On Friday evening east coast time, USA Swimming sent out a letter to members. It was their first communication addressing "Safe Sport" since Executive Director Tim Hinchey wrote a big pile of nothing.
In the weeks (and months) since then, I have been told many times by sources within USA Swimming that a meatier response was coming. It was always coming in a few days. My response was that the longer it waited, the better it had to be. It has been nearly two months since Hinchey's letter, and each passing day begged the question "what are they actually doing?".
Unfortunately, the answer is not much. Let's break down the letter piece by piece:
Following our last correspondence, USA Swimming leadership, including its Board of Directors and senior staff, has spent significant time examining its past, reviewing its current Safe Sport abuse-prevention efforts and outlining priorities and initiatives moving forward.
Our top priority is the safety and well-being of our members, and that is paramount in everything we do. USA Swimming strives to better educate and prevent abuse within the sport and to provide the best possible experience for its members, in the safest possible environment.
These are some fine words. Safety and well-being are well chosen words (after all, I used similar language in the interview I gave to Swimswam a few weeks ago).
Now, I know where some of you are going with this. Chris, aren't you basically just a hot air machine, a blogboy that mostly just writes stuff?
However, go back to the interview- there were actual suggestions for how to proceed. And the letter I wrote two months ago suggests some crucial transparency. USA Swimming has stumbled in the past by rushing to be "part of the solution", skipping out on the crucial step of "defining the problem". Remember that for later. Let's go on:
in early March, the USA Swimming Board of Directors created a Safe Sport Working Group comprised of Board members and USA Swimming employees. The six women and five men working group, which includes Olympians, coaches, and officials, was tasked with coordinating the review and enhancement of the organization’s Safe Sport program, established in 2010.
The Working Group presented its initial progress update and ideas at a special Board of Directors meeting this past weekend. The Board had an in-depth discussion of the Working Group’s report, which included the status of our current programs and services, policies, organizational culture and communications to identify areas in need of further development.
They spent weeks reviewing their policies, and then talking about that review. One part of this response I can see was carefully worded was that there were a majority of women on the group.
Crucially left out is whether they engaged with any of the serious critics of their Safe Sport program. Or, more crucially, the victims of sexual abuse in swimming.
Based on the Working Group’s presentation and subsequent review, the Board endorsed the following priorities:
To evaluate existing policies and procedures regarding the handling of Safe Sport violations to ensure that we are meeting and exceeding the needs of our membership.
Imagine your house is on fire. Now imagine the fire department did not come to your house, and instead spent two months in committee deciding whether to evaluate their policies for fighting fires.
To seek out and obtain feedback and engagement from survivors of abuse
To be fair, this is what they should have done from the beginning. However, this one sentence belies how hard of a task this actually is. Letters like this one (and Hinchey's) have continued to undermine the already disastrous level of trust between survivors of abuse and USA Swimming.
USA Swimming is doomed to repeat the mistake of "we need the victims to come to us", a favorite calling card of former leader Chuck Wielgus. Here's what i've learned- you have to prove yourself to survivors of abuse. You have to prove yourself worth trusting, worth even wasting time talking to.
These people have been hurt and violated by people they trusted, and they are not going to just walk in and spill their guts to you, especially when your organization continues to use that information against them to limit some legal liability. If you actually believe your opening point about "safety first", then a true and honest accounting of what has transpired at USA Swimming will take place, regardless of whether the organization itself is left standing at the end.
To evaluate USA Swimming’s current Mission and Vision Statements, to ensure that our position on safe sport is a key component of our mission and who we are
Agreed on this point, see the above discussion of reviewing policy.
To finalize and implement a “Training the Trainers” program, to build a diverse group of facilitators who are equipped to deliver Safe Sport education and enhance in-person Safe Sport training to the sport’s grassroots, i.e., the clubs, parents, coaches and athletes
Some crucial questions begged here. Is the train the trainers program still going to rely on John "we aren't an organization that deals with children" Leonard's ASCA? What is the train the trainers program?
Crucially, who are you engaging to come up with these educational points? I saw via facebook that leading a session on Safe Sport within the organization was Lucinda McRoberts.
This is everything wrong with USA Swimming's response to this. Lucinda McRoberts is USA Swimming's former in-house lawyer. Lawyers are necessary, but she is not an expert on Safe Sport. She is most definitely an expert on limiting USA Swimming's liability.
To increase awareness of SwimAssist funding and revisit its effectiveness
To enhance existing education, on-boarding training and reference checks across all levels of the organization from individual members, to clubs, to LSCs, to staff, to the Board of Directors.
Swim Assist, I recently learned, is a program that provides counseling to victims of sexual abuse within swimming. If you had no idea what it was (as I did a few months ago) what SwimAssist was, don't blame yourself. It has no web presence on USA Swimming's wonderful website, only being mentioned in some PDF's about the Safe Sport program.
Better background checks would be nice, but lets hear about what that actually means. Will the costs be passed down to members and clubs again?
The rest of the letter is mostly USA Swimming patting itself on the back for what a great job it has done since 2010. This passage will be sure to continue to alienate victims that they claim to want to hear from.
USA Swimming President Jim Sheehan signed on to the letter along with Hinchey, signaling that the board will continue to place their political positions above a full and honest evaluation of the problem. I plan on asking Sheehan about why he made that choice if he attends our local LSC meeting next month.
I'll continue to follow up in this space should I get any responses from within USA Swimming. Don't hold your breath.