Congressional Commission Proposals To Curb Sports Coach Sexual Abuse Have Bay Area Roots

by on March 18, 2024

Photo shows Deb Grodensky
Deb Grodensky

After a whitewash 2014 “independent review” of USA Swimming’s Safe Sport program, followed by a belly flop of an investigation of youth coach sexual abuse later the same year by former Congressman George Miller, those in the Olympic movement holding the line against accountability and a true restructuring of America’s sports system for kids were overdue to meet their match. There are positive takeaways from this month’s report by a Congressional commission that was established in 2020 to study a range of Olympic issues.

In what came as a surprise to me and many activists, the commission on the future of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee has provided enough ammunition for a serious retooling of the 56-year-old Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act – that hoary remnant of late Cold War propaganda battles between the U.S. and the Soviet Union over gold medal count bragging rights.

Comprised largely of legendary former Olympians and co-chaired by Dionne Koller, director of the University of Baltimore Center on Sport and the Law, the commission wants the federal government to take over grassroots sports programs. This step would free underage athletes from the money-first priorities of the Colorado-based Olympic Committee and its phony nonprofit national sport governing bodies.

Under the proposed new set-up, those hell-bent on chasing college athletic scholarships and Olympic glory would have their own elite programs (and presumably these programs and the parents of the kids within them would find a way to pay for themselves). But the bulk of extracurricular sports kids – as well as, significantly, their economies of scale and millions of dollars’ worth of volunteer parent labor subsidies – would come under the oversight of a newly created federal office. This sounds like the closest thing to the national sports ministry found in many other countries. (The commission report, couching ambitious recommendations in diplomatic language, calls the American exceptionalism of the current youth sports arena a “public-private partnership” now in need of adjustment.)

Bifurcating youth sports programs in this way would surely reduce the chances that a kid will become a victim of the sexual predation that is far too prevalent among the professional-track coaches who dominate sports like swimming. Up to a half million kids participate in the practices and year-round weekend meets of this world – a staple of Americana and a tragic platform for what too often turns into the lifelong trauma of abuse.

Another of the commission’s legislative proposals directly addresses the abuse: It calls for disengaging the corrupt and beleaguered U.S. Center for Safe Sport from the influence of Olympic bodies, by putting the agency under the explicit funding and authority of the government.

These are specific reforms I’ve pushed for years in my writings on this issue. Whether and how soon they get examined by Congress, much less implemented, no one knows. What can be said with clarity is that the commission report marks the first official formulation of a real solution; it correctly challenges the country’s sports parents to get their priorities straight, by pressuring their elected representatives to back a more sensible youth sports structure.

Media coverage of abuse scenarios (all of which, sadly, are far more alike than different) is good at throwing select bad actors under the bus. And not so good at exposing the enabling of the other adults of the system, including scholarship-chasing moms and dads who outsource their parenting to Svengali-like coaches.

(Beyond Chron readers who want to study the commission report for themselves can view the 277 page of  “Passing the Torch: Modernizing Olympic, Paralympic & Grassroots Sports in America” at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/642af7d875688d63cfff08be/t/65e1bc1bf438017c9d43ba82/1709292599616/CSUSOP+Final+Report+%28Digital%29.pdf.)

For now, it’s enough to celebrate this glimmer of a breakthrough by noting that the Bay Area was ground zero in the uncovering of the last generation’s abuse horrors in many Olympic sports – especially swimming.

The beginning of the rise of public consciousness of abuse in this space was a two-part report in 2010 on ABC’s 20/20 about the widespread problems at USA Swimming. A coach named Andy King, who had a trail of victims up and down the Pacific Coast, was finally brought to justice after, among things, he raped and impregnated a 14-year-old girl in Santa Clara County. The prosecutor who got King sent off to state prison for 40 years called King “a monster.” In San Ramon (Contra Costa County), King had groomed a girl swimmer, Debra Denithorne, to whom he “proposed marriage” the day she turned 16. Denithorne, now Debra Grodensky, became a brave and outspoken activist who articulated how only the intervention of Congress could fix the mess in swimming.

Many of the most important civil actions against USA Swimming for harboring and coddling abusers were launched by San Jose lawyer B. Robert Allard. One of his clients, Jancy Thompson, took on the predations of her coach, Norm Haverford. USA Swimming refused to produce internal organizational documents, choosing instead to pay tens of thousands of dollars in sanctions for defying courts’ discovery orders. This stonewalling finally ended in 2012 on order of the California Supreme Court. Under seal, USA Swimming released thousands of pages of dossiers on accused coaches, along with other information.

The FBI field office in Campbell subpoenaed this stash of materials, which would become the basis of some of reporting by my writing partner at the time, Tim Joyce, and myself – then eventually the foundation of a federal grand jury investigation of USA Swimming for alleged abuse cover-ups and insurance fraud. Until the early 2010s, this Olympic group, which specializes in made-in-America flag-waving, operated a sleazy regulation-dodging captive insurance subsidiary headquartered in Barbados.

Lawsuit deposition testimony and the documents also blew holes in the integrity of swimming’s “Safe Sport program,” which chief executive Chuck Wielgus, had established in the wake of cringey, defiant interviews on 20/20 and ESPN’s Outside the Lines. The founding director of Safe Sport, Susan Woessner, was a glorified secretary who mostly forwarded messages to Wielgus as he continued to call the shots on which complaints warranted investigations and which investigations warranted hearings by a National Board of Review – a body tasked with protecting USA Swimming’s financial interests, not swimmers’ safety. In any case, Woessner would be out after she admitted to having once “kissed” a prominent coach, Sean Hutchison, groomer and abuser of swimmer Ariana Kukors – the very first high-profile case of this equivocal Safe Sport department.

Even so, Scott Blackmun – CEO of the Olympic Committee before leaving in the aftershock of scandals of USA Gymnastics’ molesting doctor, Larry Nassar – held up swimming Safe Sport as a shining model, one whose purpose and practices were adopted by the sports-wide U.S. Center for Safe Sport, which started in 2017. The new commission report calling for a federal takeover of the this thoroughly corrupt agency gently says the center “does not adequately employ trauma-informed practices … has never been able to find its footing … must not, however, be allowed to become an enduring example of failure.”

In 2014, a petition campaign by abuse survivors and their supporters forced the International Swimming Hall of Fame to back down from plans to induct Wielgus. He kept his million-dollar-a-year job, though. On top of his all-around arrogance and indifference to the abuse problem, the petition documented that Wielgus had lied repeatedly, both to the media and to courts, about USA Swimming’s knowledge of allegations against Andy King as he trapezed from team to team, state to state.

When Wielgus died of cancer in 2017, the New York Times recorded his legacy of  “apologizing” for not having done enough to stem abuse in swimming.

The commission report should put an end of vaporous apologies and catalyze action. The key constituency here – America’s sports parents – needs to screw their heads on straight about the best interests of their kids. With corresponding legislation, “safe sport” can be taken out of the hands of Olympic apparatchiks. We can also remove their death grip on the whole show of sports at the grassroots levels. They need a fresh jolt of educational values, not commercial ones

Irvin Muchnick’s book UNDERWATER: The Greed-Soaked Tale of Sexual Abuse in USA Swimming and Around the Globe will be published later this year by ECW Press.

Filed under: Bay Area / California