by Irvin Muchnick
Yesterday Concussion Inc. broke the encouraging news that Congressman George Miller, who has spearheaded federal investigations of USA Swimming sexual abuse and cover-up for the last year and a half but is now retiring, handed the baton to a new leader.
In securing the commitment of a fellow California Democrat, Congresswoman Jackie Speier, Miller has done more than just ensure that this fight will have continuity and institutional memory in 2015. He also has found arguably the U.S. representative who – along with another Californian, Dianne Feinstein, and her 19 female colleagues of both parties in the Senate – has the very best credentials for the task. Speier is a dynamic legislator and advocate with a record of effectiveness on the related issues of sexual assault in the military and on college campuses.
The apparatchiks at U.S. Olympic Committee offices in Colorado Springs, and their lobbyists in Washington, who might have anticipated that their sordid story would get swept back under the rug, are instead again on notice.
The hope here is that the hitherto largely passive and star-crazed sports media will start doing their job on this story, too. As we’ve said several times in several ways, a unique responsibility rests with ESPN’s Outside the Lines, bellwether of sports investigative coverage. Mysteriously, OTL spent all of 2014 missing in action.
The contemporary chapters of holding national sports governing bodies accountable for widespread youth coach abuse really begin with twin televised packages on USA Swimming in the spring of 2010 – one by OTL, the other by ABC’s 20/20. Unfortunately, ESPN has done zero meaningful follow-up. There always seem to be sexier, celebrity-friendlier, or less complicated sportsworld skullduggery for their cameras to expose; the round-the-calendar endangerment of more than 400,000 kid competitors, enabled by the lawyerly strategies of the purported oversight organization (which include a wholly owned multimillion-dollar Barbados-based subsidiary, the “United States Sports Insurance Co.”) don’t make the cut.
Almost exactly a year ago, with the most-buried-possible scheduling, OTL broadcast a retrospective of now-banned molester coach Greg Winslow, both at the youth club program at Arizona State University and as head coach at the University of Utah. But even though Congressman Miller months earlier had set in motion his own investigation of USA Swimming and a parallel inquiry by the Government Accountability Office, ESPN didn’t breathe a word about any of that – much less labor to make its viewers understand the connections to its own Winslow and Mitch Ivey reports.
Earlier this year, the New Times weeklies of Miami and Fort Lauderdale published a lengthy cover story, based largely on the investigation of abusive coach Alex Pussieldi by Tim Joyce and myself, that helped galvanize a public petition by the sport’s victims and their advocates. Ultimately, this campaign cost USA Swimming chief Chuck Wielgus his spot in the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
To my knowledge, OTL had no coverage whatsoever of this national controversy until Wielgus – following a characteristically tasteless and futile PR counteroffensive – backed down and issued a lame and tardy public apology to victims. At that point ESPN briefly jumped in with spotty and unprepared guesswork analysis by OTL star reporter and sometime anchor T.J. Quinn (who had conducted the original confrontation interview with Wielgus in 2010).
To the best of my knowledge, Quinn and company never mentioned federal investigations, then or later. Not in October, when Congressman Miller released his correspondence with the FBI. Not in November, when writer Rachel Sturtz, in the December issue of Outside magazine, published the latest and best longform account of swimming’s decades-long ripples of abuse and criminally implausible defenses.
Next month, as a new Congress convenes with a new leader on this issue, let’s hope ESPN and the herd of independent major media minds get the message and start doing their part.