JOYCE: Why the USA Swimming Scandal Is Worse Than Penn State

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March 3, 2013
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March 3, 2013

by Tim Joyce

“This White House guy, a good one, a pro, came up and asked what is this Watergate compulsion with you guys and I said, well, we think it’s important and he said, if it’s so goddamn important, who the hell are Woodward and Bernstein?” — National editor of the Washington Post, in the movie All the President’s Men

The questions and comments are slung at me frequently. Here are a few of them: “Why is this USA Swimming thing so important?” “Didn’t this happen years ago?” Or, the one that really strikes me, “It’s not like it’s nearly as bad as Penn State, right?”

I’ll jump right to the last one — yes, it’s as bad as Penn State. In fact, it’s worse.

As I’ve repeated in numerous articles over the last year, Penn State was an “easy” story to cover: an unquestioned villain in Jerry Sandusky, a fall from grace from Paterno straight of central casting, and the fact that it was all contained in one tiny town. The most surprising aspect about the Penn State scandal was that it was hidden for so long. And after it was uncovered, there wasn’t much tough reporting to be done.

Obviously, Penn State was truly horrid, disgusting and rage-inducing, especially because the youngest of innocents were involved. And, perhaps, it woke people up to the crucially important issues of institutional arrogance and the shame of overvaluing sports in our society.

But the USA Swimming scandal is so much more far-reaching and complex that it doesn’t fit into the easy-to-follow-and-digest narrative that unfortunately governs the media universe.

Consider the scope of the USA Swimming scandal. Dozens of coaches. Dozens of young victims. Nationwide, indeed worldwide, in scope. Cover-ups at local, regional, and national levels of the sport’s power structure within the sport. And maybe most egregious, the willingness of the media to not just ignore the story but be complicit in its suppression (see “NBAC” a few paragraphs down for more on this).

Penn State was a brutal, visceral short story. The USA Swimming scandal is a novel.

But even comparing scandals is pointless. A scandal is a scandal. Whether one child is abused or 50 it shouldn’t matter. What is most dangerous about bringing relativity into the question is not ascribing a serious inquiry into a series of events because it doesn’t somehow “measure up” to the last major scandal. That is a frightening precedent.

Media and other watchdogs must practice eternal vigilance to make sure that all such stories are brought to light. Otherwise, the notion of “abuse fatigue” sets in, when major scandals get briefly talked about before being tossed aside as “just another story.”

The story Concussion Inc. broke late Wednesday evening, of the alleged abuse by University of Utah coach Greg Winslow, is again a reminder of how little — or nothing — has changed both at USA Swimming and throughout the amateur swim world in this country.

Here are the same old themes: a coach about whom many had concerns for years, authorities in higher positions ignoring complaints by parents, grooming of young victim(s), and, most tellingly, a direct connection to USA Swimming headquarters in Colorado Springs.

The lifeline leading to USA Swimming comes from Winslow’s history as assistant coach at Arizona State University, working under head coach Mike Chasson. And Chasson’s wife, Jill Johnson Chasson, heads up the National Board of Review for USA Swimming.

There aren’t six degrees of separation with this crowd — there’s nary a degree of separation at all.

In the more recent examinations of USA Swimming corruption that this site has reported on, the connections to USA Swimming hierarchy are blatant — whether it’s the story of Mark Schubert, former national coach of the Olympic team, overlooking inappropriate behavior at the Golden West Club, or the abuses at Michael Phelps’ North Baltimore Aquatics Club (NBAC).

Speaking of the alleged abuse by Murray Stephens that occurred at NBAC, an allegation that forced his departure from the pool deck there in 2011, it’s instructional to remember the comments from USA Swimming after I broke that story. Their first public comment, issued in a self-protecting Q&A was, “Because USA Swimming (and therefore its Code of Conduct) was not in existence in 1975, the organization legally had no recourse in the matter.” This was a cold statement and also ridiculous, as the swimmer making the accusations had swum under Stephens for many years after USA Swimming became an organization.

But NBAC has managed to elude much scrutiny. The local Baltimore media, amazingly, have yet to even query Phelps on what he thinks of the charges against the man who coached his sisters. It’s not hard to figure out why when the Baltimore Sun has an entire section of the paper devoted to Phelps.

Now let’s examine ASU’s response to my queries, a response that took nearly two days to receive, regarding the alleged abuse at the university: “Winslow is accused of allegedly kissing and fondling a female swimmer while employed as head coach for a swimming club that was not, and is not, affiliated with ASU … [T]he victim in the case was a teenager at the time and was not, and has never been, a student at the university.”

Upon first reading this carefully crafted statement from Terri Shafer, associate vice president for public affairs at ASU, I was in disbelief. Here is a university responding to a case of possible sexual abuse and couching their response in such benign language as “kissing and fondling” and repeating over and over that the victim wasn’t a student, that the coach was working for the swim club while these incidents occurred. Never mind that the coach, Winslow, was employed at the time by ASU as assistant coach for the university swim team.

This wasn’t just an insultingly tone-deaf statement; it was a calculated utterance meant to dismiss the incident and allow the university to jump out in front of the story. Instead of just releasing a generic press release of “we are looking into this matter and cooperating with authorities and want to make sure that such incidents are never tolerated, and we are most concerned that this occurred on university property etc., etc.,” ASU chose the route of USA Swimming and Penn State. That is, one of defensiveness and self-preservation.

Aren’t we living in a post-Sandusky world where we know that abusers use facilities at their work place for other purposes?

Most importantly, anyone with any knowledge of abuse knows that the abuse occurs once a sacred trust is breached. To mention the level of physical interaction that allegedly occurred to the victim is clearly meant to minimize the emotional and mental damage done to her.

And the fact that the ASU statement, just as USA Swimming’s comments on the seemingly infinite instances of abuse that it must defend, comes from a woman makes it that much more acutely shameful.

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick