Thursday, September 8, 2011

Can We Please Admit We Have a Problem?

When I read yesterday that Ben Sheppard, USA Swimming's (now former) Diversity Consultant and club coach in the Oakland area, had been fired, I have to admit I wasn't that shocked. I wasn't shocked because I know that there are far more coaches that have inappropriate sexual interactions with their swimmers than have been "caught" That is pretty depressing. Sheppard wasn't someone I knew well, or at all, but he was a facebook friend. In this weird new era, Ben Sheppard and I were "friends" although I never recall having a conversation with him.

And now he has been suspended from his club and fired from USA Swimming, according to the article linked to above. The allegations against Sheppard center around facebook messages to swimmers. If there's a silver lining in this story, it's that the young girls that made the report understood that what they were being sent was not right. That's not insignificant.

The title of this post is devoted to the fact that we, as a swimming community, still seem to be in denial. There is no question in my mind that despite all attempts to cast this as a "societal problem", its far more frequent in swimming than in general. It's a big problem and we could do a lot more to solve it if we actually admitted that it existed.

The problem is, of course, that USA Swimming is being sued and part of that lawsuit hinges on sexual abuse being prevalent in swimming. So the denial will continue, even from sensible people in the organization who know exactly what is going on. If and when USA Swimming verifies the accusations against Sheppard, there will be a concerted effort to not discuss the matter.

But as the frequent refrain goes, admitting you have a problem is only the first step. USA Swimming has taken action, most of it in the form of creating more hoops for coaches to jump through in order to be on deck. I would like to see USA Swimming tackle this topic from another angle, a more positive one. Let's do more to encourage the right people to be on deck with kids.

Right now, swim coaching is disproportionately represented by unmarried men. Why? Just read fellow blogger Shawn Klosterman's post from earlier this week if you want to know the particular stress coaching swimming can put on having a family. Or ask almost any coach. Not every coach works the kind of insane hours that Shawn works, but most coaches work during times that other professionals are likely to have "off", nights and weekends. That's time you can use to have a normal social life. With a summer season that cuts clear into the middle of August, there's no true "off season" for swimming.

And the above only addresses issues that coaches of any gender face. Women coaches are under even more pressure, and in my opinion that they are fewer in number. If you somehow pass through all the above as a female and get married and want to have a family, there is absolutely no "good" time of year for you to have a baby. Swimming has lost a ton of great coaches because the structure of our sport put women in such a precarious position.

I don't pretend to have all the solutions, but I think some creative reform could tackle this issue from another angle, and ultimately make swimming in general better. At the same time we are cracking down on coaches who misbehave, we must also make a concerted effort to buoy coaches who are doing the right thing.


  1. I agree that there is a problem, and it seems that swimming in particular has a problem. Having said that, if you put a predominantly male cross section of society in charge of a group of girls, regardless of the activity, you would probably have the same problem.

    I think you are right about needing to find a way to find the right candidates for coaching jobs. There is probably a way to do this, but it would require that USA Swimming start using psychologists, sociologists, etc....INSTEAD OF LAWYERS!

    In my opinion, we are not going to get rid of these creeps by making more rules and legal screenings. Creeps will find a way to get around them. In fact, if we keep following the current strategy (which is failing), we are probably discouraging good people from getting involved.

    Like you said, let's use positive means prevent these bad people from getting through the door. If we fill our positions with good people, then we won't have to contend with the bad.

  2. Dear USA Swimming,

    1. Please clairvoyantly identify all potential creeps before they act out and get rid of them based on instinct, not proof.

    2. Please address and solve gender dynamics, reassign gender roles that have been in place for centuries, and absolve all women from the career-family dilemma.

    3. Please restructure the sport of swimming to make it more conducive to 'good people' ... Oh and please come up with a magical way to identify these good people and make that 'list' available for clubs so they can hire coaches.

    Do those three things and maybe I'll write something positive. Shouldn't be too much trouble, thanks!

    Chris D.

  3. Hilarious, anon. Keep up the good work.

  4. Coaching the sport of swimming is pretty rough. I sometimes ask myself why I do this... That is, until of course I see the photo of my late coach, Kevin Perry, staring back at me... and then I'm immediately reminded that it's basically my duty to "pay it forward," like he did for so many potentially misdirected kids (like myself) spanning three decades.

    I must admit; I have yet to be paid for my coaching services. I have been doing this "pro bono" for 8 years—high school and USA Swimming.

    Yes, I was one of the dumb ones who started my own "outreach" club and have been hanging by a thread financially ever since. This, after giving up on a profitable private business that I spent half the time working on than this swim club. But this is Utah, where only a handful of coaches (whom I can count on one hand) actually make money for their services, but still are not considered "full-time" coaches.

    Until parents recognize the value in coaching, they will continue to refuse to pay fair market value for said coach. Thus, you will limit the talent pool of those who could be considered "great coaches" and forfeit your children to those who might not be the most upstanding individuals. I still wake up every morning wondering if I need to "grow up" and move on... and I'm well into my 40's now (and married, with 3 girls).

    Thankfully, "KP" was paid pretty well... But I doubt even he would have been coaching in this profession had he dealt with what many today (at least in Utah) face.

    Well compensated professions attract good people. (But of course, every profession will have its creeps.) The ones that don't face an uphill battle.. teaching, coaching, etc. have a problem on their hands... what can we do about it?

    As it stands, I have no idea how long I'll last; if we don;t acquire grants from local organizations we're likely toast. And our neighborhood along the west side of SLC will have yet one more outreach fatality.

  5. I should say... the ones that DO face an uphill battle...

  6. "things that make you hhhmm?"

    this problem is common everywhere! i have spoke with friends, neighbors, and fellow coach associates. the men in general just cant seem to understand why there is any problem with the a coach-swimmer relationship, at least once the swimmer is 18. but that is why the water is so muddy. because 18 is no different that 17 and 200 days or 16 and 150 days. its an arbitrary number. The real question we need to address is, do we allow coaches to date their athletes? it is not that off of comparing the hypothetical, is it okay to date your niece? or your step daughter? (if its okay then maybe we should all look into adoptions ...i jest)

    most of the men i spoke with had no issue with any of those ideas and said sure no problem. many i spoke with have daughters of their own and said it wouldn't bother them if their 17 year old dated her 35 year old coach, who she has answered to since she was 13. A good number favored it.

    Maybe its time for society to evaluate old statutory laws in light of today's teen being rather sexually active at a much earlier age than 50 years ago, and decide if the rules still work. If black is the new white, 50 is the new 30, perhaps 13 is the new 18. ;)

  7. SwamiM,
    your in Utah? get yourself an at home team. grab a few wives. get on state and fed assistance and in a few years you will have all your relays filled and loads of cash under the beds. when in Rome.... ;)

  8. (posted here and in the update post)

    I know this happened a while ago, but I just found out about this. I worked with Ben for years and had my child coached by him and the Undercurrents during its inception.

    My child got an almost identical facebook message from him two years ago when she was about 18 - especially odd because he hadn't seen her since she was a very small girl.

    It really left my daughter confused and upset - AND after she discussed it with ANOTHER former teammate, they shared similar stories.

    Important point - neither of these girls were even a part of this investigation!! These two girls were not a part of this initial story.

    To Ben's supporters - I get it. I would have probably defended him too if my child hadn't experienced this.

    To Ben - I am so disappointed, angry and confused. I am re-evaluating everything I thought I knew.