by Irvin Muchnick
Two weeks ago the New York Times published a powerful essay on sexual abuse in gymnastics by former multiple Olympian Jennifer Sey. The piece played off a new initiative by Senator Dianne Feinstein to curb this ongoing disgrace of our youth sports system.
Since then, the Times has embellished Sey’s article and insights with the publication of exactly zero letters to the editor. These include my own, which is reproduced below as part of Concussion Inc.’s ongoing series “Not Fit to Print in the New York Times.”
Our newspaper of record’s public service in running the Sey piece, and its reluctance to take the conversation further, are bellwether bookends for the problem of promoting Feinstein’s bipartisan legislation, other efforts to reform the toxic culture of amateur sports, and general discussion of the scourge of sex abuse.
For major media outlets — up to and including NBC Universal, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s billion-dollar broadcast partner — it is more profitable to raise the subject episodically or retrospectively. Or to regard it as a cost of doing business. Or, worst of all, to suggest it is a product of amorphous “stranger danger” rather than a definable power play by authority figures — here known as coaches — and the star-struck stage parents who enable them.
As I invite readers to consider the points in the letter below, I also put forward a suggestion to the Times editors who rejected it on how to extend their coverage. What about a look into the boardroom politics that will keep Chuck Wielgus, USA Swimming’s two-decade chief abuse cover-up artist, in his million-dollar-a-year job all the way through his scheduled retirement this August?
UNPUBLISHED NEW YORK TIMES LETTER
It doesn’t require an interest in the sport of gymnastics in order to be moved and outraged by Jennifer Sey’s account (“How Gymnastics Culture Breeds Sexual Abuse,” Sunday Review, April 2). But as a journalist who has written extensively about thousands of pages of FBI-subpoenaed files on abuse cases in USA Swimming — which parallel civil court records recently uncovered in USA Gymnastics — I’ve learned that every institution enabling sexual abuse, in or out of sports, has its own unique dynamic of extraneous sexualization, while at the same time sharing a core attribute: abuse of power.
In swimming, for example, the female who is most vulnerable to a Svengali coach’s predatory behavior has just emerged from puberty with a new body — enhanced breasts and hips — and by demonstrating a continued drive to excellence, has become for her authority figure both a vessel to potential Olympic glory and a sex object. Of course, the 400,000 club youth competitive swimmers and their 12,000 coaches, who populate before- and after-school practices and weekend meets, 12 months a year, are a staple of Americana.
By contrast, full awareness of a young woman’s emerging athletic prowess in track and field tends to happen in the late teens or early twenties. Thus, abuse cases in that sport cluster around college coaches rather than club ones.
The legislative initiative of Senator Dianne Feinstein of California to compel Olympic sport governing bodies to report to police all allegations of sexual misconduct is a welcome step. Feinstein’s proposal garnered bipartisan support and spurred overdue Congressional hearings.
But since the problem is ultimately about power, not sex — in the very accurate cliche — this does not go far enough in my view. The Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act was enacted near the beginning of the Title IX era, which has expanded opportunities for girls and women, but before we had acquired our contemporary level of consciousness of the attendant abuses and the need for toothful accountability and oversight. What we need in 2017 is root-and-branch reform of our Olympic sports system, including establishment of a true national sports ministry.
Recently, the Trump Administration’s Justice Department appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals my victory in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for additional records from the immigration file of George Gibney, who is arguably the most notorious at-large sex criminal in global sports. Gibney, head coach of the 1988 Irish Olympic swimming team, fled to this country in the 1990’s after averting, on statute of limitations grounds, prosecution on dozens of criminal charges of his molestation of underage swimmers in his charge. An Irish government commission later concluded that his accusers “were vindicated,” and a movement by victims and their advocates has ensued to seek Gibney’s extradition back to Ireland and reinstitution of his prosecution on these and additional charges — including a rape committed on American soil. In ruling in my favor, Federal Judge Charles R. Breyer suggested that the additionally sought records might shed light on how the American Swimming Coaches Association “greased the wheels” for Gibney’s passage.