Takeaways from Ariana Kukors Smith Excellent Interview

Yesterday, Swimswam published lengthy interview by Jared Anderson of Swimswam of Ariana Kukors Smith. Kukors Smith continues to provide excellent insight for parents, swimmers and coaches alike. Here were a few crucial points I took away from reading it:

1. Power and Control

Kukors Smith has continually hammered home the power imbalance between herself and Hutchison, and the way he used that power to control her and enable his abuse.

While negative, anonymous commenters (more on them later) slither out from their swimming holes to criticize her and her family, Kukors Smith puts attention firmly where it belongs. The reality was that her family and friends were also groomed and manipulated and suffered from a serious power deficit relative to Hutchison.

In contrast, Mark Schubert was in a position of authority over Hutchison as the highest ranking swim coach in America. If he truly wanted to stand up for Kukors Smith, he could have. Likewise, USA Swimming had the power to do something about Hutchison.

Both could have effectively dared Hutchison to fight them, and in so doing sent a powerful message to survivors of abuse: that they would put their own power at play to protect them. Instead they chose a more cowardly path, one that would ensure that they retained their own power.

2. It's not the handshakes, dummy

Since the beginning, Kukors Smith's attempts to educate people about grooming have been somewhat stymied by ignorance. The first physical step in that grooming process, the mandatory post-practice handshake, ruffled swim coaches the world over, many of whom see the practice as an innocent and respectful post-workout action.

I admit I was never one to shake swimmers hands until I coached in Denmark, where social rules strongly compel people to actively say goodbye whenever they take off. I sometimes grew frustrated by the 15-20 minutes I would have to spend after practice shaking hands.

Kukors Smith comments gave me pause for reflection on that practice, as it should all of us. but coaches should not feel too defensive if they aren't engaging in the practice in order to groom athletes for abuse. They should, however, reconsider any practice where they put swimmers in a position to feel as if they "must" come into physical contact with them. 

As I told a journalist over the holiday weekend, there is definitely no reason a swim coach should ever have to touch athletes to do their job well.

3. "Making sure it never happens again"

As I've pointed out in other posts, many of the most powerful swimming people would like to see reconciliation on abuse. It is in their self-interest.

But first we need the truth, and those in power have purposely obscured the truth in order to perpetuate their power.

Kukors Smith would like some truth too. Getting that truth out in the open will do a lot to prevent future abuse. Unfortunately, she has to sue to get that truth out because, as I said above, the powerful people she is suing have obscured that truth. If they were willing to release the truth and withstand the consequences of that truth willingly, a lawsuit would be unnecessary to achieve that goal.

Again, detractors have pointed out that we will never make sure that it "never" happens again. Shouldn't we do everything we can to get as close to "never" anyway? Aren't we a long way from "never"?

4. Irresponsible Comments

Swimswam absolutely needs to get rid of comments on articles or interviews like this one where people level serious abuse accusations. The victim blaming present in the comment sections of the site do a lot of harm to survivors.

When I speak to them, I tell them to ignore the comments, but the reality is that many do and and they along others who haven't come forward can get absolutely the wrong message. The comments sections on these types of articles is rife with victim blaming and shaming. Though there are level headed and cogent replies, the harm is done once such comments are published.

I'm willing to admit that I failed to adequately stand up for this when I was on the inside of Swimswam. Two things that I didn't understand when I wrote that piece in 2015:

First, at the time I was under the mistaken impression that information about these cases was kept confidential to protect victims. Victims and their advocates have convinced me otherwise since then, that in fact in many cases information about these cases are kept "confidential" to protect the abusers and those that were complicit in that abuse.

Second, i didn't go far enough to say what I have above, that there is no space for comments whatsoever in this type of article. I think I still naively believed that there was some way to moderate these comments, or that editorializing that these comments are bad was enough. It's not, we simply cannot have them. 

I think that Swimswam would say in their own defense that censoring comments on these articles sets a bad precedent and does more harm than good. I do not agree- I think that the harm done by allowing such comments far outweighs any good that comes from free and open discussion, even the replies that effectively rebut negative comments. 

The anonymous comment sections of Swimswam is one of the last places where the victim blamers and shamers of our sport still feel that they have a platform to spread their hate. We should take it away from them.

It's mostly good

I do not write the above to shame Swimswam. Jared Anderson should be proud of his interview- he asked many better questions and got substantially more valuable information for the swimming community than the majority of coverage on Kukors Smith since February.

I applaud Swimswam for taking initiative to do the interview the care with which they have written articles on Kukors Smith.

Let's all work together to do even better.