by Irvin Muchnick
“There’s a horror in the shadows of American competitive swimming: a continuing legacy of sexual abuse, usually involving male coaches who prey on young women – and a governing body that looks the other way.”
Beginning with the powerful subhead text above, the long article in the December issue of Outside magazine, “Unprotected” by Rachel Sturtz, is unquestionably the most effective mainstream-media hit on the white-collar criminals at USA Swimming since the broadcast investigations of ABC’s 20/20 and ESPN’s Outside the Lines in 2010.
Outside’s package of online features – including interviews and a rogues’ gallery of some of the worst offenders on USA Swimming’s now 108-strong banned list – has production values that Concussion Inc., of course, has no hope of ever matching.
All this even though the magazine, unlike Tim Joyce and Irv Muchnick, carefully avoids goring such sacred cows as “child protection expert” Victor Vieth; former swimming abuse cover-up lawyer Travis Tygart (who is not mentioned at all, but whose over-praised U.S. Anti-Doping Agency hovers over “future solutions” like a false idol); and the local police, parks and rec departments, and media institutions of South Florida that corruptly allowed Alex Pussieldi to get away with his human-trafficking racket for more than a decade after multiple complaints of his Peeping Tom videos of swimmer-tenants, and of his collection of recordings of his sex with underage boys.
In the article’s worst line, Sturtz writes, “Luckily, huge progress has been made … in the past four years” by the United States Olympic Committee. She quickly qualifies this with a skeptical counter-take on the USOC’s announced $15 million privately funded “independent” abuse investigation agency. But the damage of having bought into the introductory illusion is done.
What remains open at this point is whether, all in all, Outside proves to be just 20/20 2.0. With the reset button having been hit yet again – the fraudulent “Safe Sport” program four years ago, USOC’s “independent agency” today – the danger is that the fingers will slide off the Congressional and criminal hot buttons. Activists might find themselves once more neutered. That would be the worst-case outcome of Outside’s hard, but painstakingly safe, effort.
On the unambiguously positive side, Sturtz does an outstanding job of illustrating the abuse issue in the example of survivor Anna Strzempko. But there’s a lot more to say about how USA Swimming is now trying to appropriate Anna’s story as a trophy on its “Safe Sport” mantle. In the coming days, Joyce and I will be taking the risk of saying all those things – sometimes in ungentlemanly, unladylike language.
The unvarnished truth is that the experience of the Strzempko family is Exhibit A of the failure of USA Swimming post 2010. This scenario also punctures the political cover swimming and Safe Sport were provided in a whitewash “independent” report by Vieth and his handsomely compensated Gundersen Health System Child Protection Training Center. One of the main shortcomings of the Outside article, from my perspective, is the lack of bite in its reporting of the self-interested vulture nonprofits of “Child Abuse Inc.”
And while we’re at it, let’s proceed with the step Outside chose not to take: naming the coach accused by Anna Strzempko. He is one Randy Smith. Now that the allegations against Smith have reached national media (first on Al Jazeera America television, now at Outside), USA Swimming has reopened the investigation they callously closed last year with a FedEx notice to the Strzempko family. (As with the 30-year-tardy hearing on Mitch Ivey, the organization can be counted on to serve up fork-tongued assertions that it “never closed the file”and that its kangaroo court, lo and behold, has suddenly gathered “enough evidence” to nail Smith.)
Next Monday, November 17, swimming’s internal prosecutor-judge-jury system, known as the National Board of Review, will be holding a telephone conference hearing on the Smith case. With the world watching for the results, the odds are 1,000 to 1 that he will be banned, joining the other mostly ham-and-eggers on the published list. Meanwhile, many, many others, including Hall of Fame coaches, continue to skate from both criminal and administrative justice.
So let’s get this straight, folks: Smith’s looming exile is no more a triumph (or “huge progress”) than was the lame and insincere apology of serial perjurer USA Swimming chief Chuck Wielgus as he continues to collect a salary of a million dollars a year from the dues of 400,000 members – whose protection ranks a distant third behind CW’s relentless money-changing and image-buffing.
Speaking of money-changing … The coverage by Sturtz of USA Swimming’s scam Barbados-based insurance subsidiary, the “United States Sports Insurance Company,” is superb.
What I think about the details exposed by Outside, and their complex juxtaposition and emphases, matters very little. That’s all just shop talk. Only one thing matters: whether this article reaches enough people, and enough right people, to get the business of oversight of our national sports programs out of the hands of Wielgus and his fellow apparatchiks, and into the hands of the federal government, where it belongs.