by Irvin Muchnick
Sarah Ehekircher, who accuses her old swimming coach Scott MacFarland of grooming and abusing her from the age of 17 more than 30 years ago, yesterday told me that the U.S. Center for SafeSport had told her it received the USA Swimming files of the 2010 investigation and National Board of Review records of the now-reopened case.
This development marks another positive step in the role the new center is announcing with good body language by its early actions. The center has taken upon itself the task of getting Olympic sports programs’ youth athlete protection architecture right this time. This should include, where called for, a brutally hard second look at legacy cases the national sport governing bodies previously flubbed or covered up. In the sport of swimming, which I know best, the job is made especially urgent by the fraudulence now exposed in the players and practices of the hyped post-20/20 “safe sport” initiative. Not so long ago, former U.S. Olympic Committee chief Scott Blackmun even lauded swimming as the industry model, and how laughable does that look now that safe sport director, Susan Woessner, has slithered away after admitting that she once had something going with Sean Hutchison, the target of one of her first investigations in 2010-11?
None of us can really know yet whether the center will take Ehekircher’s and others’ stories to the finish line, and what the new agency’s ultimate orientation will be. For the moment, let’s set aside the question of whether the agency, by and by, will fade back into the woodwork of low-profile ineffectiveness. I would still retain philosophical questions regarding how it sees its mission. A lot of us who care more about instilling values than dollars into youth athletics are looking for something more than a spiffed-up human resources department, a bigger and better athlete ombudsperson, or a recalibration of how board seats get divvied up — admirable as all those goals may be. What we want is to define and root out from public subsidy the scourge of child abuse; to make sure that wherever it persists episodically — since no human problem can ever be legislated out of existence — this will not be because it was written off as a cost of business.
I have paused and rambled a bit on this point because, in the wake of the USA Gymnastics scandals, a lot of commentators who are much more deeply implicated than myself in the sports-media-industrial complex are suddenly finding the voice to say that the whole edifice should be burned down. It sounds like a great idea from where I sit. But it’s also an easy rhetorical way out for those who wouldn’t give the abuse story the time of day until it was told by a handful of America’s sweethearts at the victim impact hearing of a monster.
My preference in the coming months, therefore, will be to do something other than ruminate abstractly about the wholesale dismantling of an Olympic structure that obviously isn’t going away any time soon. Instead, I’ll be examining the work of the U.S. Center, to see how aggressively it picks its spots, to determine on which side of the inevitable ambiguities it chooses to lay down its blanket. And I’ll be doing all this even as I continue to express skepticism that a privately funded body, more answerable to the Olympic Committee than it would admit, can substitute for federal government oversight and accountability.
The Sarah Ehekircher case is significant in this context. Unlike the Ariana Kukors accusations against Sean Hutchison, Ehekircher’s involves no change in the evidence since 2010. Sarah serves up the same level of disclosures now that she had then. No matter how you slice it, the U.S. Center here is being appealed to for a big old do-over of USA Swimming’s inadequate actions of eight years ago in exonerating MacFarland, on grounds that there weren’t corroborating witnesses of a single time he might have bedded Ehekircher in California, where the age of consent is 18, unlike Colorado where it’s 17.
Just as eye-popping as the stable Ehekircher fact base the center confronts is its decision to take on the case before she herself had even submitted a formal complaint. And I’ve learned of other similar examples. Eva Rodansky, the speedskater whose well-articulated complaints about coach Michael Crowe have been publicized for years at Concussion Inc. and were duly reported to Congressman George Miller during his unsatisfactory 2013-14 investigation of youth sports abuses, told me that center investigators had reached out to her, too. Again, there was no obvious formal trigger; people just noticed the coverage by the CBC in Canada — where Crowe had become national team coach after getting the boot in the U.S. — of his suspension on the eve of the recent Winter Olympics, and decided not to play dumb about it. That is real progress. (To be clear, the Crowe case does not involve sexual abuse of Rodansky, but compelling evidence that he promoted over her athletes he was sleeping with.)
During the three weeks before USA Swimming got the MacFarland-Ehekircher file into the hands of SafeSport, I was pestering the center for a clear explanation of the scope of what I’ve come to call, with well-advised quotation marks for a quasi-judicial entity, its “subpoena power” over the USOC bodies. I wanted to know if the center was demanding records, on pain of meaningful sanction, or merely requesting them. And was there a provision for what prosecutors call “preservation of records” prior to their turnover?
The response from center spokesperson Kira Wilson was straight as an arrow:
“NGB staff are within the Center’s jurisdiction and are obligated to report to the Center. This obligation includes providing all information about which they become aware, including
The directive to “preserve records” is embodied in two provisions – the first one, above, and the second one being misconduct related to the office’s proceedings, which includes abuse of process. Abuse of process includes direct or indirect abuse of or interference with our proceedings by destroying or concealing information prior to or during an investigation. (Pracs & Procs, Part IV)”
So once again: Two and a half strangled cheers for the first impression by the U.S. Center for SafeSport. Now we’ll see if they can keep it up.
There is another creative way the center can contribute to the variation it has become of a truth and reconciliation commission. I’ll have more to say about that shortly.