by Irvin Muchnick
The story of the national disgrace of widespread coach sexual abuse and cover-up in our Olympic swimming program — first broken by ABC’s 20/20 in 2010, then locked back inside a closet of phony reforms by the same corrupt leadership — has rebroken. Tomorrow the staff of Congressman George Miller, the California Democrat who is ranking minority member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, will grill USA Swimming and U.S. Olympic Committee officials in what should be a prelude to public hearings.
That will depend largely on what Miller chooses to do next. It is appropriate for him to give swimming officials the courtesy of making their case that the new-and-improved safe sport program is a set of hard-hitting reforms, rather than just a nice name. But afterward it will be incumbent on Miller to report to the public what his staff learned, set against what they already know, and what further steps he contemplates.
As with the Catholic Church, the BBC, Penn State, and the Horace Mann School in New York, there is only one direction this story is headed; the only real question is how much longer it will take to get there. USA Swimming, a national sport governing body enabled by the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, inadvertently speeded up the process with a decision by its Executive Committee, at a board meeting in Indianapolis in late June, to launch a new public relations offensive. This followed Congressman Miller’s announcement that he had asked the Government Accountability Office to expand to athletic programs in general, and USA Swimming i particular, an audit of the laws governing mandatory reporting of sexual abuse.
A July 2 memo, co-authored by Wielgus and board chairman Bruce Stratton, outlined “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.” However, this initiative by the swimming moguls backfired when the internal memo was leaked to Concussion Inc. One thing a bold new PR plan should never do is let its PR slip show. To a public mostly unfocused on the content of the scores of allegations of coach molestation of their athletes, the idea that USA Swimming was treating the issue almost entirely as an image problem might have been more compelling than the root crimes and cover-ups themselves. The leadership talked up spending an initial $200,000 on such items as media training for Wielgus and safe sport director Susan Woessner, as well as crisis communications consulting for local clubs whenever there is a “flare-up of media attention” over an abuse allegation.
By the time USA Swimming played the “independent review” card last week, with the commissioning of a report by Victor Vieth of the National Child Protection Training Center, the Associated Press account was noting its coincidence with the Congressional probe and quoting the skepticism of leading swimming abuse advocate Bob Allard, a San Jose attorney.
The South Bay is also where an FBI office subpoenaed thousands of pages of discovery in one of Allard’s clients’ civil lawsuits against USA Swimming. The organization was multiplied sanctioned by California courts for defying orders to produce documents before finally being forced to release them last year by the state Supreme Court.
California is a headquarters of the swimming abuse story in at least one further way: USA Swimming, in concert with the Catholic Conference, is lobbying against a proposed new state law to relax statutes of limitations in abuse cases. The lobby effort is being directed by the powerful and Republican-connected Nielsen Merskhamer law firm — just as USA Swimming’s outside counsel is the powerful and Republican-connected Bryan Cave law firm.
There is so much more here that the 350,000 swimmers so far know nothing about. Neither does the average swimming fan — an NBC prime-time viewer for a feelgood fortnight every leap year summer.
* The cell of abuse and unsafety at the country’s most famous youth swimming program, the Michael Phelps-Bob Bowman-Murray Stephens North Baltimore Aquatic Club
* The dark truths behind the half-million-dollar buyout of former national team coach Mark Schubert (one of many who covered up for more than 20 years the statutory rapes of Kelley Davies Currin by her now-imprisoned coach, Rick Curl) — all of which, and more, are revealed in a whistleblower lawsuit by swimming philanthropist Dia Rianda.
* USA Swimming’s lobbying efforts, in concert with the Catholic Conference, to scuttle a California bill that would soften the statute of limitations on sex abuse civil lawsuits
* Swimming’s employment of the same Denver PR firm, Ground Floor Media, that is paid by the new Office of the Colorado Child Protection Ombudsman for advice on how to establish its “brand”
* USA Swimming’s hire of “safe sport director” Susan Woessner’s sister, Geri Woessner, as “business development manager.” (Susan Woessner is one of the officials at tomorrow’s meeting on Capitol Hill.)
* “USA” Swimming’s tax-dodging, profit-laundering, junket-friendly, Barbados-headquartered “reinsurance” subsidiary, United States Sports Insurance Company
Starting Thursday, we’ll find out how many laps Congressman Miller is prepared to freestyle in the shark-infested waters of the men and women in the Olympic blazers. And whether fellow members of Congress will mount the starting blocks for an investigative relay team.