Don't Use National Team Athletes as Human Shields

This past weekend was the Mesa Grand Prix. There was a lot of fast swimming there.  There was also a media breakthrough. With the release of USA Swimming's letter, Tim Hinchey and members of the National Team fielded questions on safety and abuse within swimming. 

There are a couple of notable tidbits laying under the surface of the answers both gave. The first comes from the Executive Director:

"Hinchey also has met with some national team swimmers who were in Colorado Springs, where USA Swimming is based, for a training camp both for their input on the problem and suggestions about how they can use their Olympian platform to make the sport safer."

It seems pretty clear that the purpose of this discussion was not only to hear from National Team athletes (of whom there are no current known victims of abuse, although statistically it is very likely that quite a few have been sexually abused) but to coach them up on how to speak to the media on this topic.

It's a shrewd move in a way by Hinchey, as he says himself later in the piece:

"We talked about how to collaborate and messaging," Hinchey said. "Let's be honest, people don't know Tim Hinchey nor should they. But if a Nathan Adrian or a Kelsi Dahlia or Leah Smith or Katie Ledecky says, 'Stop,' I think that will go a long way. Same with the coaches. They have been very open to that."

The piece features a collection of quotes from various National Team athletes who are willing to "collaborate and [message]" with Hinchey. 

A few things on this:

1. It is very unfair position to put these athletes in. Many come off as uneducated on the topic including the exceedingly nice and very fast swimming Nathan Adrian. Perhaps before rolling out messaging like this, USA Swimming could actually do what they claim to want to do in their letter and hear from survivors of abuse first.

I think these athletes would be able to make much better comments to the press were they to hear from those survivors first before speaking out.

2. These athletes likely have signed off that they will not criticize USA Swimming in exchange for the meager funding they receive from the NGB. Now, are they required to put out USA Swimming's talking points on sexual abuse for them? Probably not, but just recognize that any messaging coming from National Team athletes is probably not what they actually might think but instead part of a strictly enforced loyalty code.

I experienced the same firsthand when I traveled with Denmark to the 2015 European Games in Azerbaijan. We were warned copiously and repeatedly in advance not to speak about anything political, lest we create an incident for the Danish Olympic committee by talking about the atrocious lack of democracy within the country.

And you know what? I got interviewed very randomly, an interview which (thank god) never saw the light of day, where I made sure I did not say anything bad about the politics of Azerbaijan. I talked about how nice the pool looked and the nice mattresses in the Athletes' Village.

3. Finally, I would politely disagree with the assertion by Hinchey that "coaches have been very open to this". I guess it may be true that coaches have been open to also repeating USA Swimming talking points. But when we hold a standard of truly taking a pointed and specific stance on this issue, independent of the NGB, there has been deafening silence, especially from the higher levels.

Bob Bowman, the only coach quoted in the article, was still crediting Paul Bergen as the "best in the business" within the last couple years. In so doing, Bowman is siding with an abusive pedophile over survivors of abuse, which is kind of the opposite of "being open to this" in my estimation.

Bergen was also cited as a mentor of Sean Hutchison.

Rather than shame Bowman, I hope he reads this and educates himself on the topic. He could be the most powerful advocate for survivors of abuse that sports has ever seen. And advocacy in this topic would have a lot of crossover with mental health discussion that Michael Phelps has brought to the fore since his retirement.

It will take a village to fix this problem, and the survivors could really use every ally possible, but only if those allies listen to them, and believe them first.