USA Swimming supposedly hired an outside firm, the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center, to give an assessment of its Safe Sport program and address how well the internal program has performed when it comes to investigating allegations of athlete sexual abuse.
There was mention of addressing the USA Swimming population of almost 350,000 members and requiring them to act as mandatory reporters, being on the look out for abuse in the home. There was also mention of the fact that swimmers expose much of their body when in swimming suits so that abuse in the home might be more widely recognized.
All these issues are important but they miss the mark when it comes to understanding the power dynamic between the coach and the athlete. It is critical to address coaches' behaviors that are professionally unacceptable but tolerated for fear the coach will retaliation by withdrawing teaching attention or selection for competition. The report also fails to understand the role that parents play in pushing their child to success and encouraging their children to do whatever the coach tells them to do.
Parents come to Safe4Athletes daily asking for advice and help on how to address the coach's misuse of power in the sports environment. These answers and solutions are within reach if the sports program has implemented the Safe4Athletes program because policies specifically prohibit grooming, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, physical and sexual abuse as well as bullying behaviors. There are clear and concise definitions and actions to be taken in response to such behaviors. These administrative actions are swift because they happen at the local level. There is no risk of delay or reports being lost in the bureaucracy of the national organization.
When such a locally administered program is not in place, parents and athletes have little recourse unless they go to USA Swimming and file a complaint which can take in some cases years or offer no resolution at all. What do parents and abused athletes do in the meantime -- sit around in frustration or find another place to train? The negative choices in such a situation are endless. Lack of swift and certain resolution causes frustration amongst the teammates and the parents alike.
Unless these issues are handled at the local level where among parents, protection of their children is paramount, they will flow into the system which USA Swimming and other national sport governing organizations answer to and sometimes protect their member coaches. Unless there is a complete leadership and cultural change in USA Swimming that mandates complaints to be investigated and actions to remove coaches at every level, first and foremost the local level, the current model of reporting to USA Swimming will continue to fail. Vieth reported that at least one-third of the 150 reports of sexual or other abuse were not investigated. There is no victim relief in these cases. No one at USA Swimming can say that these victims were responded to in sensitive and sympathetic way. .
The same style that develops an athlete to be an Olympic Gold Medalists is often the same coaching style that brings abuse of all kinds. Unless we can understand this issue as a sports/coaching style and interrelated power structure issue, then any investigation by an outside agency will continue to miss the mark.
The power dynamic of striving for an Olympic Gold and the coach holding the keys to that kingdom will always produce a "coach is most important" resolution rather than an "athlete first" platform. This report should be considered formally acted upon by athletes and parents rather than USA Swimming coach members who have a conflict of interest. Give every athlete a vehicle to have a voice. USA Swimming must listen, learn and change to respond to the athletes' rather than coaches' needs.
If we continue to address this topic like there are few and randomly encountered child pedophiles in sports rather than the very real possibility that the lack of policing in youth sports invites pedophiles to pursue their prurient interests, then we are doing a disservice to every athlete who is striving to be the best athlete they can be and every parent who trusts USA Swimming and their local club programs to protect their children.
It's well past time for the executive director of USA Swimming to take responsibility for allowing this unsafe culture to thrive. A new leadership team is required, one that empowers every local club to break up the power dynamic at the local level. Without enforcement and code of conduct mechanisms in place like that proposed by the Safe4Athletes system, then all the Vieth report recommendations are meaningless.
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