Featured Commentary: Make it Mandatory

USA Swimming needs help. The sport's leadership unit seems lost and unable to deal with a crisis of responsibility that erupted with reports by 20/20 and ESPN during 2010. This crisis has been simmering since the inception of our National Governing Body. Token efforts have been made towards the reduction of sex abuse within the sport but these have been too weak or too incomplete to provide any real change. Coaches within the sport have been afraid to offer assistance to USA Swimming out of fear for their own jobs. Chuck Wielgus & Company have repeatedly lashed out at those within the sport who dare to acknowledge rampant sexual behavior by rogue coaches. Individuals like Mike Saltzstein, who offered a serious and thoughtful path to improvement, have been met with a wild and misdirected baring of teeth.

To date, Swimming Exposed has offered five stories highlighting failures in the sport as avenues for improvement. The response from USA Swimming has been true to form. Over the last two months we have been in contact with the FBI regarding activities by USA Swimming which go well beyond the reasonable. Yes, USA Swimming has done something very, very wrong. We will detail that series of events for you in the next few weeks. This week we will offer our first step of hundreds towards improvement and proper governance in the sport. This is a tool we hope USA Swimming will adopt. If they do not, individual clubs may wish to add this to their arsenal to prevent failures like those that seem to have occurred in Monument, Colorado... USA Swimming's back yard.

Steve Fair, a Colorado Springs coach who has bounced from team to team over the last decade, has a past employment failure that USA Swimming and his many clubs have failed to unearth. As detailed on ConcussionInc.net, Steve Fair was apparently fired by Colorado Springs Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services for behavior that included sexual harassment of lifeguards. Unless employment with the City of Colorado Springs was completely omitted from Coach Fair's resume, the behavior he exhibited would have been easily identifiable by the use of a simple screening form. (We're placing ours in the new 'Resources' section on SwimmingExposed.com.)

Susan Woessner's favorite broken record quote when speaking to reporters is "We have the flagship [Athlete Protection/Safe Sport] program in Olympic Sports." StopItNow.org, a leader in child abuse prevention, cites screening like USA Swimming's minimal requirements as inadequate saying that "[c]ompliance with mandatory reporting statutes, whistleblower policies and background checks are important steps to dealing with abuse but set a low bar for protecting children." We couldn't agree more.

Oddly enough, Steve Fair is already responsible for one of USA Swimming's recommended employment checks. In late 2010, Steve Fair arranged for the Woodmoor Waves to hire his drinking partner as an assistant coach. As detailed on ConcussionInc.net and USSwimNScandal.com, this was done with neither interview nor reference checks beyond Fair's own evaluation. Woodmoor parents discovered that Sean Coffey had a very sexual and profane web presence only after his employment was completed. USA Swimming's suggested social media check came as a result of Susan Woessner's interaction with parents regarding Woodmoor's cover-up and failure to report Coffey's seeming violation of what is now Article 304.3.18.

While USA Swimming does recommend several helpful steps to follow when hiring coaches, the lack of mandatory procedures (beyond the most basic of background checks) is both irresponsible and intentional! By not mandating most hiring practices, USA Swimming asserts that it is not legally responsible for the hiring decisions made by clubs. This strategy has proved unsuccessful in multiple lawsuits. USA Swimming has a clear legal obligation (Duty of Care, Duty of Obedience) to uphold the conduct and membership rules it sets. The local consequence of this warped legal strategy is that individual clubs are essentially set up to fail by the NGB.

USA Swimming has added past employment verification as a requirement but hasn't addressed handling of a situation when the response is no more than "Yes, he/she worked here." Signed by the applicant, our form ensures the release of sexual abuse or harassment documentation that individuals might otherwise be able to conceal. Voluntary release by the applicant legally frees previous employers to tell the truth and goes a long way toward preventing known abusers (Charles Arabas and Aaron Bartleson for instance) from moving club to club. If a coaching candidate attempts to hide past indiscretions by not authorizing release, that candidate's application can be easily and legally dismissed as incomplete.

Making all employment requirements mandatory and filing paperwork for each coach with USA Swimming would reduce the instances of negligent hiring and give USA Swimming a true defense for the actions of its member clubs. The clubs would benefit by sharing the collected experience of others in executing a proper and thorough hiring process.

While many clubs are responsible, there are those that lack the time, commitment or judgment to run a proper hiring program. There are also lots of ways that the inexperienced can fail at hiring without competent guidance. Compliance with good procedure can be encouraged by either the carrot or the stick. The Woodmoor Waves, Steve Fair's former club, are a prime example of a club that doesn't like carrots. Many current and former parents of Woodmoor exemplify the archetypes that so often lead to disaster. Recognizing these failure types may help you better administer your own club:

Waves President Sue Hippe (banished to Peak Swim Team North) - Type: helpless and hopeless. "I don't know what to do. I only had a few hours of training." What a difference checklists and forms would make.

Waves Vice President Brian Donahue (of Chuck Baechler fame) - Type: clueless but defiant. "We're drawing a line in the sand. This case is closed." Actions taken: essentially zero. Awareness: less.

Waves Secretary Sonja Griffith (also now at Peak Swim Team North) - Type: arrogant and unthinking. "If these coaches leave you owe us a new coach!" Involved enough to threaten members of different teams to protect her coaches (a sexual harasser and his porn star friend).

Waves Treasurer Robin Carden (another Peak exile) - Type: intentionally oblivious. "I'm sure it's disgusting but I don't even want to see it." What she doesn't know can't hurt her or her children.

Amy Panoncillo (chased off to Peak Swim Team as well) - Type: defensive pawn. "You're vilifying a young man." Unwitting stooge for a harassing coach and his friends to hide their own failures.

None of these individuals would have made a public spectacle of themselves if a proper hiring procedure was provided by USA Swimming. In the case of Panoncillo and Hippe, USA Swimming's failure contributed to police involvement (for the protection of others) as recently as late February 2012. The children of this sport require a much better effort from USA Swimming to protect them from predators. As a side benefit, this same effort may help protect some parents from themselves.

As the Woodmoor failures demonstrate, the potential benefits of a mandatory program are tremendous. Proper and mandatory employment screening (the provided form or similar) would have identified Steve Fair and Chuck Baechler as risky hires. Social media screening and minimal internet research would have precluded the hiring of Baechler and Sean Coffey under several provisions of the Code of Conduct. Reporting enforcement would have kept an apparent past sexual threat like Baechler from continued employment in the sport.

A well designed and enforced program could catch a very high percentage of the most dangerous coaches (even those lacking a criminal record!) prior to placing them on a pool deck with children. Swimming Exposed will help build that program over the next few months with the assistance of our commenters and contributors. Your participation, ideas and your club's best practices are welcome. Unfortunately your voice may be required to encourage USA Swimming and the LSC's to participate.

Through lawsuits and investigative reporting, USA Swimming has been made very aware of their failings and shortcomings. Thus far, their efforts have been limited to damage control in the media and mitigation of financial responsibility in the courts. This level of action falls short of what USA Swimming's customers, young swimmers, truly deserve. The changes that we and others will propose require far less effort than USA Swimming currently spends sweeping their failures under the rug. With solutions and improvements so readily available, USA Swimming's inaction is a reprehensible evasion of both reality and responsibility.

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as aired on ABC's 20/20

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