by Irvin Muchnick
Last week I received solid information that North Baltimore Aquatic Club teenage swimmer Jill Johnson had an openly known relationship in the 1980s with one of her NBAC coaches, John Cadigan.
The decision on whether it would be appropriate to publish this information was problematic. Obviously, I decided in the affirmative.
There are advantages to corporate journalism, with its editorial filters, but one of the advantages of my brand of journalism is that, as both boss and writer, I have the luxury of opting to give my readers more, rather than less. In this case, the boss ordered the writer to combine the revelation about Johnson and Cadigan with a very careful explanation of why I find it pertinent.
John Cadigan was and is the No. 2 man at NBAC — then under founder Murray Stephens, now under Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps’ coach. As readers here know, NBAC is currently beset with scandals you will read about nowhere except at Concussion Inc. — including the underground profile of Stephens because of sex abuse allegations (while he continues to profit handsomely from NBAC as the owner of the Meadowbrook Aquatic Center) and the death last fall of 14-year-old swimmer Louis Lowenthal without a lifeguard in sight. There is also a current USA Swimming investigation of a February 2012 incident involving questionable physical contact by two teammates on a third teen swimmer in the practice pool.
Cadigan’s friend, former Baltimore swimmer and Olympian Jill Johnson, is now Jill J. Chasson — a Phoenix lawyer who is chair of USA Swimming’s National Board of Review, which hears misconduct allegations against coaches.
Chasson’s husband is Mike Chasson, owner of the Sun Devil Aquatics youth club on the Arizona State University campus, and formerly the head coach of ASU’s intercollegiate swim team as well.
Jill and Mike Chasson met when he was coaching her at Stanford University. They are one of many couples in the swimming world. Critics of USA Swimming’s woefully inadequate self-policing of sexual misconduct, including myself, also believe their marriage should have disqualified Jill Chasson from the appointment to her major regulatory role. And, indeed, Jill Chasson has recused herself from any possible USA Swimming investigations of Greg Winslow, who was fired as swim coach at the University of Utah after Concussion Inc. reported that he faces a report by ASU police recommending two charges of sexual abuse of a minor during the time he worked for Mike Chasson at ASU and Sun Devil Aquatics.
For those of you who so far fail to understand that swimming’s abuse problem is systematic and cultural — not anecdotal and atomized — I need to go into some detail on the clarity of the case against Jill Chasson as review board chief. For starters, even when coach-swimmer coupling is not illegal, it is unprofessional and it violates sport’s ideally level and meritocratic playing field.
The argument goes further, though. Marriages such as the Chassons’ are often … usually … the end result of the same years-long dynamic by which abuse occurs. When the inappropriate attentions of a coach for a girl under his supervision culminate in sexual molestation, the process is retrospectively labeled as “grooming.” When the outcome is sex only after the young woman is of legal age, the same process becomes normalized.
It is my view that even many of the most serious students of feminism and the scourge that is sexual molestation do not fully appreciate how the swimming story — whose scale dwarfs that of Penn State — takes us to the white-hot center of this issue, at the nexus of sexual relations (an inevitable byproduct of human affairs) and abuse of power (which responsible people agree must be eradicated).
Last year the Aquatic Sports Convention considered a proposal to ban all coach-athlete romantic or sexual liaisons, regardless of age; the proposal was soundly defeated. Casual observers think the key voting bloc against the proposal was coaches. This is incorrect. The key voting bloc against the proposal was women who were part of coach-swimmer couples. These are people who cannot face a piece of legislation that will help reduce abuse — because in the process it also would seem to invalidate their own life choices.
Katherine Starr, the former Olympic swimmer who heads the new group Safe4Athletes, did not know about Jill Johnson’s history and said she wouldn’t have commented on specifics even if she did. But Starr added that, in general terms, the topic warrants discussion in the quest for change. “The basic problem with USA Swimming investigating abuse allegations, rather than getting a truly independent agency to do that job, is that it’s the fox guarding the chicken coop,” Starr said.
So it was against all the above background that I decided to run the info on Cadigan and Johnson-Chasson. I solicited comment from both. Neither has responded.
The details of the relationship show that, ethics aside, it was excruciatingly borderline in legal terms. NBAC alums recall that Johnson and Cadigan were together around the time of the 1984 Olympics; that year, she was 15 and he, probably 19 going on 20. Under Maryland law now (and I believe then), it would have been a second-degree sex offense if Cadigan was four or more years older than Johnson, and had relations with her before her 16th birthday in June 1985.
Creepy to contemplate? Yes. Uncomfortable to write about? You bet.
But also a necessary part of the dialogue essential to cleaning up American amateur sports and making them safe for young athletes.