Chronological headllne links to our three-year-long series, “Why Is George Gibney — No. 1 At-Large Pedophile in Global Sports — Living in Florida? And Who Sponsored His Green Card?”, are at https://concussioninc.net/?p=10942.
by Irvin Muchnick
The matter of George Gibney — the rapist former Olympic swimming coach who fled to the United States after avoiding trial on a dubious technicality enabled by at least one aspect of shocking cronyism in the Irish criminal justice system — has scarred the collective psyche of his native country for more than a quarter of a century. The agonizing multi-state plot of his long-term American residency also has maimed public processes and local communities of his shakily adopted land in ways we may never fully know.
Much of this is in the spotlight in Muchnick v. Department of Homeland Security, my Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for more records from Gibney’s immigration file, which is at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals after the government appealed last year’s ruling in my favor by U.S. District Court Senior Judge Charles R. Breyer.
I’ve been investigating coach sex abuse in American youth sports programs, primarily USA Swimming, for six years. The Gibney story crystallizes major themes of this sad and wide-ranging subject. These are my top five.
1. Sure, “abuse is abuse is abuse.” But child sex abuse is the worst.
It’s intellectually important to contrast as well as to compare. Physically coerced penetration rape is not the same as more subtle forms of unwanted touching and power-play coercion. Pickpockets commit crimes, but their crime is not armed robbery.
Thanks to the #MeToo campaign, there is an overdue conversation about and assessment of sexual abuse and sexual harassment across a range of perpetrators, victims, and settings. We can and should attack all forms of abuse — in the workplace, on campuses, and at swimming pools and athletic fields. This is because they have something in common: they dehumanize those on the receiving end, whose rights get violated, personally and intimately, by authority figures or bosses, exploiting casual standards.
But we’ll never be able to calibrate with precision the damage of any individual case. Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo in the Stieg Larsson novels, was heinously abused by her father and then by a legal guardian, yet turned around the pain of those events to fuel a victim-free life of genius accomplishment. Whereas another person might receive an unsolicited pinch on the behind and never be able to function as a healthy relationship partner or parent.
By any genuine moral measure, child sex abuse, as a category, is as bad as any misconduct could possibly get, short of murder. Once the facts are established, it is not a remotely gray area. Even the abuses of people like Harvey Weinstein often burden adults with calculating careers. Even campus date rape often revolves around adults consenting, at least initially, on the quest for a good time.
Child abuse is just child abuse — the taking advantage of an underage person by an adult who by definition wields asymmetrical power. Being on an age-group swim team is not a job; it is an extracurricular youth activity.
And that is why George Gibney and others who do what he did are unique monsters.
2. Sports coach grooming and predation are normalized.
Let’s say it again: George Gibney is a monster.
But the paradigm of coach sex abuse is rarely so stark as Gibney’s. A far more common scenario is a coach who grooms an underage athlete in his charge, but might never touch until she is “legal.”.
(Both men and women can abuse, of course, and both girls and boys can be abused. But I’ve reviewed scores of abuse accusations from the primary-source secret files of USA Swimming. The organization hid these for years, in defiance of multiple discovery orders from California courts in lawsuits by victims; the swim authority even forked over tens of thousands of dollars in sanctions for their contempt, before finally giving up the records under a protective order, at the behest of the California Supreme Court — after which they were subpoenaed by a state branch office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.)
I can tell you that the median central casting actors in swimming abuse are a 30- or 40-something male coach and his pretty mid-teenage swimmer of star quality and Olympic potential.
And in swimming’s hermetically sealed subculture of skewed values, the incestuous becomes so suffocating that it threatens to cancel the obvious benefits of another trend; the increased movement of women into leadership positions. The former chair of American swimming’s National Board of Review, which adjudicates coach misconduct allegations — an accomplished lawyer following an Olympic swimming career — herself is married to her former college coach, and before that had a romantic relationship, which technically was statutory rape, with her age-group club coach. This person resigned after Concussion Inc. laid bare these facts. Earlier this same USA Swimming official had recused herself from the process banning Greg Winslow, who had coached at her husband’s collegiate program and affiliated youth club.
3. The problem crosses program boundaries and even country boundaries. It is global in scope.
George GIbney is far from the only bad guy I’ve come across who, after getting busted, found a way to carry on in another part of the globe. Rick Curl (U.S. to Australia), Alex Pussieldi (Brazil to U.S. and Kuwait), Cecil Russell (Canada to U.S.), Paul Bergen and Mitch Ivey (U.S. to Canada), Danny Chocron (U.S. to Venezuela), and Scott Volkers (Australia to Brazil and the U.S.) are among the many others.
People nod in agreement when you invoke the cliche of the Catholic Church scandals, in which bad-actor priests got shuffled from parish to parish or beyond. But the same people nod off when you cite the specific mechanisms enabling these analogies in swimming.
As Judge Breyer wrote in his opinion in the Gibney FOIA case, I suspect the American Swimming Coaches Association of “greasing the wheels” for the notorious coach’s safe harbor here. This speculation is not idle. John Leonard, the long-time executive director of ASCA, is the most truculent leader of the swimming establishment’s denial of the sport’s abuse problem and the accountability of its organizations for not stopping it.
In 2012 Leonard told me, “We do not have an organization that deals directly with children, nor is that part of our purpose in any way, shape or form.” Well, blow me down. A super-majority of the aquatics industry’s activities and revenues involve children. Could you imagine the head of the American Academy of Pediatrics arguing that it was merely a trade group of physicians?
ASCA’s business model, promoted in its publications, includes legal services for facilitating coaches’ visas. Sometimes when coaches get banned or “flagged” by USA Swimming, they remain gainfully employed through ASCA. The aforementioned Mitch Ivey wrote training manuals for ASCA for years after he was unofficially shunted from pool decks, but before he was banned. A guy named Dustin Perry, who was suspended by USA Swimming in the middle of his multi-state tour of damage, coached in Mexico during his suspension via an ASCA job posting at the program of an ASCA Hall of Fame coach, Jack Simon. (And who knows how Simon himself landed down there?)
In the Gibney case, we may or may not eventually learn that it was ASCA that engineered his U.S. coaching job offer letter at the time when he was applying for a visa, as his scandals and eventual 27-count sex crime indictment closed in on him in Ireland. What we do know is that another top Irish coach, Peter Banks, has gone from Ireland to Florida to Ireland to Florida, was on the ASCA staff during his first American stint, and presided over the expansion of ASCA coaching clinics when he was the chief of Swim Ireland.
4. In more cases than we are comfortable acknowledging, parents of the abused own a piece of the problem.
My last two bullet points make me less than popular with sports parents, too many of whom are really stage parents — vicariously dreaming of college sports scholarships or Olympic glory for their kids; all too eager to outsource their parenting to Svengali coaches; and with no interest in addressing the structural and cultural flaws of youth sports, until and unless the worst happens to their own child.
When you’ve reported as many abuse stories as I have, you are empathic regarding the horrible things that were done to young people in the name of spirited competition and, ultimately, money. However, you also become skeptical of redundant narratives of “charismatic” coaches and families who were shocked or blindsided by bad outcomes.
5. Youth sports programs shouldn’t just be better policed. They should be downsized.
Here’s where my reporting and analysis really get written out of the most popular scripts for corrective action.
I got into this subject after writing about the traumatic brain injury crisis in football. I came to call the resulting ecosystem of band-aid solutions “Concussion Inc.” — an amalgam of experts and technologies, driven by public subsidies as well as by venture capital, to devise contorted workarounds of the existential problem, which is that football kills the brain. At a point I believe we long ago passed, “more more more” is not the answer. We can’t have Medivac helicopters stationed at every football practice at our poorest high schools, which can’t even afford decent classroom supplies for their students and underpaid teachers. We need to get our public schools and our public facilities out of the football industry, and let the parents who remain determined to subject their sons to this carnage do so in private clubs.
The story of USA Swimming and the other national sport governing bodies under siege — including USA Gymnastics, US Speedskating, and USA Taekwondo — is something akin to Child Abuse Inc. We fervently hope we can clean things up without disrupting the process that feeds us a couple of weeks of feelgood nationalistic narratives on prime time every four years. We just want to add more layers of policing to make bad outcomes somewhat less likely. First there were mandatory background checks. Then there was swimming’s new “safe sport” bureaucracy — additional highly paid employees in Colorado Springs who simply enforce the same youth athlete-unfriendly beyond-a-reasonable-doubt criminal standard that has always been used, but now is being attached to a pretty face. Then there was a report by a captive consultant whose conflict of interest was not disclosed.
And now there is the U.S. Olympic Committee’s “independent” National Center for Safe Sport, which promises the same selective and hypocritical pattern of enforcement exhibited by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Indeed, the chief executive of USADA, Travis Tygart, cut his teeth as an abuse cover-up lawyer for USA Swimming before he made his name as the man who exposed Lance Armstrong for using PED’s during his record run at the Tour de France.
Here’s a better idea: let’s divorce the basics of swimming instruction and recreational swimming from USA Swimming’s professional ultra-competitive gold medal development program.
The 400,000 competitive youth swimmers and their 12,000 coaches who participate in the after-school practices and weekend meets that are a staple of Americana provide the Olympic movement, the most ambitious coaches, and the bloated and overpaid Colorado headquarters with economies of scale, artificially deflated rent at public aquatic complexes, and the free labor of parent volunteers.
Unfortunately, what all but a few get in return for all this Olympic-track infrastructure sometimes comes down to just the fantasy of envisioning one’s face on a cereal box — plus abuse and abuse denial.
So, taking my cue from the American Swimming Coaches Association’s Leonard, I say we should get USA Swimming out of the kid business. Just make it the swimming business, without the barnacles of a top-to-bottom “national sport governing” body under the auspices of the Amateur Sports Act.
Either empower this ersatz nonprofit to get it right — or take away the tools that make it an Olympic development program without child safety.