by Tim Joyce
This week the United States Olympic Committee came to the conclusion that maybe, yes, this USA Swimming sexual abuse scandal is pretty serious after all. Following years of silence on all matters related to abuse in that sport, the USOC announced that it is creating a working group intended to focus resources on fighting that problem within the Olympic governing bodies.
While the USOC did not mention USA Swimming by name, it is obvious that the parent organization is fearful of repercussions for their prized summer Olympic sport. (Notably, Scott Blackmun, USOC’s chief executive, has commented on the sexual molestation scandals in the ranks of USA Speed Skating on prior occasions, but never has he uttered a word about their counterparts in swimming, where the magnitude is much greater.)
According to Tuesday’s statement, the working group is “charged with making an informed recommendation to the USOC regarding possible models for sport organizations to use for the investigation, adjudication and sanctioning of prohibited conduct.”
“Sport plays a significant role in the lives of children,” said Blackmun. “We have to do everything we can to make sure that their exposure to sport is positive and not negative. We have to invest in creating safe environments. We have made good progress on that front, and I want to make sure we stay focused on putting the best possible systems in place. That is why this group is being assembled.”
Excuse me for being so cynical but … what took so long? And why now?
The answer will never be admitted by the USOC, but it goes like this: The announcement is timed to intercept any negative press that USA Swimming will surely encounter as Congressman George Miller’s office continues to investigate the decades of sexual abuse committed by coaches and the lack of accountability that has ruled the day.
USOC, just like USA Swimming, is only acting because their backs are against the wall.
This is the same, tired M.O. we’ve seen ever since USA Swimming weathered body blows from ABC’s 20/20 and ESPN’s Outside the Lines three years ago. In 2012, USA Swimming finally took action against Rick Curl even though top officials had known for years of his history of abuse.
Where was Scott Blackmun as story after story about USA Swimming coaching abuse – from Andy King to Rick Curl, from Murray Stephens to Norm Havercroft – filled the sports pages’ police-blotter columns? Blackmun’s voice carries weight in the Olympic sports community. Yet nary a word was uttered. Even more tellingly, Blackmun didn’t use the power of his office to fire anyone. Like I said, no accountability.
This inaction was in character. Blackmun is the man who last year told Time, “We would very much like to have more resources for the athletes. But it’s hard to argue that we need to change the system.” Blackmun himself makes $650,000 a year. The annual take of Chuck Wielgus, CEO of USA Swimming is even more — around $700,000.
Most assuredly, the Olympics are about money and any negative news story that would threaten the de-deification of Saint Michael Phelps would hit the wallets of the national governing body’s economy. The media, especially broadcast partner NBC and the Hearst-owned networks (see WBAL radio in Baltimore), play along with the silence-is-golden policy.
Only time will tell how serious and far-reaching are the USOC’s own initiatives to finally curtail, report, and punish sexual abuse. However well-intentioned any such program might appear on the surface, it is imperative that investigations – in Congress and elsewhere – not allow the umbrella organization or its USA Swimming to get away with just “talking about the future.” Without accountability for those responsible for the past and present, purported future steps will be worthless.