Some readers may have taken one look at our provocative November/December cover and wondered, “Why must we dwell on such an unpleasant topic as sex abuse? Why do we want to draw attention to an issue that has already given aquatics a black eye?” I can answer all of those questions with two words: the victims.
Those are the brave young women who came forward to expose the sex abuse scandal brewing at USA Swimming for more than three decades — as well as any who remained silent. If this article, which clearly lays out steps to help prevent future abuse, stops even one more child from being victimized, it’s worth any criticism we might face.
Of course, an article won’t stop another Andy King from victimizing impressionable and vulnerable young athletes. Only a wholesale change in the attitudes, behaviors and policies at all levels of competitive aquatics can accomplish that.
On that front, aquatics apparently has a long way to go. For instance, there’s the response John Leonard, executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association, gave when asked what the industry can do to prevent future abuse. His answer? Nothing. Instead, Leonard did the equivalent of blaming the victim. He said unless victims or their parents come forward, his organization and the whole of aquatics can do nothing.
At best, that response shows a gross misunderstanding of the issue; at worst, it demonstrates a disturbing ignorance. Experts know sex abuse leaves victims with deep distrust and fear. To expect adolescent boys and girls to police their adult role models is unrealistic and insensitive. In my opinion, someone with those attitudes should not be in a positions of aquatic leadership.
Then there’s the organization at the center of this issue: USA Swimming, whose CEO Chuck Wielgus was recently shamed in the media for refusing to apologize to abuse victims and their families. In October, Wielgus gave a keynote address at the World Aquatic Health Conference and outlined steps USA Swimming is taking to prevent future abuse. However, he still seemed unwilling to take full responsibility for what happened at his organization.
Sex abuse, Wielgus said, is not an aquatics problem. It’s a larger societal issue. USA Swimming has adopted new protection policies, not because the organization had a fundamental flaw, but because it feels it has a responsibility to address this larger societal issue. To my mind, he was making USA Swimming the victim.
I’ll give Wielgus the benefit of the doubt and accept that USA Swimming can say nothing else because it’s being sued on multiple fronts. To admit responsibility could be legal suicide. Still, let’s be clear: The true victims of sex abuse are the boys and girls whose trust, innocence and self-worth have been violated. The alleged systematic abuse, and failure to address it for decades, happened at USA Swimming. It happened in aquatics. Therefore, it is an aquatics issue.
Until every aquatics professional accepts that responsibility and then takes proactive steps to prevent abuse, it’s only a matter of time until another child gets victimized.