by Tim Joyce
One has been in his current job as athletic director for 26 years and might have felt he was immune to crisis. The other had just started his job as university president in October and pledged to usher in a new era of integrity and growth – and the president made sure to name the athletic director as his right-hand man.
Now both are under the microscope, as it is increasingly apparent that both failed their university in the matter of monstrous swim coach Greg Winslow.
In a scenario playing out in all too familiar fashion, the University of Utah faces an escalating scandal that focuses on the inadequate response of athletic director Chris Hill and university president David Pershing.
Our reporting and others’ make it evident that Hill and Pershing were well aware of the gravity of complaints against Winslow. Yet the university opted to conduct a half-hearted inquiry last fall resulting in nary a slap on the wrist for Winslow or others in the athletic department.
In conversations and email exchanges over the last two weeks with 15 former and current swimmers, as well as parents and other involved parties, what is revealed is a conscious effort to cover up Winslow’s frequent and downright sadistic practices: extreme underwater drills that caused athletes’ blackouts and, in one case, a hypoxic seizure; drunken phone calls to swimmers in the middle of the night; a Winslow punch that blackened the eye of assistant Charlie King; and at least one racially charged incident.
Remember that this all started with criminal allegations of sexual abuse against Winslow while he was a USA Swimming club coach and an assistant at Arizona State University — by someone who was then an underage teen and went on to swim under Winslow for a year at Utah.
In several correspondences with the Utah administration from a former swimmer and her parent, there were references to not only the abusive nature of Winslow’s training techniques, but also his “inappropriate behavior” toward women. The implication that Winslow crossed the line in multiple areas is clear. (This family has expressed their desire to remain anonymous.)
If coaching techniques were filed under “he’s just a tough coach so deal with it you sensitive athletes,” then surely any intimation of sexual misconduct would have sent officials scurrying. But apparently not at Utah. Even after the institution cut ties with Winslow’s diving coach, with whom he had a well-known, unprofessional, and unethical extramarital affair early in his six-year tenure in Salt Lake City.
What is utterly baffling and most depressing about this saga at Utah is that we exist in the post-Penn State environment. The same can be said of ASU, where this scandal started, and where the official word from ASU was to minimize the seriousness of the allegations.
One hears the term “tone-deaf” applied to such situations. But that’s an insultingly benign phrase to ascribe to the institutional arrogance that is again on full display by universities.
The same protocol that was followed in central Pennsylvania is now being replicated in Salt Lake City: cover-up and avoidance rather than shedding light. It’s the ultimate affront to the supposedly higher aims that universities exist for. And it shows, again, that universities are often just large corporations masquerading as centers of enlightenment.
But why did Utah even engage in a cover-up? Penn State was dealing with a legend in Joe Paterno. Winslow was a swimming coach who was despised by the majority of his athletes.
Winslow’s pattern of abuse is also yet another reminder of the widening USA Swimming coaching scandal that has engulfed the sport for some time. The same old defensive reflex was there, and Chris Hill decided it was most prudent not to discipline Winslow.
David Pershing, who has been at Utah since 1977 in a variety of teaching and administration positions, assumed the presidency of the university on October 25, 2012. The word “integrity” was used several times during his early statements on what his role as a university president would entail.
Perhaps Hill really thought he was above it all. Head of the athletic department since 1997, Hill was also a celebrated man in Salt Lake City, having been awarded the Utah YMCA Man of the Year award in 2011. Nor was he afraid of a little controversy, such as as when he decided to have Utah not play traditional rival Brigham Young University in football in 2014 and 2015 — which drew the ire of many Utahans.
But when it came to student-athletes getting abused, harassed, and placed in potentially life-threatening situations, Hill did nothing. It wasn’t benign neglect. It was an aggressive cover-up likely meant to shield the school from negative attention. It was an abdication of his first and foremost responsibility as an administrator and educator – to care for the students paying his salary.
The University of Utah will likely pay for this, big time, as all legal options are being pursued by many of Winslow’s victims.