An investigative report on last night's 20/20 presented startling stories of young swimmers sexually abused, secretly videotaped, and even impregnated by monstrous coaches. Has USA Swimming created a unique "culture of sexual misconduct," as ABC News would have you believe?
Drawing parallels between USA Swimming and the Catholic Church, the segment asserts that willful ignorance on the part of the sport's governing body has allowed predatory coaches to move from town to unsuspecting town through the years and become lifelong offenders. The problem, according to the report, has been "pervasive": over the last decade 36 people have been banned for life for sexual misconduct by USA Swimming.
20/20 focuses on two grim cases: Brian Hindson and Andy King. A successful coach at an Indiana high school, Hindson directed certain girl swimmers to "a 'special' shower room" — special, it turned out, because it was outfitted with a hidden camera:
FBI agents became aware of the pictures after a North Carolina woman bought the coach's computer on E-Bay and discovered a video clip of a young girl in a locker room appearing to be taped without her knowledge. A subsequent search of Hindson's home turned up more locker room footage and a large selection of child pornography.
"This had gone on for nearly 10 years, without any detection whatsoever," Lt. Don Whitehead of the Kokomo, IN police department's cyber crime unit told ABC News.
If Hindson was the Michael David Barrett of the swimming world, Andy King was more like the Ted Bundy: for "over three decades" the 62-year-old King "had almost every conceivable sex act" with as many as 15 teenage girls, according to Santa Clara prosecutor Ray Mendoza, who called him a "monster." (One girl recalled having to get an abortion when he impregnated her at age 14.)
Mendoza said King would move out of town once parents or police began asking questions and was stopped only after a 14-year old girl in San Jose complained to her youth pastor.
King previously worked as a swim coach in the San Francisco Bay area and in Oak Harbor, WA, where he was regarded as an excellent coach for aspiring Olympic team swimmers.
"He may have been a good coach, but his goal with these girls ultimately was to molest them," said prosecutor Mendoza.
The 20/20 report sharply criticizes USA Swimming, in particular for re-certifying King as recently as 2008. (With no police reports filed against him, the coach's background check came back clean.) But it's the painful interview with Chuck Wielgus, USA Swimming's waxy-faced executive director, that comes off as most damaging. Wielgus' statements range from blithe to toe-curlingly insensitive:
Asked if he had apologized to any of the young teen victims, Wielgus responded, "You feel I need to apologize to them?"
It's unfortunate that Wielgus is so bad at PR because I actually think that his points aren't all wrong: while USA Swimming should be taken to task for mishandling these cases, it seems lazy for 20/20 to try to paint this abuse as either endemic to, or epidemic in, the sport of swimming specifically.
"You've got to put this in much broader context," argues Wielgus in the interview. "Have we banished from our sport three to four coaches a year for inappropriate conduct over the last 10 years? The answer to that is yes."
The sexual abuse is unspeakable, obviously, but put that way — three to four coaches a year, out of many thousands spread out in motley towns and cities around the country — is it actually unusual?
I don't know for sure, because the ABC report gives little in the way of comparison. I'd be interested to know whether the prevalence of abuse is more marked in swimming than, say, hockey: recall the high-profile case of Graham James, who tormented Sheldon Kennedy and Theo Fleury among others. '
That last link, in fact, was part of "Coaches Who Prey," an entire series spanning numerous sports that was put together by the Seattle Times after finding that:
Over the past decade, 159 coaches in Washington have been fired or reprimanded for sexual misconduct ranging from harassment to rape. Nearly all were male coaches victimizing girls. At least 98 of these coaches continued to coach or teach.
Speaking of teaching, how many of those teacher-student sex stories have we come across over the years? (Somehow, sadly, it's easier to chuckle, to offer cyber high-fives, when the 14-year old is a boy and the sexual offender is a hot blond like Debra Lafave.) Yet we don't speak of a crisis at the Department of Education or interview Arne Duncan about being responsible for "a culture of sexual misconduct."
I dunno, maybe we should. I'm certainly all for anything that results in fewer little girls and boys being fondled, threatened, raped, videotaped, and otherwise violated by the very people who are supposed to be in positions of trusted authority and guidance. And it goes without saying that swimming's governing body should be taking a hard and ruthless look at itself and where it has gone wrong.
But we shouldn't be so narrowly focusing our outrage. Wielgus was inelegant, and I'll bet incorrect, to say that abuse is "not nearly as serious in USA Swimming as it might be in the rest of society." But he's right that the rest of society has plenty to answer for. ABC's report seemed uninterested in exploring the problem writ large.
ESPN, who teamed up with ABC News in reporting this story, will air its own show on the swimming scandals May 2 on Outside the Lines. I hope their reporters can broaden the story with more useful context rather than fussing around with shrill games of interview gotcha.
"A Rogue's Gallery of Swim Coaches" slideshow on ABC.com" />