The busting of rapist coach Rick Curl can be seen as a case of “justice delayed, justice denied,” and the haste with which the swimming world is trying to push right past it is not a good sign. Still, Curl is off the pool deck, the way Capone was off the streets for tax evasion, and that’s a start.
Now the task turns to bringing the resources of the federal government to bear on draining the swamp at USA Swimming. Criminal investigations must hold accountable not only Curl and others like him, but also the individuals in authority who covered up their crimes for years, for decades, just like the officials at Penn State. And Congressional investigations must fix the Amateur Sports Act of 1978.
Widespread sex abuse of kids in open amateur sport is not a new story. It happened under the auspices of the Amateur Athletic Union prior to the overhaul of the national Olympic sports system we have today. Every generation, it seems, the machinery behind the exploitation and abuse of young people must be turned over, like a bad engine. Fixing the root problem, for good, depends on the better judgment of America’s parents and sports addicts, and entities like NBC aren’t going to help with that.
I’ve been wondering where David Berkoff, the technical vice president of USA Swimming, fits into all this. What I’ve concluded it that he doesn’t — that’s the point.
As we’ve seen at Penn State, cover-up, denial, and loss of institutional control are not just executive phenomena. When fiduciary and moral duty are defaulted, boards of directors are complicit.
Berkoff, gold medalist and inventor of the “Berkoff blastoff” backstroke start, has twice served on the USA Swimming board. Give the guy a mulligan for the first stint: he was an athlete rep in his early twenties, with only a vague sense that something was seriously wrong, and without experience and sophistication in holding the levers of power.
Not so since he rejoined the board in September 2010. Berkoff got elected then for one reason and one reason alone — ABC’s 20/20 had given USA Swimming a black eye and it was time for concerted action. Yet instead of acting, Berkoff proceeded to subsume himself in the corporate-speak of Colorado Springs. He even became a defender of Chuck Wielgus, the executive director who pulls down megabucks while, for nearly a decade and a half, allowing the molesting of girl swimmers by their coaches to fester and grow, and lying about it in sworn statements to courts.
With his rants about flat-out lies and perjury, Berkoff had brought an element of histrionics to the table. The crimes of USA Swimming were and are those things, and a lot more. But in retrospect, maybe the shrillness of his ascension two years ago was a clue to his ultimate utter ineffectiveness. Like so many in the Olympic world, Berkoff is not, after all, a player. He is a system-gamer.
Let me be real clear about what I think Berkoff has accomplished: nothing. The published banned coaches list and associated public education palaver were in motion well before he arrived — the latest exercises in USA Swimming’s claim-jumping on piety and virtue. Meanwhile, the most meaningful rule change recommendation — outlawing coach-swimmer sexual or romantic relationships — got voted down last Saturday by the delegates at the annual convention.
Big Swimming is an Augean stable, with a lot of shit to clean out. We don’t need David Berkoff’s brand of shovel. Berkoff, just go away.