by Tim Joyce
Reading between the lines of USA Swimming’s internal memo that was first reported by Concussion Inc., it is evident that USA Swimming is pursuing an aggressive PR campaign strategy meant to stem the tide of negative press related to the decades-long sex abuse scandal that has sullied the reputation of the Olympic governing body.
What is glaringly absent in this memo (which was meant to be read only by the USA Swimming Board of Directors and USA Swimming staff) is any accountability for what has transpired, and indeed continues to transpire, in the area of sexual abuse by coaches. Unbelievably, the memo at times takes on a “nobody understands how hard it is for us” tone that smacks of denial. The boldness and arrogance of such utterances are striking.
Ironically, as if on cue, the uncovering of this memo aligns with what I had written last week relating to the United States Olympic Committee’s timing on creation of a working group to discuss expanding “safe sport” initiatives throughout the Olympic governing bodies. USOC and USA Swimming are orchestrating a rollout of positive spin in the wake of decades of abuse at USA Swimming, one of the crown jewels of the USOC governing bodies.
This is all being done in anticipation of a meeting later this month between USA Swimming officials and the staff of Congressman George Miller of California, ranking minority member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, who turned up the heat by asking the Government Accountability Office to include swimming and other amateur sports programs in an investigation of mandatory reporting requirements in statutes on sexual abuse.
The memo cites six elements of this PR “action plan,” with all of these components hewing to a theme of changing USA Swimming’s image. Here are some passages. The full memo is viewable in facsimile form at http://muchnick.net/usaswimmingmemo.pdf, and in text form on this blog at https://concussioninc.net/?p=7961.
“Commission Independent Review of Our Safe Sport Program.” USA Swimming acknowledges that there is “always room for improvement” in their much-touted Safe Sport program, and the organization wants to gain “greater public trust with their membership, the media, and the general public.” In isolation, such an initiative would be valuable, but only time will tell if anything worthy emerges. Yet, again, it is tough to see how credible such an independent review can be unless it tackles the problems that continued to emerge even after the very recent creation of Safe Sport: Ad’m Dusenbury, legendary coach Mark Schubert’s cover-ups of Rick Curl and Richard Jewell, the Arizona and Utah cases involving Greg Winslow, and the recently arisen Murray Stephens and newly re-arisen Mitch Ivey. All of these have been extensively documented by Concussion Inc.
“Show Our Face.” USA Swimming acknowledges that their strategy over the last three years – basically since the 20/20 fiasco – “has been to decline the majority of interviews related to sexual misconduct cases and issue written statements instead.” To make themselves more available to select media outlets, executive director Chuck Wielgus and safe sport director Susan Woessner will be undergoing an “intense media training program” that will leave them better prepared to deal with friendly media (present company clearly excepted). USA Swimming will also expand its presence on Twitter and other social media. Since Wielgus infamously came across as insulated, clueless, and altogether unsympathetic on 20/20, one can understand why media sensitivity training is needed. But if USA Swimming handpicks just a few media who will tread gently, one has to question the merits of such a public coming-out party. Then again, Wielgus and company could pull this off, since the mainstream press so far has shown little stomach for following through on the sex abuse scandal.
“Engage in the Public Conversation.” This initiative is closely related to the previous paragraph. USA Swimming wants to rebrand Safe Sport, emerging with the new corporatese “Educate, Prevent & Protect.” A part of this public conversation would include the need to “help people understand the huge gap between rumors/gossip and facts/first-hand information.” The memo goes to say that “we need to address in public conversation is how USA Swimming is handling old cases. At times we have been held to a higher standard than law enforcement …” But a youth activity should have a higher standard than law enforcement: there’s a difference between belonging behind bars and not belonging in a supervisory capacity with kids who are exposed in unique ways. For USA Swimming to plead that they have it so hard reveals the same absolutist, never-say-sorry doubling down approach that the organization has relied on for years.
(One of the examples clearly covered by USA Swimming’s reference to “old cases” is Murray Stephen, some of whose abuses occurred before the formation of USA Swimming. In a future column, I’ll have more to say about this, including a new statement from his victim in the wake of this memo’s release.)
Additionally, USA Swimming vows to “eliminate the ‘fox is guarding the henhouse’ argument that has been expressed by some,” by creating an independent, third-party group to oversee youth sports and to serve to protect children in such environments. Though the memo argues that such an agency not be “formed or funded by the USOC,” the recent announcement of USOC’s formation of a working group on this question injects an element of ambiguity. Will USA Swimming answer a question from their select media audience about how they feel about this?
“Close Legislative Loopholes.” USA Swimming states that “we have made tremendous strides with its Code of Conduct, but there are still loopholes that need to be closed.” It goes on to claim that the organization is hamstrung in its efforts to remove members who committed sexual misconduct before he/she joined USA Swimming. Any efforts to tighten up the Code of Conduct would surely be a welcome development. However, USA Swimming has been selective when employing its own rules.
“Expedite the National Board of Review Process.” There is consensus that this would be a good thing. But USA Swimming is already acknowledging in this same memo that its own NBOR is ill-equipped for internal review and that an independent agency is needed.
“Provide Additional Public & Media Relations Resources to Clubs and LSC’s When Local Issues Arise.” The memo states: “We recognize that often times when an issue of sexual misconduct arises, there is a flare-up of local media attention. While we have been able to work with some clubs on their communications strategy, we want to make sure all USA Swimming clubs and LSCs [local swimming committees] are aware of the resources we can provide them when a sensitive situation arises. Going forward, we will provide clubs and LSCs with direct public relations and crisis communication resources from our partner, Ground Floor Media …” It then goes on to speak of the financial commitment that such a plan would take, costing up to $200,000.
This last provision puts in sharp relief the calculated effort by USA Swimming to stifle any discussion of sexual abuse issues. It’s clear from the language above that USA Swimming will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to assist clubs and LSC’s with damage control when abuse issues arise – but no money set aside for assistance to victims, be it counseling or other help. (In one reading, the bulk of the spending would be going toward the independent review of the program. But since, as the memo says, it’s “still early in the quad,” it is fair to project that expenditures in the out years for PR will total millions of dollars.)
To summarize this entire memo: A USOC governing body, created via an Act of Congress, is planning to orchestrate a PR campaign meant to change the image of the organization, after years of sexual abuse scandals, without directly addressing their culpability in covering up instances of sexual abuse.
Once again, the notion of accountability is utterly foreign to those in charge at USA Swimming.