Rocked by allegations of rampant sexual misconduct within its coaching ranks, USA Swimming unveiled a plan Wednesday to make it easier for athletes to report abuse, look into the need for more thorough background checks and establish clear guidelines for appropriate conduct.
USA Swimming sent an open letter from president Jim Wood and executive director Chuck Wielgus detailing a seven-point plan that they said will start to address some of the concerns raised by several lawsuits around the country, along with an ABC report that detailed a pattern of coaches having inappropriate sexual contact with their athletes.
In the letter, Wielgus said USA Swimming has “a responsibility to help create a safe and positive environment for children and young adults who are our members.”
The organization has more than 300,000 members and has experienced rapid growth over the past decade, largely due to the popularity of 14-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps.
“We are taking decisive action today, but this is only the beginning,” Wood said in a statement. “The USA Swimming board of directors, national staff and our dedicated volunteers will continue to work together and seek the necessary expertise — both from within the swimming community and from outside sources — to evaluate and improve our protocols and safeguards.”
Jonathan Little, an Indianapolis attorney who filed one of at least four ongoing sexual abuse cases against USA Swimming, was skeptical of the organization’s plan.
“This was a rash, rushed reaction from USA Swimming,” Little told The Associated Press. “Since its inception, USA Swimming has been trying to police itself. They know that coaches have sex with athletes. Everyone knows it, but no one does anything about it.”
Little represents Brooke Taflinger, an All-American swimmer at Indiana University who came forward with allegations against her coach, Brian Hindson. In 2008, Hindson was sentenced to up to 35 years in federal prison for secretly videotaping young female swimmers showering.
At least three other lawsuits have been filed against USA Swimming around the country. On Monday, a case was brought in Kansas City, Mo., accusing a suburban coach with having a sexual relationship with a teenage swimmer.
Last month, Deena Deardurff Schmidt, a 1972 Olympic champion, disclosed that as she trained in the 1960s, she was repeatedly molested by her coach. Despite telling officials at USA Swimming years later, she said, the coach — whom she wouldn’t name — went on to train more young swimmers and was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
Her comments came after a separate lawsuit was filed in Santa Clara County, Calif., alleging that more than 30 coaches nationwide have engaged in sexual misconduct with young females.
This month, ABC’s “20/20” reported that at least 36 coaches have been banned for life by USA Swimming over the last 10 years because of sexual misconduct.
“This is an opportunity for us to change youth sports and USA Swimming,” Little said. “That’s the most important thing. You can already see that USA Swimming knows they have to change. We are starting to see that happen. But until they are willing to remove the bad apples from their midst, they’re not serious.”
USA Swimming said it will develop comprehensive guidelines on what is acceptable coaching behavior; enhance the system for reporting sexual abuse to the governing body and law enforcement; determine if improvements need to be made in the current system of background checks; and develop stronger ties with local clubs that are responsible for hiring coaches.
The plan also calls for a review of USA Swimming’s conduct code and how it compares to other top youth organizations, as well as the process for sharing coaches’ records with member clubs and other youth organizations. Finally, the governing body said it must educate athletes, parents, coaches and club leaders on what they can do to help stamp out sexual abuse.
USA Swimming said it will share the key findings in its report with other youth organizations, within and outside the Olympic movement.
“While we must properly focus our efforts on the micro world of swimming, we must simultaneously recognize the much broader societal implications,” Wielgus said. “Our efforts should seek to both learn from others and then in turn share what we learn so that not only will the membership of USA Swimming benefit, but other youth organizations may also find ways to enhance their own safeguards and educational efforts.”
Since 2006, USA Swimming has required background checks for all coaches every two years. The organization screens for criminal convictions and criminal charges involving felonies, illegal drugs and sexual misconduct.
Little said the organization should do more thorough checks incorporating the FBI database, and not just focus on cases that reach the criminal justice system.
“They need to have real background checks,” the attorney said, “not this crap they’ve been doing.”