by Irvin Muchnick
The cascading tales of Greg Winslow’s abusive ways, sexual and otherwise, and of the University of Utah’s inaction in the face of them, are deeply embarrassing for the swimming world.
Embarrassment, however, has nothing to do with why there is fear and trembling these days at the Colorado Springs headquarters of USA Swimming. History shows that the apparatchiks there have endured and survived many coach misconduct scandals, some as bad or worse. For the swimming arm of the American Olympics program, “bad press” is defined by other types of inconveniences — e.g., Michael Phelps getting caught on a cell phone camera inhaling from a bong at a party. Pedophile coaches are a dime a dozen.
No, what most terrifies USA Swimming is loss of revenue. In that connection, the most potentially damaging fact in the criminal charges against Winslow is that his molestations of an underage swimmer took place on a university campus, at the Sun Devil Aquatics program at Arizona State University.
The Mona Plummer Center at ASU is one of hundreds of public and private college and university pools that are also landlords of sanctioned youth swimming clubs. In some cases, such as ASU’s, the collegiate coaching staff moonlights running the club program; in others, the operations are completely separate and the club merely pays rental fees to the institution.
The Winslow scandals serve as a bracing reminder that nothing about these relationships is etched in stone. The team on which my own daughter swam a few years ago, Bear Swimming, had its historical roots as Golden Bear Swimming out of the University of California in Berkeley. When my family became part of it, the team was known as the Berkeley Bears and practiced in municipal pools. During our time with it, the club evolved yet again — bolting Berkeley for the facilities at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, which include a long-course pool, and “rebranding” as simply Bear Swimming.
(In turn, that incarnation of the program imploded with the sex crimes and financial embezzlements — the two often go together, of course — of a low-life named Jesse Stovall, who earned his rightful place on the ever-burgeoning list of coaches banned for life by USA Swimming.)
One of the big reasons college athletic departments field swimming teams is that both women and men compete in the sport; this earns the institutions federal Title IX compliance brownie points. But since these programs are not profit centers, athletic directors tend not to give them much oversight. A college swim coach, especially at a place like Utah, is expected to run the show and stay out of trouble. If a championship squad or an individual Olympic star stumbles across his path, that’s a bonus.
What university presidents and trustees don’t need, in any form, is liability threats posed by pedophiles in club programs. Yet that is exactly what ASU got from Greg Winslow. As the whole scenario gets national attention — the Winslow prosecution in Arizona, the dance of denial by ASU and Utah in communicating with each other, and the meltdown of the Utah athletic department — other institutions are assessing their balance sheets and insurance policies, and wondering whether the marriages between their intercollegiate programs and club programs are worth the trouble. They have long known, or are learning now, how many of these clubs are out-of-control coach-harem cults run by Winslowesque monsters.
That is what hits USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus and his bloated and corrupt Colorado staff where it could hurt.
If Winslow is just another rapist coach, he’s good for a yawn and a bus throw-under. If Winslow and his lawyers are extra clever, he’ll even resume with consulting gigs in the swimming industry once this episode blows over, a la ID’d molesters Mitch Ivey and Paul Bergen.
But if colleges and universities withdraw their locker rooms, their private coaches’ offices, and their delicately salinated water tanks, the ripples will be felt all the way to the bank.