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‘It’s coaches’ jobs to care about you!’: USA Swimming encourages kids to implicitly trust coaches

USA Swimming's troubling Safe Sport materials lack all self-awareness.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 23:  Tim Hinchey, president and CEO of USA Swimming testifies before the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee May 23, 2018 in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on "Examining the Olympic Community's Ability to Protect Athletes from Sexual Abuse."  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 23: Tim Hinchey, president and CEO of USA Swimming testifies before the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee May 23, 2018 in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on "Examining the Olympic Community's Ability to Protect Athletes from Sexual Abuse." (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In his opening statement on Wednesday in front of the House Commerce Committee’s hearing on sexual abuse in Olympic sports, USA Swimming (USAS) CEO Tim Hinchey invoked the power and protection of the organization’s Safe Sport program 15 times.

He called it a “comprehensive abuse prevention and response program,” established in 2010, “based on six well-established pillars of youth-serving abuse prevention programs.” He said that when he assumed the role of CEO in July 2017, he “recognized Safe Sport’s significance to the organization,” and noted that the “Safe Sport-recognized club program will enhance athlete protection efforts at the local level.”

Sure, USAS has been a feeding ground for sexual predators and abusive coaches in the past, Hinchey implied, but now that USAS has Safe Sport, all is well.

ThinkProgress reviewed the Safe Sport materials on USAS’s website, and discovered a program that, contrary to what USAS would like you to believe, seems more focused on convincing swimmers that they should trust their coaches implicitly, and less focused on actually preventing sex abuse. ThinkProgress reached out to USAS Safe Sport for comment, but did not hear back prior to publication.

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“As I interacted with Safe Sport, I realized it’s a sham, essentially a P.R. or marketing arm of USA Swimming,” Dani Bostick, a survivor of sexual abuse by a USA Swimming coach, told ThinkProgress by phone last week.

“Safe Sport is actively promoting the same behaviors and attitudes that put me at risk and gave my predator access to me.”

Emotional Boundaries: Talk with your coaches about anything!

While investigations into allegations of sexual abuse in any of the 48 Olympic sports are now handled by the U.S. Center for Safe Sport, each individual sport also has their own Safe Sport programs.

On the USA Swimming website, you can find materials for Safe Sport Mondays, “a program to launch a national conversation within swim clubs about everyday issues that clubs face.” The program provides example scenarios and talking points for coaches in local swimming clubs to discuss with their swimmers on the first Monday of every month.

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The handout for this month, May 2018, is particularly troubling. According to the official USA Swim Safe Sport Twitter account, the scenario is supposed to focus on “emotional boundaries.”

In the given scenario, a coach wants to change practice times for a group, but the new practice time would cause a scheduling conflict for many swimmers. The discussion points lead the athlete through how to discuss this conflict with a coach.

Included in the guidance are points such as, “You should be able to talk to your coach about a variety of topics — school, stress, and things that are weighing on your mind! Your coach can be a mentor and will set appropriate boundaries about your conversation topics.”

At the end of the one-page guidance, the material stresses that, “It’s coaches’ jobs to care about you!”

Sixty-five percent of sexual abuse in swimming is done by coaches, and most of those coaches begin grooming swimmers at very young ages. Relationships between coaches and athletes — often older, male coaches, and underage female athletes — has been incredibly common in USA Swimming throughout the years. In fact, USAS did not enact a rule against coach-athlete relationships until the United States Olympic Committee forced it to do so in 2014. In February, Pat Hogan, USA Swimming’s Club Development Manager, abruptly resigned amid rumors he had a relationship with a former swimmer when he was a coach. The same day, the USA Swimming Safe Sport Director Susan Woessner resigned because she once kissed a coach that was under investigation for sexual abuse.

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“We know the risk of harm to children in swimming comes from the coaches,” Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a civil rights lawyer and the CEO of Champion Women, told ThinkProgress. “You’d never know that reading their materials.”

Mixed Messages: Coaches can text you, just not at night!

On the USA Swimming website, there is a tab at the top dedicated to Safe Sport. There, you can find useful instructions on how to report Safe Sport violations and complete background checks, as well as information about individuals who have been suspended or declared ineligible from USAS. You can also find a Safe Sport club tool kit that features such useful anti-harassment materials as a word search, connect the dots game, and coloring activities.

Along with their concerns about the May 2018 Safe Sport lesson, Hogshead-Makar and Bostick both took umbrage with the Safe Sport Activity Book. Among the activities is a “True or False” quiz that asks children if it is okay for a coach to call or text in the middle of the night.

“It’s not okay for your coach to text you at any time of the day,” Bostick said.  “As a teacher, we know this. In cases where we do need to be in touch with students outside of a school email, there are ways to do that in professional and safe ways, software and apps where you’re communicating through a third party.”

Consent and Body Safety: Watch out for Suzy!

Some of the materials provided by USAS Safe Sport are adequate, such as the team travel policy and the June 2017 Safe Sport Monday handout about massages by coaches. But overall, most of the Safe Sport material seems to bend over backwards to avoid portraying coaches as potential abusers.

For example, the April 2018 Safe Sport Monday scenario focuses on consent and body safety — two topics which are obviously crucial to the Safe Sport movement.

However, the talking points do not paint coaches or authority figures as potential abusers; instead, the main scenario is about a nondescript “Suzy” —  who isn’t specified as a child or adult, coach or teammate — giving the athlete a celebratory hug.

Another scenario in the “consent and body safety” lesson focuses in on an older teammate teaching a new stroke technique. It ends by reiterating that the coach is the person who should be trusted: “It’s a good idea to tell your coach if someone is making you feel uncomfortable.”

“Good boundary training should teach a six to 10 year-old that their coach won’t text them individually, won’t close the door, won’t give them a gift,” Hogshead-Makar said. “In other words, good training teaches the child how to recognize appropriate, healthy boundaries, rather than rely on the person most likely to abuse them to set those boundaries for them.”

Dia Rianda, a USA Swimming Lifetime Member and coach who sued a former U.S. national swimming coach in 2012 for firing her because she exposed a sexual predator on staff, told ThinkProgress that she, too, has been disappointed with the Safe Sport materials and trainings provided to her swim club.

“I don’t think the training is comprehensive enough. I don’t think the consequences are laid out in that training for coaches,” Rianda said. “They don’t train on the indicators of the grooming process, which is so insidious.”

‘A personal betrayal’

When Bostick first heard that USA Swimming had implemented Safe Sport programs in all local clubs, she was thrilled. It felt like the solution the sport needed, proof that USAS had been listening to her and other survivors, that the sport was finally going to be safe for young swimmers again.

But after examining the materials, she now worries that USAS is even more dangerous today than it was when she was being abused, because the Safe Sport brand itself exudes a level of trust that encourages parents and swimmers to let their guard down.

“It’s even worse than it was in the 1980s, because you have an entity that is supposed to stop child sex abuse encouraging predatory behavior and poor boundaries,” Bostick said.

“That material is a huge betrayal, a personal betrayal. To see that material with the Safe Sport branding, I was disgusted. I felt violated again.”