We recently spoke with Susan Woessner, USA Swimming Director of Safe Sport, about her role in preventing abuse in swimming. Being a member of USA Swimming is a privilege, she believes, that requires each member to respect every other member’s right to swim free of fear or threat from any and all forms of abuse. The Safe Sport policies – “required, prohibited, and suggested – are for the protection of coaches and swimmers alike.” These policies help create safe environments in which all can thrive in and out of the water. Susan’s goal, through the creation of safe swimming environments, is to raise awareness of and eliminate abuse in swimming.
Susan feels that education is the key to eliminating abuse in the sport. The Code of Conduct and suggested policies govern the behavior of coaches and athletes. The Safe Sport office not only handles criminal or sexual abuse complaints, but also manages a wide spectrum of concerns. These range from questioning coaching methods to mishandling funds to inappropriate electronic contact to sexual abuse to other criminal behaviors.
The concept of “intention vs. perception” can help coaches avoid questionable conduct of any type when interacting with athletes. According to Susan, this concept is essential for maintaining safe swimming environments. A coach’s intent in a situation may not be how others perceive that same situation. As an example, a male coach having a one-on-one closed door meeting with a female athlete may inadvertently create a perceived unsafe environment for the swimmer and ultimately the coach. The intent to have a swimming related conversation in a location that preserves the swimmer’s privacy might create the perception of inappropriate interaction with the swimmer. Through education, the coach can learn alternative ways to conduct one-on-one business in a safe environment – both actual and perceived.
When the Safe Sport staff, Susan Woessner or Liz Hoendervoogt, receives a call about an incident, they begin the complaint process, while maintaining confidentiality, as outlined on the flow chart recently released by the Safe Sport office. While not all complaints proceed to a hearing, USA Swimming members should understand that this legally mandated process exists for their protection.
The 1978 Amateur Sports Act requires this hearing process. The Act establishes
the United States Olympic Committee and gives the Committee the right to charter a national governing body for each Olympic sport. Pursuant to this grant, USA Swimming was formed in 1980. The Act provides important legal protection for individual athletes, including eligibility issues. Before members can lose their participation rights in USA Swimming, the members must be afforded due process through a hearing system that allows them to respond to allegations affecting their eligibility.
While the flow chart is self-explanatory, for clarification and transparency, Susan further details the process for us. At the beginning stage of gathering information, the Safe Sport staff may learn that the complaint does not involve a Code of Conduct violation. In such a case, USA Swimming may issue a warning letter to the member or may not take any action.
If the Safe Sport staff’s information search reveals a possible violation, the staff reports their findings to outside legal counsel and initiates a formal investigation through outside investigators. At present, USA Swimming retains two retired female FBI agents to continue investigations. An investigation may take several weeks, depending upon cooperation by the parties central to the complaint.
In any pending investigation, the alleged victim may choose not to assist in the process for a variety of reasons, but without the victim’s input the investigative process becomes more challenging. Regardless of the alleged victim’s choice, protecting each victim’s identity is crucial. The swimming community may hear about an ongoing investigation and try to identify the victim. USA Swimming will not release any information that could possibly, however remote, lead to the identification of the alleged victim.
At the conclusion of the investigation, the Safe Sport staff together with outside legal counsel reviews the information and determines whether to dismiss or proceed with the complaint. Legal counsel determines whether USA Swimming can prove by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not) that the offending member committed the allegations. If legal counsel believes the evidence satisfies this standard, USA Swimming files a petition requesting a hearing with the Chairman of the National Board of Review.
The National Board of Review panel consists of three members – the chairman, a nonathlete, and an athlete. The National Board of Review Chair (currently Jill Chasson) reviews the hearing request and in her sole discretion decides whether to grant the hearing. When the hearing is granted, the chair issues a notice of hearing to USA Swimming and the offending member. The Board convenes either in person or by phone no fewer than 45 days and no greater than 60 days after this notice issues.
If the chairman does not grant a hearing, the petition returns to USA Swimming, and it will either close the case or pursue additional investigation. As of this date, the chairman has not denied a hearing request. A member may waive his/her right to a hearing.
At the hearing, USA Swimming presents its case then the offending member presents, with the panel asking questions. The panel may assign the relief requested in the petition or assign another form of relief. If a complaint has reached the hearing stage, the relief options are suspension, immediate sanctions, permanently banned, or permanently suspended until and if the offending member appeals the hearing determination.
Many times the swimming community questions a member’s purported Code of Conduct violation and seeks information from USA Swimming about the violation or the member’s status. Susan explains that given the sensitive nature of many of the complaints, the case may call for complete nondisclosure or limited disclosure of information to protect the identity of the alleged victim before, during, and after the hearing process. Disclosure also may be limited to protect the offending member’s reputation and position until after the hearing is complete.
To date, USA Swimming has not received any knowingly false allegations, but going back to “intention vs. perception,” some reported situations are not Code of Conduct violations even if they appear so to the reporting party. USA Swimming walks a fine line in discerning when to release information before a member has gone through the process. In our culture where speed of information is paramount, USA Swimming’s decisions to limit information are not always well received but may be necessary to avoid harming those involved in the ongoing complaint process.