Confronting Personal Bias

I love Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies. I grew up reading the comics and watching the still excellent Saturday morning cartoon. So when CGI progressed far enough that mutant superpowers could be portrayed believably in live action, I was in.

Around the time of my personal favorite installment of the series, Days of Future Past, I started to read some troubling things about Singer.

I’m ashamed of what I thought in response:

“They (the accusers) are making it up!”

“It was a long time ago.”

“Many others vouch for him”

“Innocent until proven guilty”.

I recognize these statements whenever I see one of my colleagues accused of some level of abuse, sexual or not. If my attachment to the movies made me react reflexively in Singer’s defense, imagine how I would react when an actual friend of mine was accused.

I guess I’m grateful I haven’t been put in that situation, but it’s worthwhile to examine the fallacy of all the thoughts whenever a colleague finds themselves clouded by accusation.

They’re making it up

While false accusations do happen, they are exceedingly unlikely. Public discourse (comments) on literally every coach who has either been sanctioned or had accusations made public on Swimswam rally to the defense of the accused.

Put another way, somewhere around 99% of accusations are true but according to friends or admirers of the accused the same percentage are false.

It’s worth remembering that accusers risk a lot. It won’t be a popular opinion among my peers, but consider active Missouri athletes who have accused Greg Rhodenbaugh. Without judging whether or not the accusations are true, the athletes that accuse have likely either seen their swimming careers end or in deep jeopardy should Rhodenbaugh return.

It was a long time ago

This one is so stupid I won’t even bother to explain. The amount of time elapsed since a violation is irrelevant to whether it should have consequences. Abuses are more prone to be challenged with this thought, while the harsh consequences for accusers make them unlikely to tell at all or long after the fact.

Many others vouch for him

Returning to the Rhodenbaugh example. I have met the man one time: back in 2008 when I invited myself to University of Arizona practice during the CSCAA Conference in Tucson.

I formed an impression of him that many of my colleagues share. He behaved like a consummate professional, stoic and steady. When I talk to other colleagues, some of whom have had more interaction with Rhodenbaugh, they have a similar evaluation.

However, it’s worth recognizing that many of the names that now live in ignominy in our sport were once respected paragons. As peers of other coaches, we are often blind to the day to day interactions they have with swimmers.

We also have a bias towards “results” that tend to make us work backwards from fast swimming to moral judgments, instead of the other way around.

Innocent until proven guilty

The concept of innocent until proven guilty is for criminal justice. Unfortunately, such justice is impossible for many victims of abuse. If we rely on this definition we will also have to live with almost all of the abusers in sport getting away with with it.

Like free speech, the concept is often misapplied to situations where it doesn’t belong. In deciding whether a coach should be allowed to continue to have responsibility over young people, it is not about proving guilt. It is about deciding whether it is more likely than not they crossed the line.

Coaches should insist on a high standard, a higher standard than a criminal one, for their integrity. If we truly have pride in our profession we must expect that coaches be exceedingly better than your average person at guiding and teaching young people.

The challenge

When a coach we like or admire is accused of actively hurting those in their charge, we must fight our reflexive thoughts. Do not rush to condemn their accusers. Have empathy for the fact that accusing is hard and scary.

That doesn’t mean we need to rush to judgment against the coach either, it simply means that an active reprieve against victim blaming is the least we can expect if we want to clean up sporting culture.