A Peek Into The Future of "Safe" Sport

In 2011, there was a brief moment of detente between this writer and USA Swimming’s “efforts” to ensure a “Safe Sport”. Then Executive Director Chuck Wielgus met with me, my wife and Susan Woessner in the lobby of the Atlanta Marriott Marquis for around 90 minutes.

In the time that followed, I actually got to talk to Woessner (and Mike Unger, the last of that power trio, or quartet if you add Pat Hogan, to still be working at USA Swimming).

To be honest, although I was guarded, I kind of, sort of, bought it for a little while. Woessner was well liked even outside of the Colorado Springs bubble. She talked a good game about investigations and USA Swimming’s obligations.

USA Swimming’s efforts have since sort of blown up, with Woessner left shouldering the blame for what was partially, in my opinion, misplaced loyalty for Wielgus. USA Swimming’s “Safe” Sport, originally called Athlete Protection before that name was shelved for PR reasons, was itself exposed as mainly an added layer to an already corrupt process for adjudicating abuse allegations.

Prior to Woessner’s appointment, allegations or “reports” would go directly to Wielgus, who would decide what to do with them in consultation with USA Swimming’s in house victim evisceration team, erm, legal counsel at Brian Cave.

After Woessner? Woessner essentially operated as a secretary fielding complaints and forwarding them to Wielgus. The core problem of this process was that USA Swimming’s strong conflict of interest. If they banned too many coaches, they would actually hurt the public image of their “product”. So they primarily banned coaches that had safely been deemed liable in some other legal process.

This is what happened to the man who was head coach of the first team I ever swam for, Erick Lans. Although Lans was convicted of rape and sexual assault of minors on his swim team in 2001, it took until 2013, three years after USA Swimming published a “banned” list, for them to formally ban Lans. Presumably they didn’t do this on their own and relied on a member of USA Swimming to bring a slam dunk case of a convicted felon coach to their doorstep before they “took action”.

This is all to say, with what is going on at “Safe” Sport today, people on the inside of swimming know the drill. The organization has already started to mimic USA Swimming’s pathetic effort from a decade ago. So what might the future hold for “Safe” Sport? Here’s a few guesses:

Stonewalling and delay

One of the chief tactics used to ensure that there was little accountability for their “Safe” sport efforts within swimming was a complete lack of transparency and delay.

The lack of transparency used victims of sexual abuse as human shields. USA Swimming refused to comment on any of its “investigations” in part, they said, to protect the privacy of complainants. While there are some legitimate reasons to preserve privacy for specific cases, “Safe” Sport hasn’t adequately explained why many of its investigations take months or years to adjudicate. They often go months without responding to complainants questions.

The delay helps preserve the status quo. In USA Swimming’s case, Chuck Wielgus was able to continue to collect enormous compensation (over $1 million in his final year) despite covering up and otherwise obstructing the investigation of legitimate claims. Likewise, there are some significant checks being cashed by Safe Sport personnel, among them former USOC crony Malia Arrington, that are preserved by this lack of transparency.

I wrote in this space a couple months ago that I have spoken to Isabelle McLemore, USA Swimming’s Managing Director of Communications. She expressed frustration with how I wrote about USA Swimming. She didn’t dispute any of the facts, but asked for the opportunity to comment and give USA Swimming’s perspective.

Since then, I have reached out to her several times to ask for such comment. Each time, the request was met with silence. Not even a “no comment”, just no reply whatsoever.

Lawsuits for oversight

Unfortunately, since there is otherwise no levers for accountability within these organizations, the only way we will have any reasonable oversight of them will be lawsuits. Barring sustained pressure from widely read media outlets, “Safe” Sport will continue to act with impunity.

Lawsuits in USA Swimming have been essential to revealing the true nature of “Safe” sport efforts within the organization. USA Swimming’s board has essentially refused to provide any oversight of the employees of the organization. Board members, many of them people with the best intentions and with personally strong ethics on athlete well-being, continue to value their own position on the board over any kind of transparency within the organization.

Too Big To Fail

Essentially, the USOC and USA Swimming and probably every other NGB out there should have died a natural death some time ago. Instead, the continue to add extra layers, in the hope that those extra layers will be the “fix” of the system.

In the case of USA Swimming, “Safe” Sport has essentially put in an additional piece of bureaucracy to shield NGB’s and the USOC. The USOC, previously one step removed by its NGBs, moved one more step away.. NGBs can breath a sigh of relief enjoying the space that the USOC had previously..

Employees at the USOC and within NGBs can continue to expect compensation far in excess of the actual value they add to the athletic experience of any sport members or spectators. Chuck Wielgus made over a million dollars at USA Swimming for what is essentially the same level of responsibility as a high-level Division III athletic director. That excessive compensation trickles all the way down through the organization, and inspires fierce loyalty among those employed by the organizations.

Lets Skip Ahead

So here’s where I’m at this time around. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice- nah, not going to let that happen. It’s already quite obvious what “Safe” Sport is really about, which is preserving a too big to fail system that enriches a tiny group of insiders within Olympic sports.

The unfortunate truth is that there is probably no way to make dramatic change in this arena without allowing the organizations to fail instead of continuing to prop them up with layers of bureaucracy.

Just look at USA Gymnastics for example, the only organization that has been subjected to any kind of reasonable oversight and public pressure. They have been exposed, and continue to be exposed, as a completely hapless organization. They are on their fourth CEO of the last two years.

I don’t think they are particularly worse than any other NGB, just experiencing a bit more sunshine. However, I expect that American gymnasts will continue to thrive in international competition. The US women won gold at the 2018 World Championships without any semblance of an organization backing them.

The USOC and NGBs were founded with the mission to win the most medals possible at the Olympics. They were founded at a time when America’s chief competitor was a totalitarian state that would do anything, literally anything, to achieve the same goal. So looking the other away on some people within the sport who abused athletes became a part of the value system, as long as they won medals.

We can have our cake and eat it to. We can be successful at the Olympics without valuing our results their above all. We need organizations that value the well-being of those participating first. Medals will be a pleasant side effect.