goal.

Coach
3 years ago

It is disappointing that our community resorted to bashing rather than focusing on the article itself. USA Swimming has some vitally important issues to address.

It took a lawyer and a newspaper to force Pat Hogan to resign. How does a man keep his 6 figure salaried job for years after giving a glowing reference for a pedophile to work around children? The only reason he does not have his job today is because of Bob Allard’s threat.

It took a lawyer and a newspaper to force Susan Woessner to resign. Susan may be a sweet person, but she was sleeping with Sean while she was investigating him. The only reason she does not have her job today is… Read more »

DP Spellman
Reply to  Coach
3 years ago

Coach John Bradley has responded to Chris recently.
Some of us in the “reform wing” of convention delegates have been quite vocal about what changes should be made AND served on LSC & USA-S Committees.
Moving forward our hope is our new CEO will listen AND act.

Coach
Reply to  DP Spellman
3 years ago

John’s response was a nonresponse, and that is not his fault. While John is on the board, how much say does he really have? The president and the board members with big egos who care more about securing their place on the next board than doing the right thing are doing a great job of doing nothing. John can’t do anything about that.

Many people volunteer with LSCs, serve on USA-S committees, and in John’s case, even serve on the board. None of that has changed the lack of accountability in Colorado Springs.

Until there is accountability, there will not be transparency.

DP Spellman
Reply to  Coach
3 years ago

I didn’t read it as a non-response. I took for what it said based on John’s past actions and reputation.

John Bradley
Reply to  Coach
3 years ago

I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens. 🙂

Greg
Reply to  Coach
3 years ago

Slept with Sean?

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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