On Friday night I couldn't sleep. Earlier that day, I'd found out what would later become public on Swimswam. Janelle Atkinson, who I'd just had on my podcast a few weeks earlier, was fired by Stony Brook. An athlete of hers put her name to a long list of allegations against Atkinson.
Those accusations would later be corroborated by former athletes at Fairfield, where Atkinson coached prior to Stony Brook. And no, I'm not talking about the comment section- I spoke directly with Swimswam, who verified that Fairfield athletes had reached out to Swimswam after the article was published, and that there were other Stony Brook athletes backing up the story.
Over the course of Friday and the weekend, I talked to various people off the record. People were mad, for sure, although a great deal of that anger was misplaced. When somebody you know and like gets accused of doing some terrible things, your reflexes tell you to fight it. "It can't be true this time" is an easier push for your mind than when it's some person who you've never met.
So while I and others sort out our confused feelings on this, remember that all of the following can be true, at the same time:
1. The probability that athletes "made up" these accusations is extremely slim:
I'm sorry to even have to point this one out. Athletes have a lot to lose by speaking out against their coach. As someone who spoke out against my own coach when I swam in college, I know.
So let's please stop pushing back reflexively on athletes in these situations.
2. Some of the accusations are not things you should be fired for
I have definitely told an athlete that they "pissed me off" before, and I have definitely at times ignored an athlete's question (most of the time inadvertently.
Anger and frustration are normal parts of any job. But as coaches we need to remember that we have enormous power over athletes. When that anger and frustration inflicts real pain on athletes, we are abusing that power.
Furthermore, in every instance where I did the above, if I'm being honest I can think of a better, more positive way to coach. Athletes deserve that.
Finally, even if some of the accusations within the range of normal coaching behavior, that does not invalidate other accusations.
3. Women and minorities are more likely to be punished
It's not lost on me that Atkinson, was, as I described her, a "Unicorn". She was a single mom, a woman of color, coaching Division 1 swimming.
It is very likely that were she a white guy with more "stature" in the swimming community, she would be more likely to not suffer consequences.
Just because other people are getting away with the actions described does not mean that Atkinson should be allowed to. If in fact this is a "coaching style", she learned from somewhere else, whoever taught it needs to go too.
4. Coaches experience other coaches differently than the athletes
Here is perhaps the hardest part to grapple with as coaches, and I'll own up to my end. I liked Janelle a lot. I talked to her on the phone and interviewed her. I found her to be honest and tough.
But I did not swim for her. Even if I did, and I really liked her coaching, it would not invalidate the experience of athletes. As coaches we need to accept that as we change sports for the better and make it a safer environment for athletes, part of that will involve empowering the experience of athletes. Power is still way too imbalanced between the two.
We also need to understand that coaches who do bad things are often people we like. The very insidious nature of abusive behavior is that it is perpetrated on vulnerable people. My own coach would be sure to be extra nice to my teammates when he was at his worst to me. He knew that he could get away with it as long as I seemed like one crazy kid making wild accusations.
Coaches, if they just interact socially with other coaches, are not likely to be on the receiving end of harsh behavior, because they are operating on a similar plain of power to each other.
This situation leaves me only more determined that we need to keep pushing to make sure athletes are heard and that coaches learn that many "tough coaching" techniques of the past simply aren't going to be accepted anymore. We need to be better as a community if we want a better sport.