by Irvin Muchnick
As noted earlier today, the flagship of the Gannett newspaper chain today has a hot-air balloon from the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Scott Blackmun on the possibility of a new outside agency to handle cases of sexual abuse of athletes by coaches.
But as usual, some key elements are missing in the story by USA Today’s Kelly Whiteside. As a huge backlog of cases limps toward biased adjudication, one such element is the extent to which Blackmun is tacitly admitting, as others have long been saying, that national governing bodies are hopelessly conflicted out in these situations. They are, as Safe4Athletes’ Katherine Starr puts it, “foxes guarding the chicken coop.”
More than the rhetoric is off in the USA Today account. The article cites recent horror stories in speed skating. Swimming gets a passing mention, and there the problem is epidemic and generation-long — Catholic Church proportions. It would be nice if a media outlet with some juice would grill USA Swimming for using membership dues, just as the church is using parishoners’ funds, to bankroll a big-gun lobbying effort to scuttle abuse-law reform efforts in California.
Three years ago, Whiteside’s former colleague Vicki Michaelis wrote the story “Abuse allegations against USA coaches again rock the swim world,” August 13, 2013, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/sports/olympics/2010-08-11-allegations-rock-swim-world_N.htm. For a while, as it was touting its bogus “safe sport” reforms, USA Swimming even linked the piece at its own website. But corporate journalism, which is best equipped to imbue the public with institutional memory, is also the least willing to follow through on that job. Real reform will follow the fleshing out of real-life stories. What the USOC and Blackmun promise is a tinkering of the machinery that puts the brand first and damaged people last.
Another example of disappointing mainstream coverage: Karen Crouse of The New York Times, who last month went into the tank for a gushy profile of Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps’ coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, even though Crouse knows better. See “Coach Puts Swimming Back on Front Burner,” June 26, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/26/sports/bob-bowman-coach-and-cook-puts-swimming-back-on-the-front-burner.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&.
Few prominent journalists grasp the treacheries of the swimming world as well as Crouse, who competed in the sport at USC and, to her credit, alerted readers to the importance of ABC’s 20/20 investigation in 2010 of coach sex abuse, and of Rick Curl victim Kelley Davies Currin’s recent call for Congressional intervention. So it is with a splash of sadness, as well as caustic media criticism, that I observe that Crouse’s Bowman piece was both ill-conceived and ill-timed, given the range of swimmer emotional and physical safety issues that Tim Joyce and I have been spotlighting.
Sooner or later, effectively or weakly, Congress is coming after swimming. A USADA-style sex abuse agency for amateur sports will get off on the wrong, PR-oriented foot if it is not accompanied by accountability for the executive and board leadership that enabled the current mess. The problem is that it’s hard to stiffen the spine of our elected leaders when our major media have so little themselves.