USA Swimming Reaches For “Reputation Strategist” At Height Of Safe Sport Crisis

USA Swimming's Board of Directors had reason to call in a reputation strategist of late - background image by Patrick B. Kraemer 0- and the reputation message from McGinn

The SwimVortex Safe Sport series

USA Swimming’s leadership invited a strategy company whose billboard message is “Helping Clients Solve Their Most Perplexing and Important Reputation Challenges” to talk to the Board of Directors at the height of the sex abuse and governance crisis in American Olympic sport.

The swim federation’s board met at the turn of the month, just before the scope of planned Senate hearings into the governance of Olympic sport in the United States were extended, and invited ‘reputation strategist’ Dan McGinn to address the gathering. He is said to have described the federation as “a national gem”, while urging a steady-the-buffs approach to events at a time of #MeToo.

One insider who spoke to SwimVortex described McGinn’s comments as “one voice/one message”. The emphasis on reputation, an issue that some point to as a fundamental cause of some of the mistakes USA Swimming’s leadership has made in common with the “brand protection” philosophy of the United States Olympic Committee, has already led to fury among insiders who accuse USA Swimming’s leadership of “still being obsessed with image, not improvement” despite all that has come to pass. A source told SwimVortex:

“This is an appalling way to approach the process of setting right what has clearly gone wrong. They appear to still be obsessed with image, not improvement. When can we expect a statement saying ‘we will never cover up again’, ‘we are committed to supporting victims’, ‘we will root [abusers] out of the pool’.”

SwimVortex has asked USA Swimming for comment.

Further details of a U.S. crisis that raises concerns own a global level are covered in the SwimVortex Safe Sports Series, which on Friday unearthed “Abuses Committee” recommendations of Safe Sport made to the Board of USA Swimming in 1991. Some of the key recommendations were only adopted in 2012, two years after the launch of the federation’s Safe Sport program.

The description to USA Swimming, the organisation (as opposed to the swimmers and coaches at the helm of the world’s No 1 swim team), as “a national gem” at a time when the federation faces questions over how long it took to deal with abuse allegations, how long it took to form a Safe Sport policy and whether it paid victims “hush money”, has brought further criticism from advocates (see the comments and timeline of Nancy Hogshead-Makar below) who have already criticised USA Swimming’s leadership for caring more about its image than the victims of abuse.

At the latest Board meeting, the federation’s “overall strategy” approach to the crisis, one led by the Board chair of USA Swimming Jim Sheehan, left some Board members thirsting for details and response to specific questions, such as how, why, who knew what, when and what did they did about it; what next for the Safe Sport program in the wake of the resignation of its head, Susan Woessner because of events led to questionable practices in the 2011 investigation that concluded very quickly that there was no case to answer when it came to speculation of a relationship between swimmer Ariana Kukors and her coach Sean Hutchison?

Ariana Kukors on her way to the 2009 World titles over 200IM – by Patrick B. Kraemer

Both swimmer and coach felt that they had to lie to a private investigator on a phone back in 2011. Last month, Kukors said she had been groomed by Hutchison since she was a teenager, had had a sexual relationship with him as a minor and that the coach had reserved a particular sex act for Kukors as an 18th birthday present. Hutchison denies having had sex with the swimmer when she was a minor.

Woessner left on the same day as Pat Hogan stepped down as club development head before revelations emerged that he had provided a glowing reference for Everett Uchiyama, the then former National Team Director, to secure employment back in swimming after the federation had slapped him with a permanent ban on grounds of sexual misconduct.

Some board members are said to have wanted more answers on issues raised in an Athlete Board representatives letter and a general letter sent in by athletes calling for change in the wake of revelations related to historic abuse cases, non-disclosure agreements that have been described as “hush-money” deals to silence victims, and the allegations of Kukors against Hutchison, which led to Woessner’s resignation because she failed to declare a conflict of interest.

The March meeting did not manage to get to grips with those issues and, as a result, another Board meeting will be held on April 7 in Denver.

Some Board members belief that now is the time for the federation to acknowledge its mistakes, own them and submit to independent inquiry, including mooted Senate hearings on Olympic sport and the United States Olympic Committee. A source close to USA Swimming’s top table told SwimVortex:

“What we need now is not a closing of ranks. We need transparency and honesty and answers to questions such as precisely how much money has the insurance company that was owned in-house had to pay out to victims of abuse so far; and in the midst of that were victims of abuse paid in return for their silence?”

President of USA Swimming at the time the “Abuses Committee” was fleshing out its 1991 recommendations up to 1994, Carol Zaleski, head of the powerful FINA Technical Swimming Committee and a member of the USA Swimming Board, helped form the insurance company, which was closed down when Chuck Wielgus was the CEO.

Meanwhile, the record shows that the federation waited well over 20 years to implement some of the key recommendations of a special “Abuses Committee” formed in 1991.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar and team just before the start of a press conference held in Washington today by Senator Dianne Feinstein – courtesy of NHM

Asked what she thought about USA Swimming’s leadership calling in a ‘reputation strategist’, Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the 1984 Olympic 100m freestyle champion turned advocate and now the CEO of Champion Women who helped drive the new Safe Sports Act into law, noted the timeline of experience she travelled dealing with sports federations in the United States and gets to point 6 before she notes:

“2014 – I’m getting USA Swimming’s defense of their handling of sexual abuse.”

  1. December 2012 – Although not supported by Scott Blackmun or his staff, the USOC board adopted a policy prohibiting NGB coaches from having sexual and romantic relationships with their athletes, for the first time. (“USOC 12 7 12 Proposed Minimum Requirements Sexual Abuse”)
  2. December 21, 2012, Hogshead-Makar writes “Speedskating SHE NHMFinal 12 21 12” about the need for athletes to have an attorney’s fees provision in the Amateur Sports Act. (The article has been removed from the web.)
  3. January 2013 –I discussed a social media campaign with Blackmun, Malia Arrington, to educate coaches on this new norm; similar to other professions with a power differential and professions dealing with children. Blackmun requests that others refrain from conducting their own social media campaign to educate the coaching community, saying that the USOC would initiate their own campaign. To promote their new rules, Blackman oversees the USOC production of a training video for Olympic coaches. As it turned out, the training video has nothing to do with educating coaches or athletes on the issues of sexual abuse in sports.  Please be prepared to be aghast.
  4. May 28, 2014 – Nancy Hogshead-Makar represents 19 victims of sexual abuse in USA Swimming, signed by 29 stalwarts of the sport – see attached “Wielgus Petition HOF 2014” and “Exhibits Wielgus Hall of Fame” and “Coach Everett Uchiyama Blacked Out 2014” – Parent pleading with Chuck Wielgus to get child molester Everett Uchiyama off the country club pool deck just miles from USA Swimming Headquarters in Colorado Springs, CO.
  5. USA Swimming president:  “Each of us has worked directly with Chuck Wielgus over the past 17 years and we wholeheartedly stand behind him and his outstanding accomplishments,” the statement said. “His integrity and leadership have been inspirational to us, and we have seen first-hand his positive impact on USA Swimming’s 400,000 members that include athletes, parents, volunteers, coaches and staff. “Without hesitation, we attest that Chuck is a man of impeccable character who consistently exhibits a value system steeped in ethics and personal accountability. A stalwart leader in the sport of swimming and amateur athletics, he possesses a history of honesty, compassion and success that merits his induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
  6. 2014 – I’m getting USA Swimming’s defense of their handling of sexual abuse.
  7. June 2, 2014 – It is announced that Chuck Wielgus withdraws his name from Hall of Fame consideration.  Nobody lost their job, nobody lost a board position.
  8. June 10th, 2014: (Just 1 week later!) Blackmun announces he will create independent entity to investigate and sanction sexually abusing coaches “SafeSport” 
  9. January 20, 2015 – Chuck Wielgus, CEO of USA Swimming, receives the “Chief Executive Leadership Award” from the Olympic movement:

Now, imagine Steve Penny of USAG being honored after the Larry Nassar trial….

The Champion Women mission:

  • For those unfamiliar with the events of 1984 – an Olympic first in the pool, with Donna da Varona commentating:

Coaches Point To The Challenge of Getting USA Swimming To Adopt Its Code Of Ethics 

One of those present at the 1991 meeting, George Block, today the president of the World Swimming Coaches Association, recalled, accurately, that the American Swimming Coaches Association, between 1986 and 1989, scoped, wrote, invited feedback and fed that in to a Code of Ethics. That code, which all members had to sign up to as a condition of membership, insisted there should be no sexual relationships between coaches and swimmers of any age.

Asked what the coaches role was back in 1991 on the ‘abuses’ committee, Block sounded a note of frustration when he replied: “All we [the ASCA] could do was revoke their [abusers] ASCA membership, but they could still coach in USA Swimming, high school, college, etc. We didn’t control their ability to coach. We were frustrated and wanted USA Swimming to adopt our code or one similar.”

USA Swimming did no such thing, even through ASCA had formed its Ethics Committee in 1989. Asked why he thought USA Swimming had dragged its heels back in the 1990s, Block said:

“… USA Swimming was not the employer. They didn’t hire, fire, do the reference and background checks, etc. They didn’t want to act like they were, because it opened them up to all sorts of different “employment law” liabilities.”

In answer to criticism that ASCA had not done enough, Block, noting the weighty efforts that went into creating its Code of Ethics, pointed to abuse and relationships as being part of coach education and the qualifications process and noted that “as a part of the process of developing the code, we invited a psychologist, Dr. Darrel Parisher, to present at the ASCA World Clinic.

“He had a couple of full houses. He really focused on getting all of us to understand the “power differential” principles and how that overrode ‘two consenting adults’ [the argument against the ASCA Code of ‘no sex between teacher and pupil of any age’] because there can be no true consent when there is a power differential. So there was about a 4-year, very intense process of education and participation [before the 1991 formation of the Abuses Committee].”

Even so, you will here coaches and others state openly that they can see no problem in sex between consenting adults when discussing the matter in the context of teacher and pupil.

ASCA’s policy was “#1- Report it to the police; #2- If it is a fact, report it as a fact – If it is a rumour, report it as a rumour”, he added.

Looking back at why the issue never made it to the top of USA Swimming’s radar, Block recalled USA-S members being so “afraid to speak on the floor of the House of Delegates” on the issue that they would ask others, Block included, to speak on their behalf. ASCA’s sound bite at the time was designed to shock when it came to college swimming: “Recruit them in April, hit on them in August.” That phrase was described by butterfly legend Mary T. Meagher as “perfect” to sum up what happened sometime when it never should.

Chuck Wielgus

Many years later, the Safe Sport theme was a part of a “governance study” that ASCA asked USA Swimming to conduct, with Chuck Wielgus, then CEO, and Dale Neuburger, former president of USA Swimming from 1998 to 2002, another terms of office that left the core recommendations of the 1991 abuses committee on the shelf, the two people in charge of the process.

Block noted that in the years when Neuburger was USA Swimming president, ASCA requested a governance study, “because we recognised that our governance structure made it impossible to deal with serious issues seriously.” Two years after the start of the study process, “about 75% of the recommendations passed” but the Safe Sport program would not be in place until 2010.

More than a decade would pass between Neuburger, to this day a member of the USA Swimming Board, and Wielgus being asked by coaches in 2001 to make changes to the governance structure that would make it possible to “deal with serious issues” and measures recommended 10 years earlier making it to a Safe Sport program.

To this day, the principle of ‘no sex between teacher and pupil of whatever age’ is still not spelt out in USA Swimming legislature, guidelines containing such references as:

  • Communications between non-athlete adult members and athletes should not include any topic or language that is sexual or inappropriate in nature.
  • Coaches should not engage in sexual intimacies with a former athlete for at least two years after the cessation or termination of professional services.

Dale Neuburger, FINA vice-president

Husain Al Musallam

In 2000, Neuburger took over from Ross Wales as USA Swimming’s man at the top table of FINA. In 2017, as vice-president, Neuburger voted to make Kuwaiti Husain Al-Musallam ‘first vice-president’ of FINA – and thus heir apparent to the throne of world swimming governance – despite a U.S. Justice Department report in which Al-Musallam was cited as a co-conspirator in the guilty plea fraud case of Richard Lai, a Guam soccer official. Almost $1m was transferred to Lai’s bank account from accounts in the control of Al-Musallam and his boss at the Olympic Council for Asia and the Asian Swimming Federation, Sheikh Al-Sabah.

SwimVortex requested comment from Neuburger. We placed questions to Al-Musallam on several occasions last year and have yet to receive any replies.

Neuburger returned the following responses to specific questions that went unanswered:

“The Governance Study, initiated in 2001 and concluded in 2002, was undertaken because of the USA Swimming Board’s interest in having a thorough review of organizational governance for the first time since the National Governing Body was formed in 1980.”

And on Al-Musallam, he noted:

“Mr. Al-Musallam was the only person nominated for the position of FINA First Vice President.”

SwimVortex replied to Neuburger, noting that purpose of the study was to discover what it was about governance that prevented ‘serious issues’ from being tackled.  I write: “Obviously, nothing rates more seriously than sexual abuse of minors. So, I ask again, why do you think that Study did not result in any specific action that led to the adoption of the ASCA Code of Ethics, by then 13 years old, nor the adoption of the key recommendations of the Abuses Committee of 1991?”

On Al-Musallam, the question inherent was not whether he was the only candidate but whether the U.S. representative voted for the Kuwaiti, as confirmed by two other leading figures at the helm of FINA. One member of the executive abstained – and that was not Neuburger, according to his fellow executives. Neuburger has been asked specifically: did you vote for Al-Musallam?

He replied: “The five FINA Vice Presidents met, and only one nomination for First Vice President was put forward to the Congress — Husain Al-Musallam. There were no negative votes cast.”

Neuburger, a director of TSE Consulting, a company that benefits from contacts with FINA, also noted that the approval Al-Musallam came from more than 300 FINA Congress delegates in a vote that excludes the vice-presidents but does not lock them out of influence: the delegates from USA Swimming, of which Neuburger is a member of the Board, voted for the Kuwaiti cited by the U.S. Justice Department as a co-conspirator to corruption. The Kuwaitis denied wrongdoing but their pleas of innocent have not been tested in a court of law.

The SwimVortex Safe Sport Series – so far:

Questions sent out this week to pertinent parties:

Answers provided:

USA Swimming invited a strategy company whose billboard message is “Helping Clients Solve Their Most Perplexing and Important Reputation Challenges” to talk to the Board of Directors at the height of the sex abuse and governance crisis in American Olympic sport. One insider tells SwimVortex: “They appear to still be obsessed with image, not improvement. When can we expect a statement saying ‘we will never cover up again’, ‘we are committed to supporting victims’, ‘we will root pedophiles out of the pool’.”


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