Editor’s Note: In the wake of the sentencing of former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar earlier this week for sexually assaulting at least 150 women, including at least one former Michigan State swimmer who testified against him, the safety of youth sports is once again at the forefront of the news cycle. This, unfortunately, is not a new story in swimming. It’s something we’ve been dealing with for generations, and more visibly since the 2010 ABC reports into abuse by swimming coaches for decades that in some cases had gone unpunished, and in others even rewarded with job recommendations.
Swimming has not moved beyond a world where coaches abuse athletes. Every year, we see in the neighborhood of a dozen new coaches added to USA Swimming’s list of permanently banned individuals.
But the lessons to be learned from Larry Nassar, USA Gymnastics, and Michigan State weren’t learned at the sentencing. The most painful lessons from this will continue to be learned. Those lessons will be learned when the whole world finds out how many grown adults in positions of authority knew of this abuse and ignored it. Parents, administrators, coaches, and others, who should have stopped it sooner – including a 2014 Title IX investigation by Michigan State that cleared Nassar.
There is no blame to be shared by anybody for what Larry Nassar did. Larry Nassar is a monster, and is wholly responsible for his reprehensible actions, using the veil of trust that comes with the label ‘doctor’ to abuse hundreds of women. But there were still other failings in this case. There were others who knew, or who were told, what happened, and chose to ignore it, to not take action. A monster that could have been stopped 30 years ago was allowed to abuse generation-after-generation of young athletes.
This is the lesson that we all must learn from the Nassar case, and must continue to learn. Swimming was faced with a similar sentiment in cases of Rick Curl and Mitch Ivey – where people in positions of authority at every level of our sport were told of the abuses and did nothing. The same themes have become the focus of Larry Nassar‘s reign of terror. If you didn’t get the message in 2010, then now is the time to learn. We still need to ensure that there are protections in place to prevent the weaponization of the SafeSport process, but above all else, we can’t ignore rape victims, especially from our most vulnerable young athletes from whom we demand discipline and obedience. If it is their responsibility to be coachable, to have high attendance, to trust us, then we also need to listen to them when they believe that trust has been abused.
Below, USA Swimming’s SafeSport department, which has been tasked with shifting the culture in our sport, has put together a memo on how to create a safe environment for our athletes.
Many have likely seen, heard or been made aware of the recent sentencing of former sports medicine doctor, Larry Nassar.
As a member of our sport community, you might be asking yourself how this could have happened and what we can do to prevent this from ever happening again.
We – coaches, athletes, parents, officials, volunteers, team leaders, and sport leaders – can commit to prevention and we can commit to speaking up. We can commit to Safe Sport.
Safe Sport is something we do, every day on every deck. The key to prevention is to create an environment where all members know the rules, are comfortable talking about them, and are empowered to recognize and report red flag behavior, boundary violations, and misconduct.
How do you create a Safe Sport environment? What does it mean to have a culture of safety?
How do you ‘do’ Safe Sport?
Set. Direct. Protect.
Set. Be intentional. Learn how to make your team a Safe Sport team.
- Get started. Use the Safe Sport Team Checklist to know what you already have covered and what else you could be doing to keep kids safe.
- Know who you’re working with! Conduct thorough screening of employees and volunteers. USA Swimming member clubs can use the free online member resource SwimStaffSelect to create job descriptions, interview questions, reference checks, and more.
- Learn the risks and address them with your team’s rules. Familiarize yourself with the SafeSport Code, the USA Swimming Code of Conductand adopt the Safe Sport Best Practices as team rules. Make your team’s policies and response procedures easily available to all team members on your website.
Direct. Use enthusiastic and frequent communication to teach your team’s members about Safe Sport. Talk about your team’s values and the behaviors that support and reinforce them.
- Name a Safe Sport Club Coordinator for your team to oversee the Safe Sport effort, communicate with coaches, parents, and athletes, and be connected to the LSC, Zone, and national Safe Sport volunteers for support and resources.
- Make talking about Safe Sport with athletes a regular conversation. Use monthly Safe Sport Mondays with 11&Over athletes to facilitate discussion around specific situations and how to report concerns. Distribute the Safe Sport Activity Book to your 10&Unders to introduce Safe Sport basics and encourage positive team culture.
- Create a Safe Sport environment at swim meets, too! Use the Safe Sport Meet Resource Guide to plan your meet and keep coaches, athletes and spectators up to speed during the meet with Meet Announcements.
Protect. You have spent time and energy to create a culture of safety – Protect it! When something comes up, address it and correct it right away.
- Recognize. Red flag behaviors and boundary violations are small chips in your team’s culture that can become big problems if left to fester. Call out and correct these behaviors immediately and encourage all team members to do the same.
- Respond. When a club policy violation comes to your attention, take appropriate action. Be quick to acknowledge the report and take immediate steps to restore safety. Then, diligently collect all the information necessary to determine a thoughtful, informed course of action consistent with your team’s policies.
- Report. If you become aware of misconduct or abuse, you are required to report it. Know what to report where. Child abuse or neglect, including child sexual abuse, should be reported immediately to local law enforcement. Violations of the SafeSport Code must be reported to the US Center for Safe Sport. Violations of the USA Swimming Code of Conduct can be reported here.
Set. Direct. Protect.