by Irvin Muchnick
We’re at a particular story arc in the coach sexual abuse crimes of youth sports where someone like myself, who has spent the better part of a decade chasing down the most horrid anecdotes you could imagine of epic and systematic failure to do right by our kids, has to guard against what smart observers call “the narcissism of small differences.”
Some of this tug, between grasp of the comprehensiveness of the problem and recognition of the reality of incremental solutions of it, comes to the fore in my essay for the April issue of Outside magazine, “It’s Time to Fix Sports’ Sexual-Abuse Culture — for Good.” You can view the piece at https://www.outsideonline.com/2285936/lets-fix-good. Thank you to all the readers who have written nice comments about the piece, both online and directly to me.
Congress is investigating … again. The U.S. Olympic Committee and its national sport governing bodies, having covered themselves in doubled-down ignominy, are re-scrambling internal affairs departments … again.
The most dramatic manifestation of the latter is the U.S. Center for SafeSport, whose slow-walk start-up, toward a dubious purpose, I have been blasting up, down, and sideways for years. In 2014, for example, I concluded an interview with Outside by saying:
“The sleeping-giant constituency in all this is America’s millions of sports parents. They own a piece of this problem, too. If they wake up to the dark side of youth athletic programs — instead of simply hoping that the worst doesn’t happen to their own kids — then there’s an opportunity for an overdue overhaul of the Amateur Sports Act. If not, we face at least four more years of what I call ‘Safe Sport reboot.’ What the USOC is now saying is that swimming has done a great job — which isn’t true — but that the Safe Sport task for all the national sports governing bodies must be taken over by a new and privately funded ‘independent’ agency. The model is the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. [My then reporting partner Tim Joyce] and I feel that this agency will serve as an ineffective ‘sex police,’ with an agenda that is still friendlier to the NGBs than to young athletes. This is like rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic, and it’s no substitute for real federal oversight.”
See “Should USA Swimming Go Down?”, https://www.outsideonline.com/1927681/should-usa-swimming-go-down.
But today, for better or worse, the U.S. Center for SafeSport is here. It’s superior to what we had before and it deserves a fair chance to show that it can reorient the NGBs in a healthy direction — right? So the argument goes. Far be it from me to do more than register timely misgivings, and hope that advocates of less aggressive reforms are right and I am wrong.
In the sport of swimming, the U.S. Center faces its first big test in a do-over of a 2010-11 investigation of coach Sean Hutchison, whose long and abusive relationship with swimmer Ariana Kukors was long an open secret.
Inspired by the #MeToo movement and the courageous testimony of USA Gymnastics victims of Dr. Larry Nassar, Kukors has come forward to confirm that, not only was she Hutchison’s arguable “consenting adult” companion at the time of the now seven-year-old USA Swimming investigation that cleared Hutchison of a conduct code violation; she also was his grooming and abuse victim for the eight years prior, going back to when she was 13.
Let’s see how the U.S. Center parses this one. Let’s see, too, if it will grab by the teeth, not by the kid gloves, the parallel story — told at Concussion Inc. and so far given a lookaway pass by major media — of Sarah Ehekircher, who credibly documents her similar grooming and molestation by Scott MacFarland, a coach still gainfully employed at a USA Swimming club in Texas. Ehekircher already has supplemented her youth abuse story with her adult sexual harassment in the employ of John Leonard of the American Swimming Coaches Association, perhaps the No. 1 black hat of the aquatics industry’s abuse and cover-up narrative.
If the U.S. Center takes it upon itself to give the 2010 USA Swimming investigation and National Board of Review hearing of MacFarland-Ehekircher the same thorough administrative-judicial review that it now appears to be giving Hutchison-Kukors, the Center will find the same flaws: the fraudulence behind the hyped new Safe Sport regime of disgraced former director Susan Woessner (who had the blatant conflict of her own prior relationship with Hutchison), along with a process designed, top to bottom, to protect USA Swimming, rather than account for abuse and root out abusers.
Some folks with deeper ties than mine to the Olympic movement, plus plenty of first-, not second-hand, experience with sexual assault, laid it on the line to make the U.S. Center happen. So I’ve concluded that it deserves an opportunity to show what it can do.
But as the process goes forward, one thing I will never accept is that confronting and eradicating youth coach abuse is in any meaningful way tied to the concept of promoting “athletes’ rights.” This is a buzz phrase making the rounds as elite athletes lobby for better representation on governing boards, and related reforms. These are independent good things but they are not direct or indirect cures — any more than paying college football players, who deserve to be paid, is a cure for the existential crisis of traumatic brain injury in football.
Readers wondering why I am so Manichean on this point need only look to the history of my involvement with the issue. It began with my poking around — as a parent, not a journalist — into the background of the 2008 statutory rapes by Jesse Stovall, the coach of Bear Swimming in California, of a 16-year-old girl he was chaperoning to a national meet in Florida. Stovall would plead guilty to reduced charges and join the burgeoning USA Swimming banned list that the organization would begin publishing after the furor over an April 2010 report on ABC’s 20/20.
While I was looking into the Stovall scenario (which would be chronicled by the East Bay Express, https://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/swimming-in-sex-abuse/Content?oid=1678180; https://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/berkeley-swim-coach-sentenced-for-sex-abuse/Content?oid=1725260), I exchanged emails with an official from Pacific Swimming, the regional USA Swimming affiliate with jurisdiction. This fellow parent volunteer told me, “I believe there ought to be some sensitivity training provided to the coaches.”
And my answer was no. Not then, not now, not ever.
Child sex abuse is not about “sensitivity training.” Nor is it a checkbox in labor-management relations. Nor is it a revamping of the norms of social interactions between young adults at campus fraternity parties.
Child sex abuse is child sex abuse. It is its own category — one with devastating public health consequences, with whose reckoning we can longer defer.