Olympus Has Fallen. How Do We Rebuild Trust for Our Children’s Safety?

Braden Keith
by Braden Keith 16

February 26th, 2018 News, Opinion

The following editorial is the opinion of its author, and does not necessarily represent the views of SwimSwam.

American swimming, and American sport at large, is dealing with the most explosive scandal to date. The stories within our sport are by-and-large not new, though some new wrinkles have emerged lately, but unprecedented national media coverage has hyper-focused a broad audience upon what can only be characterized as a broad failure to keep young athletes safe from the people entrusted most with their safety: coaches, trainers, and doctors.

To catch up on the story, a quick scroll through our archives will show you that nary a day has passed lately without new information coming out about old abuses. That includes most recently the revelation of identities of the whistleblowers in the infamous Everett Uchiyama case, where a coach known and (quietly) barred from USA Swimming membership was given a letter of recommendation from the same organization that outlawed him.

The short-term fallout has begun. Two key figures, SafeSport Director Susan Woessner and Club Development Director Pat Hogan, have resigned from their positions at USA Swimming. More resignations and answers to ‘what happened’ are being called for on social media – with the two big names ousted already being more activity than the last time the nation was so-focused on sexual abuse in swimming circa 2010.

It is not time yet to put to bed the short-term reactions, the answers to what happened, but in spite of that ongoing conversation, I’ve begun to process what needs to happen in the future to reduce the risk that our children have by participating in youth sports. It is impossible for any entity to protect and prevent every case of abuse, but we can do better. Here are a few ways that this sport, and all sports, can do better for their athletes:

1. True Independence Into Sexual Assault Investigations – As was seen in the Susan Woessner case, it is impossible, or nearly-impossible, for organizations to self-police. In her resignation letter, Woessner admitted to failing to disclose a conflict-of-interest in the investigation of Sean Hutchison. CEO Chuck Wielgus, who oversaw many of the coverups now being recycled through the media, was protected internally from any real consequences of the 2010 revelations, and even from a bizarre on-air refusal to apologize to the victims. We know that our sport can’t be trusted. Even the most skeptical combatants among us have been bamboozled by a coach they considered a friend or respectable members of the community. Can every local soccer league or summer league be governed by the same independent oversight, appointed by congress or otherwise? No, the bureaucratic crush of every petty neighborhood complaint would ruin them. But, large national organizations like USA Swimming, with significant resources, certainly can help fund, and cope with the consequences, of such an independent body – that exists completely outside of the framework of the USOC: something along the lines of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which does not make its own rules, but is able to adapt and arbitrate rules for a huge range of sporting organizations across the world with their own rules.

2. A Swimming Ombudsman – For those unfamiliar with what an Ombudsman, the role is a public-facing one that is responsible for basically playing devil’s advocate for everything an organization does. The kicker is – that the organization can’t bury an ombudsman, the organization, in fact, will traditionally be responsible for publishing, unedited, the ombudsman’s insights, criticisms, supports, and reactions to the organization’s activities. It’s sort of like an independent journalist reporting on the organization, with the difference being that the ombudsman has unusual access to the internal workings and conversations of the organization. An ombudsman in USA Swimming would help not just with matters of sexual abuse, but help to push for honesty in all matters of governance. It’s an ultimate act of transparency for an organization – one that the membership who pay ever-increasing dues should demand. And it shouldn’t be a swimming person. It should be an intelligent, analytical person. Sometimes it takes a true honest-to-god outsider to ask the dumb questions about decisions that the rest of us have become numb in order to make fundamental improvements to the foundations of what we’re doing as a sport.

3. Allow Media Greater Access to the Process – This one will feel more relevant to my colleagues in the media than it will to many members, but by-and-large USA Swimming has fought tooth-and-nail to keep the media at arm’s length from its review process. In the early days, the organization’s media relations people, who like many with USA Swimming were woefully underqualified and too inexperienced to take on the firestorm that they’d been saddled with, lashed out at media. The majority of responses to request were riddled with anger and pettiness by the organization’s spokespeople, and strict “no-contact” orders were put in place for all other members of the organization. The media relations people were made a single point of entry for all information into and out of the organization. While the qualifications of the media relations staff at USA Swimming has improved, there is an inherent distrust that festered in the early days of the SafeSport era, that has been compounded by sudden silence – protected by rules that require ‘privacy.’ Nobody involved with any investigation has ever been made available for comment or interview; few-to-no details, beyond that which is in any public arrest record, have been provided; and members who complain or are otherwise involved on the ‘consumer’ side of these proceedings claim to have been threatened into silence by the organization, with USA Swimming again citing ‘privacy rules.’ Since new CEO Tim Hinchey has taken over his post, he has been blocked from all interviews surrounding the SafeSport program, at first with claims that he hadn’t been on the job long enough to be comfortable speaking about it, and more recently without a response to the same requests.

In total, these three fairly-obvious, and for that matter fairly-simple, changes would add three new layers of transparency. Acting almost as a system of checks-and-balances, aligning all 3 of those independent groups, be it intentionally or with accidental manipulation, would become a much tougher task and would greatly reduce the ability of large-scale organizations to cover up abuses.

The changes are simple. The process to have those changes happen are not necessarily. Changes of policies and safe sport rules often have to be approved by the membership at the House of Delegates meeting (USA Swimming can’t necessarily unilaterally change those), and any broad oversight committee reaching across youth sports organizations would have to navigate the even more complex U.S. national political waters (probably).

But, complexity shouldn’t stop us from making efforts to protect our children. Working to establish more independence and transparency now will pay off for generations of young swimmers to come.

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5 years ago

More women coaches. Women are sexual predators 1/10th as often as men. It’s not in their nature.

Swim Parent
5 years ago

I hope this isn’t considered victim bashing, but I feel like parents need to step in a bit and educate kids as to what is an appropriate athlete/coach relationship. Same applies to student/teacher relationships, employee/boss, etc. This stuff is in the news more now, not sure if the rate is going up, or the reporting, but it certainly is a problem across the board.

I do think the USA Swimming needs to react quicker and with more openness (outside review). And I do think the penalties need to be harsh. All the steps outlined in this article, but I don’t know if that is enough.

Also, I see articles on places like SwimSwam about “why you shouldn’t date teammates”, why… Read more »

Donald P. Spellman
5 years ago

A key part of reform is putting the right people (and new people) on the USA-Swimming Board of Directors too.

The past BOD of USA-S was bloated and obviously either complacent or in the dark on what was actually taking place with some staff members and the past CEO.

Past Presidents and members (especially Wood, Stratton, Zalesky, and Nueberger) need to answer questions about what they knew and when and should be held accountable for past behaviors (including possible conflicts of interests) that have had a negative effect on the organization. In some cases resignations might be in order.

Reply to  Donald P. Spellman
5 years ago

Great piece, Braden. I can tell you put your heart and soul into writing this article and that you have more in you to write. Thank you for shining a light on this serious issue and for educating readers. We all need to be part of the solution, and with your editorial talents you are doing just that. As a swim parent and swammer, I hope to build and encourage the children and young adults in our sport. Too many kids are committing suicide and self-harming – more than people realize because the kids are suffering in silence because of the cover-ups and abuses of power. And it’s not only sexual abuse but other forms. Thank you, Braden. Keep at… Read more »

5 years ago

Great piece. I have noticed that there are quite a few top names….swimmers/coaches/admin….that haven’t commented on this at all. I wonder how any of the top brass could even remotely cover this up over the years? Do any of them have children? Do they care? Power corrupts most at this level and USA Swimming is no exception. The victims were treated with disrespect by USA Swimming/Woessner/Wielgus/etc. I am deeply disappointed with USA Swimming.

5 years ago

Susan did not gather facts with our club. Heard the Boards view and it ended. She is not a respectable person in my eyes.

Foreign coach
5 years ago

Setting up a lot of checks and regulations to balance things, might help some. But it is an exspensive way to approach the problem and it does not adress the underlying reason of why this is happening in the first place.

It is a bit like the gun issue. Regulations will definately reducere the number of mass school shootings, but what in American culture courses the problem in the first place?

I am afraid you will have to dig deeper. Unless this exercise is simply too wash hands and say; “we did all we could.”

5 years ago

I am mostly disappointed in this Tim Hinchey fella. He was a swimmer and has six children. He doesn’t seem interested in protecting young swimmers? He basically has lawyered up with the usa swimming people and has joined their good old boys network. He needs to change his ways ASAP or GTFO!!!

A Coach
5 years ago

Well written article, but I thought I was going to read simple solutions like don’t let your swimmers wear suits that expose half their buttocks.

Hannah Hecht
Reply to  A Coach
5 years ago

Joke or not, this is victim-blaming.

Scott Morgan
Reply to  A Coach
5 years ago

Gross. And a “Coach”? I sure hope not.

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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