Thursday, September 8, 2011

Can We Please Admit We Have a Problem?

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.


  1. Dear USA Swimming,

    1. Please clairvoyantly identify all potential creeps before they act out and get rid of them based on instinct, not proof.

    2. Please address and solve gender dynamics, reassign gender roles that have been in place for centuries, and absolve all women from the career-family dilemma.

    3. Please restructure the sport of swimming to make it more conducive to 'good people' ... Oh and please come up with a magical way to identify these good people and make that 'list' available for clubs so they can hire coaches.

    Do those three things and maybe I'll write something positive. Shouldn't be too much trouble, thanks!

    Chris D.

  2. "things that make you hhhmm?"

    this problem is common everywhere! i have spoke with friends, neighbors, and fellow coach associates. the men in general just cant seem to understand why there is any problem with the a coach-swimmer relationship, at least once the swimmer is 18. but that is why the water is so muddy. because 18 is no different that 17 and 200 days or 16 and 150 days. its an arbitrary number. The real question we need to address is, do we allow coaches to date their athletes? it is not that off of comparing the hypothetical, is it okay to date your niece? or your step daughter? (if its okay then maybe we should all look into adoptions ...i jest)

    most of the men i spoke with had no issue with any of those ideas and said sure no problem. many i spoke with have daughters of their own and said it wouldn't bother them if their 17 year old dated her 35 year old coach, who she has answered to since she was 13. A good number favored it.

    Maybe its time for society to evaluate old statutory laws in light of today's teen being rather sexually active at a much earlier age than 50 years ago, and decide if the rules still work. If black is the new white, 50 is the new 30, perhaps 13 is the new 18. ;)

  3. SwamiM,
    your in Utah? get yourself an at home team. grab a few wives. get on state and fed assistance and in a few years you will have all your relays filled and loads of cash under the beds. when in Rome.... ;)