USA Swimming Handed Safe Sport Manifesto By Special ‘Abuses’ Committee 27 Years Ago
From The Archive – The SwimVortex Safe Sport Series – USA Swimming was handed what amounts to a manifesto matching many of the core principles of its 2010 Safe Sport program almost 27 years ago – but did not adopt key recommendations for almost 20 years after sex allegations and accompanying media coverage forced the federation’s hand.
What followed, between 2010 and 2014, including the publication of what had been an internal list of banned coaches, was a long-overdue effort to pick up the pieces of a past haunted by what many now see as inaction and wilful blindness. That perception is strengthened by the minutes of a May, 1991, meeting of the ADHOC Committee on Abuses brought together by USA Swimming in Colorado Springs.
Chairman of the group was David Berkoff, the world-record-setting backstroke ace seeking to highlight abuses in swimming while still a swimmer heading for the 1992 Olympic podium as a follow-up to his 1988 Olympic podium efforts.
The minutes of the 1991 meeting take on huge significance in light of the Safe Sport scandals raging through U.S Olympic sports, the head of the United States Olympic Committee Scott Blackmun, the head of USA Swimming’s Safe Sport program Susan Woessner and head of USA Swimming club development Pat Hogan among those who have stepped down from their jobs.
A heartening and optimistic note from Berkoff heads the minutes. It reads:
“The committee, in its first-ever meeting, was extremely productive and efficient in covering a variety of major problems pervasive in our sport. The outcome of the meeting brings forth a series of legislative recommendations and program ideas, which we hope will [be] embraced by United States Swimming and all its members.”
Sadly, those relating to ‘Sexual Misconduct’ were not adopted for a great many years afterwards. In contrast, a recommendation “that all USS national team athletes be subject to random/unannounced drug testing at any time during the year” was adopted almost immediately, even though the recommendation came with the rider that “USS could never afford to test everyone” but that high moral ground taken by the USA on the issue of doping would “press FINA and the IOC into accepting random/unannounced testing internationally”.
That plan worked a treat, providing clear evidence of the power and influence of the U.S. swim federation. That power and influence was not, however, applied to the mission led by Berkoff and others to clean swimming of sex pests, perverts and abusers.
Coach representatives were ahead of the USA Swimming curve. The 1991 meeting took place two years after the American Swimming Coaches Association introduced a Code of Ethics that all members and those seeking membership were obliged to sign up to forbidding sexual relationships between coaches and swimmers of any age working under their tutelage and guidance.
Members of the Committee on Abuses included two of the leading figures in American and global coach representation, then and to this day, namely ASCA director John Leonard, and George Block, now the president of the World Swimming Coaches Association, as well as John Morse, who served for many years as counsel for USAS and was cited in 2012 as having been consulted in a decision that led to no action being taken against a coach accused of highly questionable behaviour. The disturbing events surround all of that, USA Swimming’s then CEO Chuck Wielgus and the now former head of USA Swimming’s Safe Sport program Susan Woessner is told in this article at Concussion Inc.
In the latest series of accusations of abuse in the United States, Leonard was accused of harassment this week. He issued a ‘categoric denial’ and provided the ASCA Board with his version of events dating back to the employment of Sarah Ehekircher for a couple of months in 2004 before she was dismissed on the grounds that she “was not up to the job”.
The minutes of the 1991 meeting highlight that the issue of abuse in swimming in the USA was as serious back then as it has become in the past eight years since USA Swimming established its Safe Sport program.
Indeed, rules and review-board provisions covering sexual misconduct have been a part of the legislature of USA Swimming for decades. It was not until 2010, however, that the existence of a list of banned members was widely known about and made public. Today, that list stretches to some 150 coaches and others and includes some high-profile figures such as Rick Curl, jailed for abuse, Mitch Ivey and Everett Uchiyama, USA Swimming’s former U.S. National Team Director.
Critics and advocates for abuse victims say, however, that the banned list does not go nearly far enough, does not include some leading figures who face serious allegations of having had sex with under-age swimmers in their programs; does not include non-members who nonetheless continue to work in swimming in the America, a prime example that of George Gibney, the Irish coach who left for a life in the USA in the 1990s after being called out by several swimmers, girls and boys, who claim he raped and sexually assaulted them but who wait yet for justice to be served.
The minutes of the 1991 meeting highlight the urgent need for a truth and reconciliation process in the war of claim and counter claim raging at the heart and soul of USA Swimming. Such a process is also called for because some of those who now stand in the firing line of not having done enough – and even some who stand accused of having blocked measures now accepted as essential to “Safe Sport” – are no longer alive to answer for themselves.
The 1991 minutes of the Committee on Abuses – which can be read here – suggest that there are truths to be told that would be helpful on the road to a better place but may remain hidden because of the serious risk of self-incrimination, direct or indirect, as lawyers line up with those alleging abuse that took place more than 10, 20 and even 30 years ago. Some of those making accusations entered non-disclosure agreements in which where the abuser – and, according to some evidence, the leadership of swimming – effectively bought their silence; some brought their cases to USA Swimming and others only to find their claims blocked; while others let time pass without lodging any official complaint about what they now allege to have taken place.
Who knew what and when may always be left to ‘he said, she said, they said something else’ unless those who could provide answers to pressing questions are provided with a forum that offers certain protections from criminal prosecution. Such conditions could not apply to those accused of sex crimes nor could they be extended to assurances that it will be ‘business of usual’ without loss of position and authority if a review process recommends otherwise.
The bosses who received recommendations for Safe Sport in 1991
The minutes of the 1991 meeting went to the Board of Directors and were seen by the likes of then president of the aquatics federation Bill Maxson and Carol Zaleski, a long-time leading light at FINA as head of the powerful Technical Swimming Committee (and member 1992 to this day), President of USA Swimming for an unprecedented four terms (1986-1988, 1988-1990, 1994-1996, 1996-1998), a member of the Board of Directors all the while and one of the founders of the US Sports Insurance Company (USSIC).
These days, Maxson is the chair of the USA Swimming Foundation’s Board, an arm of USA Swimming that includes in its staff list Olympic champions Rowdy Gaines (NBC commentator) and Mel Stewart (co-founder of the SwimSwam niche swimming website), who claimed the world title over 200m butterfly three months before fellow national teamster Berkoff chaired the 1991 Committee on Abuses meeting. Neither former national team members were in positions of authority at USA Swimming but through their foundation roles may now face pressure to call for transparency, truth and accountability.
The 1991 gathering, over three days in early May, discussed various forms of abuse, including doping and what to do about parents who berated and engaged in abusive behaviour towards their children when cajoling them to go faster in training and at meets. The issues related to sexual misconduct are the most relevant to the current crisis in the United States.
The recommendations of 1991 highlight what can quite comfortably be described as the contemptible wilful blindness or contemptible and unacceptable ignorance (or both) in the following words from Chuck Wielgus, the CEO of USA Swimming between 1998 and 2017, when he apologised to victims of abuse in 2014:
“Going back in time, I wish I knew long before 2010 what I know today. I wish my eyes had been more open to the individual stories of the horrors of sexual abuse. I wish I had known more so perhaps I could have done more. I cannot undo the past. I’m sorry, so very sorry.”Chuck Wielgus
Wielgus was CEO at a time when any of those present and informed in 1991, including Zaleski, Morse, Leonard, Block and many others could and – as ASCA Board member and former USA Team boss Mark Schubert told SwimVortex this week – did tell him that bad things had and were still happening.
In light of the lack of action and the denials that much was known about abuse cases even as late as 2014, the recommendations of 1991, painful as they are to read, are more than worth listing. They include:
- The creation of a Conduct Review Board (CRB), the membership of which would involve a two-year rotation to avoid long-termism but was to be chosen by the president of USS (Unites States Swimming, later USA Swimming) and approved by the Board of Directors
- That the federation’s Legislation Committee create a rule allowing any member convicted of sexual misconduct to “instantly lose their USS card” and be subject to the CRB.
- That further consideration be given to how long anyone convicted of sexual misconduct would have to be wait before they could approach the CRB in pursuit of reinstatement.
- That all members alleged to have been involved in any incident of “non-adjudicated sexual misconduct be subject to review by the CRB”
- That all ‘positive’ findings of abuse be made public
- That provision be made for complaints to be heard by the CRB in “an anonymous, private, and confidential way’
- That false accusations also be legislated against
- That an education program for coaches, parents and athletes be developed, backed by a $300,000 budget and to include “a videotape, workbook, and handbook for each parent … “.
- That a $25,000 budget be allocated to a program in which LSCs would send a “local expert in the field o abuse in sport (psycologist or counselor [sic]) for training by USS at the ORTC. A workbook and handbook would be devised. (A sub-note remarked that such a plan might be ineffective in reaching the people bit was aimed at because those “who put pressure on their children assume they know everything about swimming anyway” and may simply ignore the advice.
- Coach education programs that included insight into “rubdowns, physical abuse by coaches, and coaching style”. The issue of Sexual Misconduct was handed over to “ASCA, NCAA, ICAR” for further consideration.
- ASCA and USS to publish bibliography or list of resources on abuse issues and to make that available to the membership
- A swimmers survey to be conducted to “gain perspective of how pervasive some issues were in the sport; couple with the creation of an athletes newsletter top spread awareness.
The Committee on Abuses noted on its education plan:
“The philosophy behind this idea is that the only way to help the retention of younger athletes is to create a healthy environment for them. By educating parents, preventing abuses and ignorance within the sport, more athletes will continue with swimming rather than switch to another sport. We feel this is by far the moist productive and effective way of reaching parents; let’s give them something tangible and meaningful for their commitment and money.”
Berkoff had resigned from the committee and Board as athlete representative within two years, frustrated at the lack of progress to have recommendations turned to action.
The CRB was never founded, while it would be six years before a Board of Review and its provisions were rule-book-bound. Berkoff’s decision to move on at the age of 24, deprived USA sports governance of a key mind and an athlete keen to have his federation get to grips with the issues of abuse that were the subject of rumour and speculation as well as serious allegations, including events and processes in which athletes brought their stories to the national federation only to have them “put on the shelf or hushed up”, in the words of one victim of abuse whose case eventually led to a coach conviction.
Years, in some instances decades, went by before any of the 1991 committee’s recommendations came into effect. Some members of the committee were frustrated by the legal advice being given at the time when the issue of banning those who fell foul of sex-related misconduct came up that it would be wrong to “deny a man the right to make a living” and that such matters were best left for “the clubs to decide”. Sources say that such advice was given by former counsel to the federation Barney Favaro, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 91.
To add insult to injury, Berkoff’s decision to leave USA Swimming was reinforced by an incident that made a mockery of that 1991 note on the value of an education program that would “create a healthy environment” for swimmers and their parents.
Berkoff had approached Ray Essick – the then and the first Executive Director of the federation from 1980, when USS was renamed USA Swimming – to ask for help to fund an academic study he was conducting to evaluate the amount of carcinogenic chloro-organic chemicals swimmers were being exposed to in practices. The issues was particularly relevant to those who spend far more time in treated water than the general population.
According to sources present at the time, Essick responded by asking Berkoff, in so many words, ‘if it turns out that swimmers are being exposed to carcinogens do you think people might pull their kids from competitive swimming?’
Berkoff thought it might, said the source, to which Essick responded to the effect of ‘why the hell would we want to study something that might drop our membership’. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, as far as Berkoff was concerned.
Essick is no longer here to respond to a recollection that suggests the kind of behaviour that runs through the strata of Margaret Heffernan’s excellent “Wilful Blindness – Why We Ignore The Obvious At Our Peril“.
One of the members of the 1991 committee recalls the abuse meetings with mixed feelings, believing that while much good work was done, there was a “resistance” to pressing the issues of Safe Sport among coaches.
SwimVortex put that and other questions about the 1991 and subsequent abuse committee meetings to John Leonard. He could not recall the specific and inaugural meeting that gave rise to the minutes now seen by SwimVortex – but could recall a round of meetings that came up with recommendations on safe sport but did not lead to those – as well as provisions already in ASCA’s Code of Ethics – being adopted by USA Swimming.
Asked if ASCA had implemented any of the educational programs and other recommendations made by the 1991 committee, he turned first to the athlete education measures to note that those were the responsibility of USA Swimming, the coaching body having no direct jurisdiction over athletes. That thought isn backed up by a note in the 1991 minutes in which the committee agrees that athlete education ought too be down to USA Swimming.
He noted that he backed all the provisions discussed but had threatened to quit the group when “discussion drifted into ’emotional abuse’ … I had no interest in discussing that when there is no legal definition for what that would mean”.
He noted, too, that “no sex between coaches and their swimmers, of whatever age” was added to the ASCA Code of Ethics in 1989, while sex with minors was a crime “that should be reported to law enforcement and be dealt with by a court”. He added:
“I agreed with the view that ‘regardless of age, you do not have sex with your swimmers. I was among those who insisted on that, even though it was understood that we were also dealing with adults over the age of consent.”
The ASCA Level 1 Course for coaches includes education on the Code of Ethics that is a condition of membership. “At that level, coaches are made aware and taught about the issues involved, including all the way to the clear line ‘don’t break the law’,” said Leonard.
Why did he think that USA Swimming had allowed 19 years to go by between the 1991 recommendations and the Safe Sport program of 2010 – and that even as late as 2014, the head of the federation was saying ‘we just didn’t realise’? He replied frankly:
“I just don’t have an answer. I have no idea. I think at various points along the way, for whatever reason, some of this was just lost to other issues and lost in time.”
He said that all the recommendations were out to the Board of Directors on more than one occasion but they were “simply not adopted. I don’t know why”.
One thing was clear to him: while ASCA had a clear ‘no sex between teacher and pupil’ rule, USA Swimming did not place that in its rules because “athletes themselves said ‘you can’t tell us who we have a right to have sex with’.”
Some athletes suggest that the line was also one that came from coaches. After resistance to moves for USA Swimming adopt a “no relationships between coaches and swimmers” proposal in 2010, the policy passed into the rulebook in 2012 after the United States Olympic Committee said it was adopting the provision. National teamster and Olympic podium placer Margaret Holzer was a leading light in having the rule passed at USA Swimming.
One former athlete recalled that in 1991 Berkoff had said on several occasions that “USAS is going to get sued for the abuse by certain coaches and it’s going to be ugly” but when he did so he was “scoffed at”.
Depositions provided under oath include 2010-2014 statements from USA Swimming board members and ASCA stating that Berkoff was either mistaken or even lying in his own deposition when he recalled forming a ‘sub-committee on abuses in 1991 or 1992’.
Berkoff was neither mistaken nor was he lying, as the 1991 minutes prove.
Asked how the document resurfaced and how he felt about it, Berkoff told SwimVortex:
“The document was ‘discovered’ after someone at Rich Young’s office found the minutes in USAS’s records – three weeks after I had been deposed the third time in lawsuits filed by abuse victims.”
Lawyer Robert Allard was behind one of those depositions and, says Berkoff, “he has accused me of crazy stuff”.
On the Board members and coaches who said he was mistake, recalled something that did not happen and those who said he was lying, Berkoff noted:
“I had my memory and sanity questioned and no one backed me up. However, I testified as best I could without having the minutes in front of me of my recollections regarding this meeting and the timing of it. Allard was frustrated by my lack of commitment on these issues but I wasn’t going to swear under oath about something from 20 years ago without seeing the document I knew existed somewhere.
“USAS’s attorney [who was relieved from her duties soon after the events described] sent me the document and apologised profusely. She agreed that everything that I had testified to was nearly 100% accurate.”
The timing of the discovery of the minutes left some shaking their heads in frustration.
Berkoff, right, says he simply feels “vindicated”, having known all along that the meeting took place, that serious recommendations were made, even though he was unable, after the passing of much time, to swear to the precise contents of a document that was thought to have been lost in time.
Berkoff was recruited back to the Board by those who knew USA Swimming must change its ways on abuse in 2010.
He told SwimVortex that some good steps have now been made but that much more needs to be done:
“Safe Sport can certainly improve but to simply dismiss what was done between 2010 and 2014 as paltry or ineffective is simply not the case. If USAS wants to clean house and hold people accountable, there are a few long-timers still involved who, in my opinion, need to go as a result of doing nothing.”
Berkoff was among those who insisted on requiring mandatory reporting of abuse, the removal of civil and criminal statutes of limitation, and other measures. Some big moves were made, some key provisions resisted and some things are now at the heart of investigation as the U.S. Olympic sports system comes under scrutiny like never before.
Among key accusations against USA Swimming is that it and its legal advice, led by Rich Young – a lawyer whose roles at USA Swimming and FINA have been criticised as a conflict of interest in the sense that there are times when the decisions of the two bodies are incompatible – placed priority on the “protection of its brand” ahead of the safety and welfare of athletes.
The Safe Sport Act, signed into law last month after a campaign led by Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the 1984 100m freestyle champion turned lawyer, advocate of abuse victims and head of Champion Women, has changed the game on protecting children and older athletes in U.S. sport.
Even so, a cultural shift is yet to take place, among accusations levelled at the federation that the “fundamental values of the federation are misplaced”.
SwimVortex sent a list of questions to USA Swimming two weeks ago. Prompted to respond, the federation eventually replied to confirm that it had received the questions and “…should addressing them be something we are in a position to do moving forward we will advise you of such”.
Comment was also requested from Carol Zaleski, George Block, Bill Maxson and Rich Young. George Block responded with a comprehensive note, which forms part of those series.