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.