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.”
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.