Last week the Denver Post published my commentary in response to one by USA Swimming boss Chuck Wielgus a week and a half earlier. Below is the full text of my piece, which also restores some of the cuts by the Post. — Irv Muchnick
USA Swimming’s Wielgus Has No Credibility — Reform Is a Job For Congress
Re: “Reducing the risk of abuse in youth sports,”May 15 guest commentary.
The commentary by Chuck Wielgus, USA Swimming’s executive director, is both misleading and a disservice to America’s 400,000 club swimmers and 12,000 coaches. Simply put, this is an attempt by a thoroughly discredited figure to change the conversation regarding federal executive and legislative branch investigations of what is arguably the worst global and historical sexual abuse nest outside the Catholic Church.
While USA Swimming’s belated and feeble attempt to clean up its act is an understandable surface response — and some of the good people inside the organization are serious about it — Wielgus is an illegitimate messenger. The first step in reform is his accountability for alleged cover-ups and lies on his watch (he took the job, which now pays him $900,000 a year, in 1997). The second step is for Congress to hold public hearings and revise the Amateur Sports Act, which was last visited in 1998 — long before we had our current level of understanding of the interplay between the abuse issue and Title IX-era youth sports.
What Wielgus’ essay leaves out is that last year he was forced to cancel his scheduled induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. This followed a petition campaign led by famed open-water swimmer Diana Nyad and 18 others who said they were victims of swim coach abuse, and co-signed by 29 others who are prominent in the swimming community. The petition alleged that USA Swimming internal documents show Wielgus covered up complaints of sexual misconduct about California and Washington State coach Andy King. The prosecutor who finally sent King to prison for 40 years in 2010 described him as “a monster” who raped more than a dozen underage girls, impregnating one.
The petitioners also alleged that Wielgus committed perjury in 2010 in a civil lawsuit by a victim of Indiana coach Brian Hindson, now in federal prison on child pornography counts. Hindson was convicted of deploying a hidden locker room camera to videotape disrobing female swimmers in his charge.
In his deposition, Wielgus claimed that scandalous videos of all kinds were not even “on the radar screen” prior to the 2008 social-media frenzy over Michael Phelps inhaling marijuana from a bong. That is false. There are least two other known cases of Peeping Tom coaches during Wielgus’ tenure. One involved Pennsylvania coach John Trites, who is still at large, made the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and triggered a government-requested national alert to aquatic facilities by USA Swimming itself. The other case involves Alexandre Pussieldi, who was accused of videotaping his charges in Fort Lauderdale.
The reason there are thousands of pages of discovery documents tells a story in itself. For years, USA Swimming defied lower courts’ discovery orders, even paying tens of thousands of dollars in sanctions to keep from exposing them to the light of day. But the Wielgus gang had to relent after losing an appeal to the California Supreme Court. Those records, many of them under seal, were subpoenaed by the FBI (which is also investigating such matters as swimming’s captive offshore reinsurance subsidiary, known as “the United States Sports Insurance Co.” even though it was founded in and run out of tax- and liability firewall-friendly Barbados).
As Wielgus wrote, USA Swimming set up a “Safe Sport” program in 2010. This was only after he embarrassed himself in two national television interviews with evasive and callous responses to questions about abuse. Critics observed little or no change in the organization’s culture of victim revictimization and unwillingness to investigate and discipline prominent coaches over whom molestation allegations hover, including Hall of Famers Paul Bergen, Murray Stephens and t he late Jack Nelson (Nyad’s high school coach).
In 2012-13, the sport’s quarter-century long coverup of Maryland coach Rick Curl unraveled — leading then-Congressman George Miller to request a Government Accountability Office audit of loopholes in federal laws on amateur sports abuse, and to ask the FBI to “fully investigate USA Swimming‘s handling of both past and present cases of child sexual abuse.”
With the guidance of Denver consultant Ground Floor Media, USA Swimming responded with a six-figure lobbying and public relations campaign, of which the Wielgus commentary for the Post is a product.
Taking on the Olympic brand is not a popular cause: Major media aren’t interested in reporting much about swimming in between Michael Phelps’ gold medals and drunk-driving arrests. But the abuse problem is a lot larger and more telling than Wielgus lets on in the course of his cascading non-apology apologies and promotion of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s new “independent” Center for Safe Sport.
True accountability and oversight can only come from one source: the U.S. Congress.
Journalist and author Irvin Muchnick writes about abuse in swimming at ConcussionInc.net.