by Irvin Muchnick
The calendar has turned to July – which means that the clock may be ticking on the announcement of a deal between the U.S. Olympic Committee and the Women’s Sports Foundation.
As I’ll explain below, no one at WSF is denying that such an announcement is in the works. If this is consummated, it will constitute a catastrophic betrayal of the campaign to bring the leaders of USA Swimming and other national sports governing bodies to account for the systematic sexual abuse and cover-up in their ranks, and to spur Congress to redo the 36-year-old Amateur Sports Act.
Suspicion that WSF might be up to something in its own perceived interests, but not those of the public or of athletes and their families, arose the second the ink dried on a statement by USA Swimming chief executive Chuck Wielgus that he was withdrawing from his scheduled induction last month into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
Wielgus stood down in the face of a brilliant public petition organized by the WSF and its senior director of advocacy, Nancy Hogshead-Makar – the former Olympic swimming star who also enlisted an even bigger swimming celebrity name, Diana Nyad, as lead signatory.
Among activists determined to expose the depth and breadth of youth coach sex abuse and to get long-overdue federal government oversight, the relatively minor humiliation of serial liar and perjuror Wielgus was a step on the path to justice. It was immediately followed up by a second petition by a group of swimming abuse victims, which is addressed to Congressional leaders.
The new petition, however, is not backed by the Women’s Sports Foundation. The unfortunately anonymous organizers of this second and more toothful petition have rewritten it in an attempt to catch fire, but that is a futile exercise — equivalent to beating up the script of a flawed Broadway play after it bombed in previews. In its present form, the petition will never succeed. The Olympic Committee, USA Swimming, and their expensive lobbyists are way too powerful. And the public – which pays close attention to the niche sport of swimming only for a few weeks every fourth summer – is too disengaged.
WSF was and still is needed to run interference on this issue, with as much focus as it once drove Title IX. But the group founded by tennis great Billie Jean King is frying other fish these days. They seem ready to embrace the idea that an “independent agency” created by the USOC will solve the problem. To the contrary, all evidence is that such an agency would not be independent in any meaningful way; would simply layer conflicts of interests in additional bureaucracy; and – this is key – would co-opt the comprehensive restructure of amateur sports governance that a generation’s worth of abuse cases demonstrate is essential for the prospective safety of sports kids.
Terry Carlisle, the Swimming Hall of Fame board member who spoke out against the Wielgus induction, has declined our requests for an interview. Last month he told us that he would be willing to talk “in early July” – a tip-off that he was coordinating with the WSF and that what Concussion Inc. considers a dirty deal could be imminent.
Our sources inside WSF dispute our interpretation of the USA Swimming statement that it looked forward to working with WSF. Significantly, they do not contradict the facts: that the two organizations are negotiating a WSF role in implementing USOC’s promised $10 million start-up “independent agency.” The foundation also was deeply involved in the drafting of the “independent review” of USA Swimming’s safe sport program by the National Child Protection Center (which refuses to disclose exactly how much – more than $25,000 and less than $200,000 – it was paid produce its tiptoe-through-the-tulips of a report).
To be fair to WSF’s position, they say they’ll be the first to call out USA Swimming if promises to straighten up and fly right aren’t kept. But is that really good enough four years after 20/20 led to the current fraudulent “safe sport” program? Four weeks after Wielgus simply lost a lifetime achievement award he never remotely deserved in the first place?
We believe this inside straight is bad poker. Much more critically, it is a private substitute for public action, by a self-appointed entity asserting unilaterally that anything it does is for the common good.
This complicity in a thrust to short-circuit the USA Swimming accountability movement and call for Congressional intervention must not stand. We hope the smarter leaders of the Women’s Sports Foundation prevail in the internal debate and bring their organization to its senses.