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USA Swimming's Response To Sexual Abuse By Coaches: Treat It As PR Headache

Last week my website published an internal memo co-authored by Chuck Wielgus, the CEO of USA Swimming, in which the U.S. Olympic Committee's national sport governing outlined what it seems to think is a bold new strategy to combat all the negative press it has gotten for a generation's accumulation of anecdotes of coach sexual abuse of underage athletes -- all accompanied by systematic denial and cover-up. Female swimmer diving off the blocks

That bold new strategy can be summarized thusly: better PR.

At a cost of up to $200,000, USA Swimming last month engaged a consultant, Ground Floor Media, to train Wielgus and safe sport director Susan Woessner in how to project sharper talking points in interviews with "legitimate" news outlets. Heretofore, they had been shunning such exposure altogether.

And the memo makes it clear that they will continue to duck questions from mere "personal bloggers" -- presumably including ConcussionInc.'s Tim Joyce and myself, the two journalists who have kept on the radar screen the disgrace that is the widespread and deeply damaging sexual misconduct directed by authority figures toward the youth athletes in their charge.

The "legitimate" media presumably do include Yahoo Sports' ThePostGame, which sent me to the Olympic Swimming Trials for a story last year on the sex abuse problem, but proceeded to bury the report I filed. Fortunately, MomsTeam had the courage to run the story, as it turned out, just the day before The Washington Post published an article about the 30-year-long cover-up of the molestation of swimmer Kelley Davies Currin by her coach Rick Curl -- who this spring was sentenced to seven years in Maryland prison.

Like the Penn State memos on the Jerry Sandusky scandal that were uncovered in the Freeh Report, USA Swimming's "updated Safe Sport action plan" has no references ... zero ... to repairing the lives of victims or to any revulsion at acts underlying "an unfortunate increasing fact of life for all youth-serving organizations." There is only, again and again, the promise of increased crisis-management and spin resources for every "flare-up of media attention."

In a news cycle dominated by A-Rod's suspension by Major League Baseball and the Ariel Castro kidnap-rape case in Cleveland -- not to mention the concurrent world swimming championships in Barcelona, featuring the continuing exploits of Katie Ladecky, Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin and others -- it's hard to make a dent with new exposures of USA Swimming's shockingly bankrupt leadership and culture. That's OK; I write ‘em, I don't prioritize ‘em. Over time, the shameful aspects of our country's contribution to the watery division of the Olympic "brand" are certain to draw the attention of others in Congress besides Representative George Miller of California, who began stepping up to the plate in June.

Eventually, I'm confident, the 20 women in the U.S. Senate will do for this issue what they have already done for the previously hushed-up pattern of rapes of women in the newly integrated armed services.

Daughter's swim club rocked by scandal

In the meantime, USA Swimming's latest lame and clueless attempt to pre-empt, rather than to take responsibility, takes me all the way back to 2009. In those days I was writing about other matters; my only role in swimming was as the parent of a 13-year-old club competitor. The 2010 reports on 20/20 and Outside the Lines weren't even a gleam in a Disney producer's eye.

But my daughter's old team in California had been rocked by scandal. The previous year one of her teammates was plied with alcohol and twice raped by their coach, Jesse Stovall, in a hotel while he personally chaperoned her at a national meet in Florida. A year later, Stovall was arrested on Sproul Plaza on the University of California campus, where he had gone to become the coach of a masters team. He would later plead no-contest to criminal charges in Florida, with his name added to the ever-growing list published by USA Swimming of banned coaches, which has more than doubled from 40+ after the 20/20 investigation to 87.

In 2009, as I was running down the details, I met the resistance of the board president of the team, who was determined not to publicize the episode, nor even to notify past and present swimmers and their families. I also encountered a guy named Joe Woo, who was the general chair of Pacific Swimming, our "LSC" or local swim committee.

Woo emailed me in part, "I am sorry I cannot help you much in this matter. In light of recent events involving not one but two coaches being arrested within our LSC, I believe there ought to be some sensitivity training provided to the coaches ..."

Sex abuse by coaches: workplace sex harrassment to PR headache

For those of you keeping score: Four years ago my regional swimming leadership was analogizing sexual abuse of minors to workplace sexual harassment; today the national leadership is still treating the molesting of kid athletes as a PR headache. So little has changed. So much remains to be done to clean up the Augean stable that open amateur sports have become.

Irvin Muchnick's book The Concussion Inc. Files will be published in 2014. His 2012 ebook, Penn State in the Pool: The Cover-Up of the USA Swimming Youth Coach Sex Abuse Scandal, is available on Amazon Kindle at http://amzn.to/If3OFQ.

Posted August 5, 2013