When I read yesterday that Ben Sheppard, USA Swimming's (now former) Diversity Consultant and club coach in the Oakland area, had been fired, I have to admit I wasn't that shocked. I wasn't shocked because I know that there are far more coaches that have inappropriate sexual interactions with their swimmers than have been "caught" That is pretty depressing. Sheppard wasn't someone I knew well, or at all, but he was a facebook friend. In this weird new era, Ben Sheppard and I were "friends" although I never recall having a conversation with him.
And now he has been suspended from his club and fired from USA Swimming, according to the article linked to above. The allegations against Sheppard center around facebook messages to swimmers. If there's a silver lining in this story, it's that the young girls that made the report understood that what they were being sent was not right. That's not insignificant.
The title of this post is devoted to the fact that we, as a swimming community, still seem to be in denial. There is no question in my mind that despite all attempts to cast this as a "societal problem", its far more frequent in swimming than in general. It's a big problem and we could do a lot more to solve it if we actually admitted that it existed.
The problem is, of course, that USA Swimming is being sued and part of that lawsuit hinges on sexual abuse being prevalent in swimming. So the denial will continue, even from sensible people in the organization who know exactly what is going on. If and when USA Swimming verifies the accusations against Sheppard, there will be a concerted effort to not discuss the matter.
But as the frequent refrain goes, admitting you have a problem is only the first step. USA Swimming has taken action, most of it in the form of creating more hoops for coaches to jump through in order to be on deck. I would like to see USA Swimming tackle this topic from another angle, a more positive one. Let's do more to encourage the right people to be on deck with kids.
Right now, swim coaching is disproportionately represented by unmarried men. Why? Just read fellow blogger Shawn Klosterman's post from earlier this week if you want to know the particular stress coaching swimming can put on having a family. Or ask almost any coach. Not every coach works the kind of insane hours that Shawn works, but most coaches work during times that other professionals are likely to have "off", nights and weekends. That's time you can use to have a normal social life. With a summer season that cuts clear into the middle of August, there's no true "off season" for swimming.
And the above only addresses issues that coaches of any gender face. Women coaches are under even more pressure, and in my opinion that they are fewer in number. If you somehow pass through all the above as a female and get married and want to have a family, there is absolutely no "good" time of year for you to have a baby. Swimming has lost a ton of great coaches because the structure of our sport put women in such a precarious position.
I don't pretend to have all the solutions, but I think some creative reform could tackle this issue from another angle, and ultimately make swimming in general better. At the same time we are cracking down on coaches who misbehave, we must also make a concerted effort to buoy coaches who are doing the right thing.