As ‘Concussion’ Movie Boomlet Draws to a Close, We Reset Our Coverage of Sexual Abuse in Swimming

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Concussion, with Will Smith doing a bad West African accent as Dr. Bennet Omalu, under Peter Landesman’s direction, got shut out of the Academy Award nominations announced yesterday, and it is limping toward home video release. There is no dishonor in these commercial failures. I consider Concussion a middling film on a grim subject, alternately safe and full of baloney in all the expected Hollywood ways, but also not without value.

It is time to move on from intensive coverage of these shortcomings, and focus on how the corrupt new Bennet Omalu Foundation at the University of Pittsburgh misdirects the public conversation we should be having in the movie’s wake. Within the next week, I expect to publish a fresh examination of how Omalu’s odd exploitation of the history of traumatic brain injury research is a disservice to the discussion we need to be having about the fraught future of “public” tackle football.

(I was incorrect in speculating that Omalu would be asked to take a bow at President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday. Omalu was merely in attendance, at the invitation of Congresswoman Jackie Speier.)

Moving on also means moving back — to our coverage of sexual abuse in swimming. My hearing in the Freedom of Information Act case against the Department of Homeland Security for more disclosure of the 102-page immigration file on rapist retired Irish national swim coach George Gibney is set for February 12 before U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco.

Swimming was a subject around which I coalitioned, off and on, with the MomsTeam Institute — a group with which I am now sidewise after reporting on the pathetic and ethics-challenged moves of its head, Brooke de Lench, in concert with both the football industry and the Concussion movie. This “nonprofit” has had things every which way, its way, including at times on the same side of the street with me on the swimming scandals.

For reasons I don’t know, has pulled from public access four of the five articles I authored for them on the swimming story between from 2012 to 2014. One, the most recent, survives, and is reprinted below. The four disappeared ones will be rolled out again as we go along.

As you’ll see, where I left things with MomsTeam readers was a federal investigation of USA Swimming that would subsequently fizzle, thanks to the cowardice of Congressman George Miller. He retired at the end of 2014 to become what every red-blooded American swimming grandparent apparently aspires to: a six-figure federal government pensioner double-dipping as a “consultant” in the education industry over which he once claimed oversight.

Miller’s successor as the House Democrats’ watchdog on youth sports issues is Jackie Speier, who hosted Omalu at the State of the Union. Speier, too, hasn’t done squat with the record of amateur sports abuse handed over by Miller’s investigators. Speier simply deferred to the Government Accountability Office report of last year, which, thanks to the U.S. Olympic Committee’s and USA Swimming’s expensive lobbying efforts, said basically nothing.

With that, here’s the first of our MomsTeam article flashbacks:

Ending Sexual Abuse of Youth Athletes: Is It A “Sports Welfare” Issue?


January 7, 2014

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 (USOC).  

At the behest of Congressman George Miller (D-Cal.), ranking minority member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) is readying a report. 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.

New developments in the case of Greg Winslow, the coach at the University of Utah who was fired last year after my colleague Tim Joyce and I revealed on my blog, Concussion Inc., 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 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 allegedly 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 remains 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 last summer 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 governing bodies that fall under USOC’s umbrella.  The lack 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 — now 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 the United States Congress.

Irvin Muchnick blogs at His third book, The Concussion Inc. Files, will be published this fall.

The opinions expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily represent those of Sports Team Logic, Inc, d/b/a, Inc.

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick