Question: What do USA Swimming and the Catholic Church have in common?
Answer: A big disgusting sex scandal, that’s what.
For several months USA Swimming has been embroiled in lawsuits and accusations related to their lax oversight of and response to numerous instances of male coach sexual misconduct with young female swimmers, some as young as eleven. It has recently come to light that, over the last ten years, USA Swimming has banned 36 male swim coaches for sexual misconduct with female team members. Those are just the ones who have been identified. One of the men on the list is Everett Uchiyama, former director of the US National Team.
The abused swimmers who have come forward, their parents, and their lawyers believe that USA Swimming has failed to take seriously their responsibility to conduct thorough background checks on coaches affiliated with USA Swimming. This ABC 20/20 segment on this scandal includes an incredibly tone deaf interview with the executive director of USA Swimming, Chuck Wielgus, that illustrates the problem. Like the leaders of the Catholic Church, he doesn’t seem to understand the magnitude of the problem or want to take responsibility for his organization’s role in failing to protect young girls and women in USA Swimming sponsored programs from sexual predator coaches.
To be sure, USA Swimming is not solely to blame. Parents bear some responsibility as well as local swim clubs who hire these guys. However, it has taken public scrutiny and lawsuits to force USA Swimming to make public the list of banned coaches and begin to beef up their policies and procedures for education, protection, and investigation.
In one of his most insensitive moments, Chuck Wielgus chides the teenaged victims for not coming forward sooner. Right. You are 11, 12 or 13 years old. You have a dream. You want to make the Olympic team. Your coach is going to help you realize your dream. He knows what to do. You want to please him. He’s your coach, you do what he says. You work hard. He is an adult. He is a good coach. Everyone says so. He gets results. What are you to do when he starts doing things that don’t feel right? Do you tell your parents? What will they say? Will the coach stop helping you reach your dream? Is it your fault that he is acting this way? Maybe the special attention feels good in some ways…for awhile. You decide to keep a secret in hopes that things will get better or you can pretend it isn’t happening so that you can keep swimming toward your dream.
Listen to the women athletes who have been sexually abused by their coaches. Even after many years, now adults, they know they have had something stolen from them by men who they trusted to have their best interests at heart when all they really wanted was a secret grope in the equipment room or a blow job in their car on the ride home from practice. One coach directed certain female swimmers to use a “special” locker room where he had a hidden camera set up to secretly record them changing their clothes and showering. I feel like I need a shower just talking about it.
Celia Brackenridge wrote a terrific book, Spoilsports, that examines coach sexual exploitation of athletes. These sexual predators know how to “groom” their targets slowly, gaining their trust and gradually escalating their sexual abuse from simple thoughtfulness or affection to sexually exploitation. It should be required reading for all parents of young girls in sport and the leaders of sport associations like USA Swimming.
A big part of the problem, of course, is that coaches have too much power over their athletes. Athletes tolerate (and parents sometimes condone or ignore or are completely unaware of) all kinds of abusive treatment at the hands of coaches in hopes of reaching their athletic dreams. Athletes and parents often give coaches more trust than they deserve. Athletes spend long hours with a coach, often unsupervised by anyone else, which provides a sexual predator coach with the privacy he needs to get what he wants. The institutions that hire coaches and the organizations that sanction them spend too much time looking at a coach’s win/loss records or the number of Olympians he has tutored and not enough time investigating allegations or suspicions of sexual misconduct by the rotten apples who spoil sport for everyone.
Coach sexual abuse of athletes is a heinous act. It should be treated as the serious crime it is. Every athlete and her or his parents should be educated about what it is, how to recognize it, and what to do about it. Every sports organization should have a strong policy and procedure front and center for dealing with it. A good coach must know more than the best ways to train an athlete for competition. He or she must know what ethical standards are required of adults who have the privilege of coaching young people and must adhere to them.
Since this is an LGBT sports blog, I will say that coach sexual abuse of athletes is not a gender or sexual orientation issue. It is wrong no matter who the coach is. That said, can we also contemplate the possibility that there may something about heterosexual male privilege, the sexual exploitation of women, and sexism in general that makes this problem primarily one of male perpetrators and female victims? I am not saying that heterosexual women or lesbian coaches could not be sexual predators, but I think that our culture has a tendency to create, tolerate or excuse male sexual predators and blame their female victims for calling our attention to them. It is way past time to challenge this passivity in response to sex abuse by men whether we are talking Catholic Church or the local club swim team.