Congress and the USA Swimming scandals

In the early hours of Tuesday, Sept. 30Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps was arrested in Baltimore on his second DUI charge. Immediately, every media outlet covered the story extensively, commentators dispensed scolding essays directed at the American icon, and USA Swimming’s “punishment” of Phelps via a six-month suspension was lauded.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, released a comprehensively detailed 11-page letter that he sent to the FBI in July, requesting the agency to investigate USA Swimming for possible crimes committed related to the decades-long sexual abuse scandal that has engulfed the Olympic governing body. The FBI confirmed in their short response back to Miller that the bureau had indeed visited USA Swimming headquarters in Colorado Springs.  Yet only a handful of media outlets bothered to mention it.

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Miller’s exhaustively footnoted and documented letter goes into detail on numerous cases and contains pointed and consequential passages, among them: “Together, USA Swimming's historical failures to address child abuse, the existence of 'non-compliant victim' files that leave children exposed to future harm, and the fact that the Safe Sport Program appears not to work for all victims raise significant concerns around USA Swimming's ability to police its ranks sufficiently … USA Swimming is regularly failing to address abuse allegations in a complete and timely manner, even though, according to the organization, no statute of limitations exists for abuse cases within its ranks … Accordingly, it is our understanding that leadership and other staff within USA Swimming possess information about previous and presumably present cases of abuse, that, if ignored or improperly investigated, leave children at risk of abuse." 

As I’ve written previously on the Congrrss blog, the USA Swimming sex abuse saga is the most under-covered scandal in sports. The Penn State crisis, no matter how vile and sinister, is a fraction of the breadth of USA Swimming’s history of sexual abuse by coaches and ensuing - and documented - cover-up by USA Swimming officials.

106 coaches now make up the list of coaches permanently banned by USA Swimming, with the vast majority of these names banned since the inception of USA Swimming’s “Safe Sport” program that was instituted in 2010 following numerous embarrassing profiles of USA Swimming in the media. Yet, far too often, no action is taken unless USA Swimming is pressured. The notion of “proactive engagement” to root out abuse simply doesn’t exist at USA Swimming – or the United States Olympic Committee’s (USOC) other governing bodies, for that matter.

Consider that the coaches implicated in abusing their swimmers includes the most heralded names in the sport: Paul Bergen, Jack Nelson (who allegedly abused famed distance swimmer Diana Nyad), Rick Curl, and Mitch Ivey, among many others.

The many cover-ups originating at the Colorado Springs headquarters of USA Swimming range from 

​knowledge of Rick Curl's abuse of Kelly Currin for years before finally banning him (Curl is now serving jail time) 

, to the secret dismissal of their own executive employee in Colorado Springs - former National Coach Everett Uchiyama who was found to have molested a swimmer in his charge -  to the handling of allegations against Florida-based coach Alex Pussieldi; USA Swimming has known for years of allegations of Pussieldi’s secret bathroom videotaping of boy swimmers who resided in his home, yet nothing has ever been done about it.

Further, in Pussieldi’s case, the media was also oddly complicit as Sharon Robb, who at the time was the swim reporter for the South Florida Sun Sentinel – Florida is one of the hotbeds of perverted dysfunction in the swim universe - actually advised the briefly suspended Pussieldi (he was briefly suspended but not by  USA Swimming) on how to obtain a police report and then stated, “It’s good to have a copy just for your files in case this gets out of hand….keep in touch and call me when you are reinstated so I can write another story saying you are back coaching…” (the ellipses are in her original correspondence).

Astoundingly, and most damning, is that there has been zero accountability; not one executive of USA Swimming has resigned or faced a criminal inquiry. Chuck Wielgus, the Executive Direct of USA Swimming infamously uttered the words, “you want me to apologizes to them”, when asked by an ABC News correspondent in 2010 about what he should tell victims.

It turns out Wielgus finally did apologize … four years later. This past summer, Wielgus was up for induction at the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale. But a petition, organized the Womens Sports Foundation, forced Wielgus to remove his name from consideration and he followed that with a pathetic and self-serving letter titled “I’m Sorry.”  

But the forgoing of one’s enshrinement in a Hall of Fame hardly ranks as accountability and this is why Miller’s public release of his thorough investigation should cast a new light on why there needs to be Congressional hearings and further criminal investigations into USA Swimming. Since Congress, via the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act of 1978, created the current structure of the USOC, they must utilize their oversight responsibilities – and not rely on USA Swimming or the USOC “self-policing.” Additionally victims advocate and other nonprofit groups must be vigilant about applying pressure.

Monica Strzempko, whose daughter’s recent saga of being repeatedly raped as a young teenager by her swim coach was referenced in Miller’s report, had this to say when I asked her what she wanted to see happen after the release of the report yesterday. She said, “This investigation must not stop with the FBI request. There should be a public hearing on Capitol Hill where USA Swimming and USOC officials would be compelled to testify for all to see.  Chuck Wielgus gets to say 'sorry' and keep his job?  What about the victims? Where is the outrage? Where is the accountability? If the government doesn't act, then who will?"

Julia Krahe, spokesperson for Rep. Miller, when responding to a query related to future steps that Congress might take, stated: “He (Miller) intends to see Congress continue its focus on this critical issue, informed by the committee's investigation and the results of the pending GAO report, and is working with his colleagues toward that end. One valuable next step would be for Chairman [John] Kline [R-Minn.] to call a committee hearing on the issue of sex abuse of children in athletic programs, schools, or any setting outside the home, as Rep. Miller has repeatedly requested."

The victims deserve nothing less. 

Joyce is a sports reporter who has covered the USA Swimming sex abuse scandal for nearly three years, most recently for concussioninc.net.