Flashback: Is USA Swimming Sexual Abuse a ‘Sports Welfare’ Issue?

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With our coverage of the ouster of USA Swimming insider Brandon Drawz as executive director of SwimMAC in North Carolina, one of the nation’s largest clubs, we revive discussion of how the all-in business practices of this youth sport interact with its culture of abuse.

On January 7, 2014, I wrote an article for Moms Team headlined “Ending Sexual Abuse of Youth Athletes: Is It a ‘Sports Welfare’ Issue?”, http://www.momsteam.com/usa-swimming/ending-sexual-abuse-youth-athletes-it-%E2%80%9Csports-welfare%E2%80%9D-issue#ixzz2pl6Xig6p.

Below, we reprint the piece with light changes (for example, Linck Bergen is no longer the head coach at Tualatin Hills in Oregon).


by Irvin Muchnick

Though the wheels on Capitol Hill don’t turn as fast as Missy Franklin’s arms in the water, the months are ticking down to a full-blown congressional investigation of allegations of sexual abuse by coaches in swimming and other amateur sports which fall under the umbrella of the United States Olympic Committee.

At the behest of now-retired Congressman George Miller, a California Democrat who was ranking minority member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, the Government Accountability Office. So far, Miller’s work has been publicly endorsed by colleagues Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon and another Californian, Mike Honda; the former is also on the House committee.

When the federal government revisits the 1978 Amateur Sports Act and its 1998 update, legislators will confront more than just an unconscionable numbers of cases of molestation, mostly of teenage girls. They also must deliberate on the structural abuses of power that have enabled these crimes to proceed — undetected in many cases, covered up in many more.

Developments in the case of Greg Winslow, the coach at the University of Utah who was fired in 2013 after my colleague Tim Joyce and I revealed that he faced allegations of sexual abuse of a minor in a previous stint at the Sun Devil Aquatics, USA Swimming-affiliated club on the Arizona State University campus, point to the shape these investigations are likely to take.

Over the 2013-14 holidays, Sun Devil Aquatics quietly announced that it was leaving the Mona Plummer Aquatic Center at ASU and merging with another program, Mesa Aquatics. The move is rife with implications for the legal exposure over sexual abuse and other tort claims so feared by universities and public athletic facilities.

Historically, ASU and Sun Devil Aquatics, independent legal entities in the technical sense, have been all but indistinguishable in the logistical sense. Like many other campus-based programs, the youth club sported the university’s athletic colors, swam out of the university pool, and was directed by the university’s swim coaching staff.

Thus, when Greg Winslow abused swimmer Whitney Lopus beginning when she was 15 years old, Winslow was not only head coach of the club, but also an assistant under ASU head coach Mike Chasson.

Chasson remained the owner of Sun Devil Aquatics, years after leaving his university post. The personal and institutional entanglements of USA Swimming and NCAA swimming programs go even deeper. Until the summer of 2013, the former’s National Board of Review chair — head of the body that hears charges of coach misconduct — was none other than former swimmer Jill Johnson Chasson, who married Mike Chasson after he was her swimming coach as an assistant at Stanford.

Analysis of the pool rental contracts between groups like Sun Devil Aquatics and entities like Arizona State University reveals sweetheart deals by which the clubs enjoy, among other advantages, bargain lane-time fees and premium (after-school and weekend) access for both practices and cash-cow regional meets.

The physical plant of a competition-caliber pool, with overhead costs for personnel, maintenance, power, chemical treatment, and heating, is simply not sustainable without multiple uses, of course, and very few USA Swimming clubs could raise the capital to build such complexes in the first place. So it is understandable that outside institutions, mainly public ones, take on youth club tenants.

But the existence of what effectively amount to massive subsidies for USA Swimming — whose executive director Chuck Wielgus pulls down $800,000 a year and commands a bloated and similarly overpaid staff, who devote most of their time to negotiating licensing deals — is problematic. This is, in fact, a “sports welfare” issue, every bit as much as the widely and justifiably criticized municipal underwriting of professional sports team stadiums and arenas.

The subsidies get cast in an even harsher light once the public becomes fully aware that sweetheart deals for amateur youth organizations also subsidize, indirectly, sexual abuse of far too many of our children, thanks to the national Olympic system’s lack of oversight and accountability for the USOC governing bodies. The absence in the United States of a national sports ministry found in most other countries is often seen as creative and positive exceptionalism. The problem is that it also has left youth athletes completely unprotected. In addition, it has left their parents, who put in hundreds of hours a year each in carpools and volunteer support, completely in the dark about a persistent yet correctable national disgrace.

The recent events at ASU could be an indication that moneyed interests are beginning to sniff the shifting winds. Another indicator is at the Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation Center in Beaverton, Oregon, which told Joyce and me it didn’t know that its resident swim club’s Paul Bergen Junior International Championships, which ran for 14 years before changing its name just last month, honored a Hall of Fame coach who, credible evidence suggests, may be a serial sex abuser. (Olympic gold medalist Deena Deardurff Schmidt came forward about Bergen four years ago. Another swimmer, Melissa Halmi, recently told Concussion, Inc. her own story, which included Bergen’s withdrawal from the sport for a number of years after Halmi’s documented allegations put the kibosh on his half-million-dollar contract with a prestigious Florida program in 1988.)

When confronted with the facts, Tualatin Hills Park and Rec not only went to great pains to distance itself from the Tualatin Hills Swim Club — then run by Linck Bergen, Paul’s son — but also did something else I hadn’t seen in two years of covering this sorry story: the district general manager actually expressed sympathy for and the need to support sex-abuse victims.

In the sad, mad dash for money and glory, institutional amateur sports today care only about their “non-profit” profits at the front end and limiting liability at the back end. That is why current clean-up operations are a job for Congress.

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick