When it comes to an apology, late is better than never. Better still is not having to apologize at all.
In a June 6 blog post, Chuck Wielgus, the Executive Director of USA Swimming, made his first public apology for some of his actions and failures to act during the child sexual abuse scandals that have, for many in the swimming world, come to define his 17-year tenure as the head of the national governing body for competitive swimming.
The apology accompanied the withdrawal of his name from consideration for induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, a move called for by a group of 19 victims of coaching sexual abuse and a number of their supporters — including the Women’s Sports Foundation — in a petition submitted to the ISHOF Board of directors.
“I’m sorry.” Wielgus posts, “These are powerful words some people have wanted to hear from me for a long time. I have been criticized in blogs, and most recently in the petition opposing International Swimming Hall of Fame induction, for not apologizing for not having done more to prevent sexual abuse by coaches.”
The petitioners describe Wielgus’ failure to show leadership to combat sexual abuse in competitive swimming, alleging that USA swimming only began protecting victims after “Wielgus was heavily pressured by the United States Congress, by heart-breaking media stories on the the unrelenting parade of victims, by lawsuits and by new United States Olympic Committee (USOC) rules.” A similar petition circulated on change.org.
“Before 2010,” Wielgus explains in his blog, “I knew so little about the issues of sexual abuse in our society.”
Wielgus and USA Swimming drew intense criticism at that time for their handling of child sexual abuse in the sport, including allegations of covering up complaints. Under intense legal and media scrutiny, the organization and Wielgus failed to provide an apology to victims, notably when given the opportunity in an interview with ABC 20/20.
In his apology last week though, Wielgus describes his and the organization’s “commitment to eliminate sexual abuse from the sport” in the years following that interview, including:
- the development and implementation of USA Swimming’s Safe Sport Program;
- hiring an official to oversee athlete protection; and
- making public its list of coaches and officials who have been banned from USA Swimming.
However, the petition points out, since that time, USA Swimming also:
- agreed to rules prohibiting romantic and sexual relationships between coaches and athletes only upon pressure from the USOC;
- hired a lobbying firm to join the Catholic Church in the fight over a California bill that would extend the statute of limitations for lawsuits in child sexual abuse cases; and
- Failed to ban Mitch Ivey until late 2013, despite multiple allegations of misconduct beginning as early as 1984, intense media scrutiny, and a formal complaint in 2011.
For organizations that have been rocked by child sexual abuse scandals, apologies and “steps in the right direction” are a good start, but — as in the lives of survivors — healing can last a lifetime.
In light of these developments and in the interest of better protecting youth athletes, Childhelp and the Foundation for Global Sports Development offer facts and figures from their combined research as well as helpful hints for parents in identifying and addressing abuse in youth athletics.
Abuse occurs in all sports. Those who perpetrate are often highly qualified and well respected in their sport, allowing them to offend under the radar. Studies indicate that 40% to 50% of athletes have experienced anything from mild harassment to severe abuse. 90% of child sexual abuse victims know the perpetrator in some way, so coaching staff, assistants, parent helpers, other athletes and anyone who comes in contact with a victimized child must be considered. Parents/responsible adults/leaders are asked to become referees on and off the field when it comes to identifying abuse, teaching their children to speak up and be safe, and combating abuse in youth sports. “R.E.F” is an acronym for REPORT, EDUCATE and FIGHT.
Children must learn 5 Rules of the Game to remain secure:
- “It’s My Body”: Secretive communication, touch in places a bathing suit covers or anything that makes a child uncomfortable must be reported to parents or a safe adult.
- “No Bullying”: Any form of physical, sexual or emotional bullying is inappropriate and should be reported.
- “Tell a Safe Adult”: Identify key adults who are a child’s support network for reporting any concerns he/she may have. The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD) is a valuable resource for children afraid to come forward or parents unsure of how to take the next step.
- “I Have Choices”: Teach children it is OK to run, escape, yell and tell when they sense danger.
- “It’s Never My Fault”: When a child has been abused, he/she must be assured they are never at fault.
Indicators of possible abuse in sports include, but are not limited to:
- Missing practices
- Loss of interest and withdrawal
- Performing significantly below his/her level of ability
- And any of the signs and symptoms of physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse detailed in the Childhelp Speak Up Be Safe for Athletes free online curriculum underwritten by the Foundation for Global Sports Development.
Sports Psychologist and Olympic Consultant Dr. Steven Ungerleider said, “I urge parents to review this free material and engage their children in the interactive warm-up designed to embed critical safety concepts into a child’s consciousness while keeping the experience light and enjoyable. The Foundation for Global Sports Development and Childhelp are promoting ethical and safe sportsmanship. We want to ensure that children are having fun and reaching their full potentials.”
To fight abuse, communities can come together to support tougher laws against predators, more stringent security clearance/fingerprinting for all volunteers/staff working with children, and standing in solidarity with survivors, such as the brave swimmers who stepped forward to share their stories to save others. Everyone must join forces to blow the whistle on child abuse in youth athletics.