by Tim Joyce
“Our assessment of USA Swimming … we have high regard for the work that their board and staff are doing, including their efforts to protect young swimmers from sexual abuse.” — Scott Blackmun, Executive Director, United States Olympic Committee
The above quote is utterly incredulous. For anyone who has read our accounting of USA Swimming’s track record in rooting out abusive coaches, it is obvious that the Olympic program’s governing body for this sport has failed to stay ahead of the seemingly endless unfolding of this story — from Andy King to Rick Curl, from Norm Havercroft to Murray Stephens, all the way to the most recently revealed cases in Arizona and Utah involving Greg Winslow.
Blackmun seems to at least acknowledge, albeit in a rather roundabout and cold manner, that sexual abuse is indeed a problem. During a discussion with reporters recently on the emerging sexual abuse crisis within USA Speed Skating, another one of the USOC’s national governing bodies (NGB’s), Blackmun said, “On the sexual abuse thing, that’s an issue not just in speed skating but in sport, and not just in sport but in society in general. It’s something that we as adults all need to focus on.”
Blackmun made this statement as an apparent afterthought after discussing the lack of faith that many speed skaters have in the national program.
And it appears that the USOC is at least paying lip service to the accusations against former USA Speed Skating and Olympic coach Andy Gabel. USA Speed Skating has hired the Chicago law firm of Sidley Austin to investigate the growing sexual abuse crisis within that body.
But all this begs the obvious question: Why hasn’t the USOC or USA Swimming allowed an outside investigation of the decades-long abuse history of abuse within the ranks of swim coaches? The trail in swimming is much far longer and deeper than in speed skating.
In addition, the head of the USOC presents USA Swimming “Safe Sport” program as the gold standard when it comes to protecting young athletes from unwarranted advances from older coaches. This is both baseless and audacious.
I don’t know of a single high-profile instance in which USA Swimming acted on allegations of coach abuse prior to inquiries by the media or other outside groups. The Rick Curl case is the classic example. As David Berkoff, now a USA Swimming vice president, noted in 2010, Curl’s statutory rapes of his young teen swimmer Kelley Davies in the 1980s were an open secret for decades. After ABC’s 20/20 report on the general issue in 2010, it took USA Swimming’s investigator more than a year to locate Curl’s victim — something a Washington Post reporter accomplished within days. As late as the 2012 Olympic Trials, Curl was still credentialed and on the coaching deck. Kelley Davies Currin then went public with her story, and USA Swimming, kicking and screaming, began the series of administrative steps that led to Curl’s ban from the sport, plus the referral to criminal investigators that led his recent guilty plea in Maryland.
I emailed both Blackmun and Rana Dershowitz, the chief legal counsel for the USOC, asking for specific examples of USA Swimming’s stellar leadership in tackling the sexual abuse scandal. There was no response.
USA Swimming, USA Speed Skating, and many of the other NGB’s also have inherent conflicts of interest in being represented by the law firm Bryan Cave, formerly HRO. Blackmun was a former Bryan Cave partner of Rich Young, USA Swimming’s counsel.
I asked Robert Allard, the attorney who has represented several women in lawsuits against USA Swimming coaches his thoughts, on Blackmun’s lack of involvement as it pertains to USA Swimming. Allard said: “Mr. Blackmun’s praise of USA Swimming in the face of a virtual calamity confirms my belief that true change will not occur unless this entire leadership structure is removed. This is like steadfastly praising the structural integrity of the Titanic as it is sinking. Simply stated, it appears that the leaders of USA Swimming and now the USOC share a grossly distorted view of reality.”
In going public about emerging sex abuse allegations in speed skating, whose participation levels are much lower than swimming’s, USOC appears to be trying to deflect or minimize the swimming mess. Blackmun frames public perception of a past and proactively managed problem. He must hope no one gives sustained attention to the trio of scandals at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, the home of Michael Phelps: the quiet resignation, amidst abuse allegations, of NBAC founder Stephens (who continues to collect pool rental fees from the club); the current criminal and USA Swimming investigations of the sexual assault in early 2012 on a teen swimmer by two teammates; and last fall’s drowning death, without a lifeguard present, of 14-year-old swimmer Louis Lowenthal.
USOC also may be banking on the fact that since the USA Swimming sex abuse scandal has been around for so many years that people will grow weary of hearing about it. Blackmun and his friends at USA Swimming might be saying to themselves, “How much worse can it get? The 20/20 piece didn’t knock us out. So we’re gonna be fine.”
Blackmun and the entrenched crew at USA Swimming should know that overcoming denial is the first step toward getting healthy.