While I was working on my education degree we were warned by professors to never be left alone with a student; never give them a ride home alone; always pull in someone to be a witness during a reprimand… these were general ways to protect ourselves from false accusations. We were told that one accusation can be enough to ruin a career.
Unfortunately I have seen that happen often in cases that are unrelated to swimming, where a person later admits they lied about what happened. Coaches and teachers are in a position where a kid with a vendetta could do a lot of damage, the court of public opinion can harshly make up their minds against us without knowing the facts, and we do need to be protected… but that doesn’t mean that we can’t take every accusation seriously. Every child who comes forward, even with just a rumor, needs to be taken very seriously.
Often organizations will suspend someone with pay while an investigation goes on. That seems fair. This says that “we need to know more before we let you work with kids again, but out of respect for you, we don‘t want to put your family in financial jeopardy while we take the time to sort this out. You are still innocent until proven guilty, but we are in the business of protecting children.” While it is not good practice to fire someone and smear their reputation over a rumor, we can act with sensibility on rumors in the interest of protecting kids. I would expect my employers to be fair and to support me if an accusation were leveled against me, but I also understand that schools and swim teams cannot just let these things go. Action needs to be taken.
USA Swimming has this thing called the “banned list.” That list gives USA Swimming the power to make sure that someone unfit to work with children at least never coaches swimming again. Should we formally make a “suspended pending investigation list” to help to keep us from ruining reputations by putting someone on the “banned for life” list without having to wait for a conviction in a court of law? Should we have a "flagged list" so that when a coach is hired, the board of that club could get a call from USA Swimming leadership saying "we want you to be aware of these reports we have received about this coach which may or may not be substantiated?" It sounds like in the case of Mitch Ivey, even that was not enough to keep the University of Florida from hiring him... but at least they knew of his past when they did.
With the list we have the power to keep pedophiles away from our kids even if they get off on a technicality like George Gibney; even if they have never been to court over their violations like Mitch Ivey; even if all we have is recurring rumors like we have had with so many other violators. We have the power to essentially say, “hey, you aren’t allowed to coach because we aren‘t too sure about you.” It is not like putting someone on our list is the same as throwing them in prison without a trial.
I have really struggled with the whole “Splash of Truth” thing. I don’t like anonymous accusations and I have avoided writing on this topic until now because I don’t want to contribute to smearing someone’s name when I don’t know the facts… but I have to say that even though I don’t agree with SOT‘s tactics, I understand that the site was born out of frustration with a culture that has muffled the voices of victims. When proper channels lead to dead ends, improper channels are naturally carved out. I cannot imagine what these victims have gone through. To feel ignored when they have worked up the bravery to come forward must be crushing.
I have been very careful to follow the advice of my professors to protect myself from false accusations, but if one accusation can ruin my career, why is Mitch Ivey not on the banned list when his history is so well documented? Why are high school coaches’ convictions not getting them on the list and keeping them out of the USA ranks? How in the hell did Andy King get to move from club to club for forty years with so many reports of abuse? Under what rationale did Everett Uchiyama get a letter of recommendation for a job at a country club by our leadership; and how on Earth was Deena Deardurff-Schmidt ignored for so long, especially after holding a press conference?! Hell, I knew she was talking about Paul Bergen the first time I read about her case! Does our leadership just not believe that these people are capable of such horrible things? Does their opinion on these people trump the protection of athletes? He said/ she said arguments might not always go far in the court of law, but they should be enough to take some kind of sensible action in the name of protection.
As our leadership has pointed out, this is not just a swimming problem. Even the Kanakuk Christian Camp kept a guy on staff for ten years after the first incident was reported and he went on to molest kids on a grand scale. We have seen events like this uncovered in the Catholic Church over the last decade. Our sport has the rules and resources in place to not make the same mistakes. I just don’t get it!
I know that it would not be easy for anyone, but I like to think that if a student or athlete of mine came to me with an accusation against a colleague, that I would be able to do the right thing, even if that colleague was a friend. I would make sure that the child was taken seriously. Parents and the authorities would be contacted. USA Swimming would be contacted through their hotline. The coach would be suspended from working with kids until the matter was sorted out, while honoring that the person is innocent until proven guilty… and I would hope that USA Swimming would at least keep that person from moving on to another club until his name has been officially cleared.
I hope that with the adoption of a hotline system, the hiring of Susan Woessner and USA Swimming’s recent policy changes, we can develop a system that protects athletes and coaches with fairness and respect. We have a lot of work to do in seeking justice for victims, and unfortunately for many it will always be seen as too little, too late.