by Irvin Muchnick
A four-page internal USA Swimming memo, co-authored by board president Bruce Stratton and executive director Chuck Wielgus, reveals a secret six-figure initiative to promulgate “a significant shift” in the organization’s public relations strategy, with “the ultimate goal of improving the overall perceptions of USA Swimming’s Safe Sport Program efforts.”
Concussion Inc. has obtained a copy of the July 2 Stratton-Wielgus memo. It is viewable at http://muchnick.net/usaswimmingmemo.pdf. The addressees include Rich Young and Lucinda McRoberts of the Bryan Cave law firm, USA Swimming’s outside counsel, and Buddy Pylitt, the newly named chair of the National Board of Review, which hears sexual misconduct charges. The document outlines an “updated Safe Sport action plan,” which was ratified by the board’s executive committee at its June 30 meeting in Indianapolis and is based in part on “collaborating with the public relations/communications firm that is supporting us..”
The financial impact of the plan, estimated at between $100,000 and $200,000, includes “costs for media training and other PR and communications aspects.” The memo’s authors explain that USA Swimming hopes to cover the added expenses “from the Executive and Business Development budgets.”
Though some aspects of the plan, such as expediting the National Board of Review hearing process and closing loopholes in USA Swimming’s disciplinary rules, deal with some of the substance of the criticism of the organization’s elaborate management of coach sex abuse allegations, the heavy emphasis on public relations as a motivating principle is not likely to be well received by those on Capitol Hill who are scrutinizing USA Swimming. Later this month, officials from the organization, including Wielgus and safe sport director Susan Woessner, are expected to meet with Congressman George Miller, the California Democrat who is ranking minority member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
This follows Miller’s June announcement that he has asked the Government Accountability Office to add athletic programs, including USA Swimming, to a standing request for an audit of the status of mandatory reporting requirements in statutes governing sexual abuse.
The Stratton-Wielgus memo makes the first bullet point of their updated plan an “independent review of our safe sport program.” That dovetails with this week’s announcement by the parent U.S. Olympic Committee of a “SafeSport Working Group.” But it also underscores critics’ arguments that USA Swimming’s business interests have always created a conflict of interest in its internal review process, and that professions of any future “independent” review by an agency other than Congress (whose 1978 legislation enabled the creation of the current format of national sports governing bodies) will be met with skepticism.
The other bullet points reinforce how heavily weighted the new plan is toward preservation of the organization’s deteriorating image:
* “SHOW OUR FACE”
* “ENGAGE IN THE PUBLIC CONVERSATION”
* “PROVIDE ADDITIONAL PUBLIC & MEDIA RELATIONS RESOURCES TO CLUBS AND [LOCAL SWIMMING COMMITTEES” WHEN LOCAL ISSUES ARISE”
The memo does not specifically address USA Swimming’s new lobbying efforts, via the powerful Nielsen Merkshamer law firm, to join the Catholic Conference as the only institutions known to be actively working to thwart pending California state legislation that would soften statute of limitations requirements for civil lawsuits by victims of sexual abuse.
In another interesting passage, Stratton and Wielgus write that “we will continue our current media relations strategy of working with legitimate media sources and not engaging with personal bloggers.”