by Irvin Muchnick
The public utterances of USA Swimming chief executive Chuck Wielgus warrant parsing not because they carry a scintilla of profundity, but precisely because they don’t. He is the quintessential soulless CEO of contemporary amateur sports, a fingernails-on-blackboard combo of Milo Minderbinder and Major Major Major Major — two characters from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
Before getting to some of the recent soporific banalities from his new image-airbrush blog at the USA Swimming site — an undertaking no doubt ghostwritten by the contractors of USA Swimming’s new $200,000 public relations campaign in the face of a Congressional investigation of widespread and covered-up coach sexual abuse — I first want to remind doubtful readers that I use the word “perjuror” considerately when I apply it to Wielgus.
In April 2010 Wielgus told ESPN’s Outside the Lines, “We didn’t hear of Andy King until April of 2009.” You say that wasn’t a sworn statement to a court of law? OK. In a deposition in the Jane Doe case, which involved the crimes of a man the prosecutor described as a “monster” when he was put away in a California prison for the rest of his miserable life, Wielgus said, “Well, it’s hard to point a finger at a victim, but victims have got to report these crimes, and we didn’t hear of Andy King until April of 2009.”
The document trail conclusively establishes that Wielgus was personally alerted to allegations of heinous misconduct by King no later than January 20, 2003. That was when Wells O’Brien, then USA Swimming’s general counsel, advised a coach named Clint Benson to forward to Wielgus a lengthy email from former swimmer Katie Kelly detailing her experiences with King.
On January 27, 2003, Wielgus emailed back to Benton:
“1. No formal complaint is being filed, so there is no formal action for you or us to take.
2. You should monitor the situation and alert us if any new information comes forward.
3. USA Swimming will open a file on this matter, and while we will take no action at this time, we will remain alert for any new information.
4. This matter should be kept confidential by both you and us.
5. If/when any new information comes forward, we will assess the situation at that time and determine if any action is required.”
Then there’s the case of swimmer Brooke Talfinger, who was among the young female athletes molested and surreptitiously videotaped in the nude by Brian Hindson. (There is a breaking development in that case — a documented allegation of insurance fraud that relates to our series on USA Swimming’s scam Barbados-based reinsurance subsidiary, the United States Sports Insurance Company. Watch Concussion Inc. next week for further coverage.)
On May 12, 2010, Wielgus was deposed in the Talfinger lawsuit against USA Swimming. Wielgus said Peeping Tom coaches’ videos were “not even on the radar screen” before 2008. To emphasize the point, Wielgus said the very technology of video was unfamiliar territory prior to the highly publicized incident in which a cell phone captured Michael Phelps inhaling marijuana from a bong at a party.
The record shows that in 1998 Pennsylvania coach John Trites had gone on the lam — he is still at large — after getting busted for videotaping his disrobed female swimmers with a hidden locker room camera. In 2005 Trites made the FBI’s Most Wanted list and its affiliated TV show, America’s Most Wanted. USA Swimming carried out an FBI request to issue a nationwide alert to the swimming community.
Today the Everett Uchiyama scandal is closing in on USA Swimming; Congressman George Miller, ranking minority member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, is on the case. Fresh from Wielgus’s victory lap over getting California’s ex-Jesuit seminarian governor, Jerry Brown, to veto SB 131 — a law that would have reformed the state civil lawsuit statute of limitations for abuse victims — swimming’s happy-go-lucky CEO is back to the business of explaining on his blog that the business of youth swimming is business. (The California lobbying effort, in concert with the Catholic Church, “turned out to be money well spent,” Sports Illustrated’s Kelli Anderson writes in this week’s issue.)
Wielgus is a cancer survivor who deserves our sympathy and admiration on that score. However, whether that personal ordeal has made him a better amateur sports executive, as he has said, is open to debate.
In his July 2 memo announcing to staff a new $200,000 “significant shift” in PR strategy with “the goal of improving the overall perceptions of USA Swimming’s Safe Sport Program efforts,” Wielgus analogizes the “six elements of the action plan” for sex abuse with the group’s business plan. He even unfurls a rat-a-tat slogan, “EDUCATE, PREVENT & PROTECT,” as a companion to “BUILD, PROMOTE & ACHIEVE.”
Everything about this guy, who pulls down more than $800,000 a year — mostly to negotiate TV deals, court sponsors, and fend off litigation by abuse victims — must be seen through the lens of dollar signs. He doesn’t appear capable of perceiving any value other than money if he were splashed in the face with it by a diver doing a cannonball.
In “A Lesson the American Way,” October 3, he opens with the line, “You learn from your mistakes.” (See http://www.usaswimming.org/ViewNewsArticle.aspx?TabId=0&itemid=5581&mid=8712.) In this case, the mistake was something he internalized about sponsor relations in 1989, when he was pitching corporations for USA Canoe/Kayak. “Big companies get involved with a sponsorship for very specific reasons: they want to sell more products or services; they want to identify and engage new customers; they want to better position their brand; and they want to take advantage of unique hospitality opportunities for their top vendors, sales people, or customers.”
So don’t forget that, all you sports MBA’s: No one supports a good cause out of the goodness of their hearts. They want material quid pro quo, and by God it’s your job to provide it!
It would be cruel to continue stirring this lame-brained mush, except for the obvious: Chuck Wielgus epitomizes the money-first, human beings-last management philosophy that has enabled a generation of crime and cover-up of same in our national sport governing body. Don’t believe what he says. Don’t believe what he says he does. Believe only what he does — which is to nurture a callous culture that has ruined lives and, absent Congressional action, promises to continue doing so, in a new brand of swimming suits.