Safe4Athletes’ Katherine Starr’s ‘Lowlights’ From the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation Child Abuse Summit

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It’s wise to approach cautiously the cottage industry in eradicating or ameliorating child sex abuse, just as we should view with a critical eye victimology in general — or any other topic, for that matter.

That said, I’ve been impressed by Safe4Athletes, the fledgling organization founded by Katherine Starr, a former Olympic swimmer once known as Annabelle Cripps. A couple of observations stand out.

First, though USA Swimming likes to do the corporately responsible thing and present abuse victims at its “safe sport” dog-and-pony shows, none of them, to my knowledge, has been a victim of abuse in swimming. Starr is. As she has told us, she is one of at least four teammates on the University of Texas swim team in the late 1980s who had been molested by their youth club coaches. Another, of course, was Kelley Davies — whose coach, Rick Curl, now awaits sentencing on a guilty plea, three decades after the fact.

I also notice how the USA Swimming leadership, including safe sport director Susan Woessner, seems to have attempted to marginalize Starr. That tells you something.

Starr attended this week’s mega-conference in Baltimore on the child abuse issue in sports, sponsored by the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation. She reflects on the conference at “Is it Safer to Compete in Sports?”, Here’s the passage that grabbed me:

The low lights of the conference were the lack of knowledge about and sensitivity to sexual abuse in competitive sports. There seems to have been a misconception about the number of unprotected athletes that we are talking about– there are 60 million young athletes in open amateur sport community-based multisport   organizations.  

What wasn’t touched on or insufficiently addressed is the multiple levels of abuse that an athlete experiences, many of which are often justified in the guise of “sport” – abuse like physical punishment and verbal and emotional abuse.  The problem became bigger as we realized that we don’t understand why these commonly acceptable sport behaviors constitute abuse.  With the growing number of women now in sports,   this demographic is even more susceptible to all aspects of abuse especially sexual abuse and harassment.  A study that came out of Japanese Olympic Committee found that 12% of Judo athlete complained about some sort of abuse or sexual harassment according to the BBC Sports. This number doesn’t account for those don’t feel safe to speak up or ones that don’t know what abuse is.

Personally, I have little use for these kinds of shmoozefests. While para-professionals were on a largely self-congratulatory junket, comparing scholarly notes and eating catered meals, Murray Stephens, the disgraced founder of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, was probably on the pool deck for the Eagle Swim Team at the McDonogh School in nearby Owings Mills. In previewing the Ripken Foundation summit, the Baltimore Sun had made an oblique reference to abuse allegations against Stephens, without naming him.

Meanwhile, the region’s news media have yet to produce the first story about the brat pack of privileged, out-of-control adolescents from McDonogh who have swum for Stephens’ NBAC, which Michael Phelps made famous. Two of the McDonogh kids were expelled after getting caught in the thefts of campus computers; they were also among the sport’s finest who mercilessly bullied and harassed an NBAC teammate.

In my view, we don’t need armies of social workers to hold the hands of victims through years of “justice delayed, justice denied.” We need one or two no-nonsense Irish cops who will put some high-profile pervert coaches behind bars — along with the obscenely paid executives who have covered up for them. And we need the United States Congress to hold hearings on sex abuse in swimming, as a prelude to updating the Amateur Sports Act of 1978.
Irv Muchnick

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick