Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Contacted by Ben Sheppard (UPDATED)

Back in September, I wrote a post concerning the an article about Ben Sheppard, an Oakland area swim coach who was accused of sending inappropriate messages to his swimmers. Since then, very little has happened- by all accounts Sheppard lost both of his jobs. One was with the Oakland Community Pools and another with USA Swimming. So, needless to say, I was pretty surprised when he contacted me via facebook.


Ben wrote me to say he wasn't very happy with what I wrote. Although I didn't actually pass judgement on whether the specific allegations against Sheppard were true, I did use pretty strong language afterwards to denounce what I considered was still far too much silence on the issue. I responded to Sheppard's message and what followed was a tense but fairly tame exchange between Sheppard and I. Here was his initial message:

hi chris 

I just wanted to reach out to you to let you know that I really did not appreciate your journalism regarding me.
You took the word of a local neighborhood newspaper that had no fact and no proof. It is your freedom, of speech right to say what you wish, but you had and have no idea if its true. And trust me its not.
In any case, I suppose it is your job to report what you read, but you yourself should know not to believe everything your read.

respectfully
Ben


Here is how I replied:

Hey Ben,

Thanks for writing me. I don't consider myself a journalist but that's not an excuse if I've unfairly maligned you.

What happened? I'd be happy to be wrong, believe me

I suppose if I could do it over again I wouldn't have said thank you, but my mother ingrained me to say it almost reflexively (you can see that Sheppard responds in kind below.). As I said in my message, I would be genuinely happy to be wrong, even if I had to point out that I overreacted and contributed to smearing someone with my post. Being wrong would mean that the behavior described in the article (suggestive facebook messages to girls on his team) did not take place. Here is Ben's response:

accusations that werent founded...thats more than Ive been advised to say. trust me it was not you who did the damage. and I DO NOT want you to re approach the topic. but I just thought I would reach out to let you know.

thanks
ben

Sheppard asked me not to revisit the issue, which is what I'm doing in this blog, and you'll see why in a moment. At this point I grew curious- Sheppard seemed to be very interested in changing my mind but not interested in me writing about it. I tried to gently push him to be more specific:

I understand if there are pending legal matters that make you not want to say more. I will follow the story and I'll re approach the topic if new information comes out. I would need to find out that you never sent the messages that are alleged in the article and comment section below to change my mind.

To which Sheppard responded:

You are entitled to your beliefs and there are no pending legal matters

Now I thought, "this is a curious situation". I had read that Sheppard had been fired from USA Swimming. I figured that because of this there must be some sort of pending matter with them. I decided to call Susan Woessner and ask her. She however, declined to comment because she cannot do so on pending child protection matters for the protection and privacy of all involved..(An original version of this post simply stated that Woessner did not comment except to say that Sheppard is not a member. This was incorrect. ). So I sent Sheppard another question:

Then why wouldn't you just say "I never sent those messages that they said I did"? That's a much clearer refutation than the one you gave me. If you did send the messages I can't think of a context in which they are appropriate.

To which he wrote:

I thought I said that I have always said that

If I could respond to this message all over again, I would have. I had no idea that Sheppard had "always said that". I hadn't seen any public comment from him at all, besides this one from the East Bay Express article: 

"They aren't true" and "I'm not even sure entirely what your [sic] referring to." 

This is still somewhat vague in my opinion. So I asked this question:

but then do you know who sent them?

From there, no response in the last week. My response assumes there were messages, which Sheppard may contest. Although part of me is conflicted about writing this post since he asked me nicely not to, I also don't believe I am bound to keep the conversation secret by Sheppard. The lack of information surrounding this goes back to my original fall post- the secrecy seems to hurt everyone involved. There has been no public verification or follow up by any of those involved to my knowledge- the Oakland Undercurrent, USA Swimming or the East Bay Express. Typically I would expect nothing to come out because of pending legal matters, but in this case Sheppard says there is none. So what gives?

22 comments:

  1. Great post Chris and your right.. if there are no pending legal matters than why cant he comment.. why are things being pushed under the rug.. I am so disgusted with what is going on today. The sexual abuse that is taking place is several sports. These coachs use there position in for there own twisted gain..

    its so sad for the victims

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  2. My sense of this is that there is a great space of the "Unknown" in this situation, and a lot of accusations being thrown about. My sense is also that the accusations only involve alleged messaging, and nothing beyond that. When someone's life and career is on the line, I believe it is essential to ensure all the information is available and clearly supported before you pillory a person. I am an eternal advocate for child protection and children's rights. I also think we have a very warped, repressed and near-hysterical attitude around anything remotely interpreted as sexual, relating youth in this culture [ironically, all the while sexualizing our youth in media and commercial pop culture]. These prevailing attitudes contribute to situations of inappropriate behavior towards young people. It also makes it easy to undo a person with vague accusations that may be completely baseless. Knowing Ben, he is a caring, engaged, thoughtful person dedicated to healthy communities and creating opportunities within low-income and disenfranchised communities. Whatever may have happened, this is an unfortunate turn of events, and a loss for all. Whether or not there is truth to these allegations== When USA Swimming proposes "protection measures" this in no way gets to the heart of issues we see at large in our communities, among teachers, coaches, and the many people working in "bubble worlds" of young people (and protects no one, just covers their behinds). Creating healthy boundaries, and delineating lines of appropriateness, while also addressing more deeply-seeded issues of maturity, sexuality, and healthy appropriate relationships (while protecting children's rights to trust and be safe around the adults in their lives)--those are the greater challenges for our society. Hysterical, punitive, and reactionary measures help no one, and create a stigma which shuts down constructive dialogue...and throws the baby out with the bath water.

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  3. Well, said anonymous from 12/03. I know Ben as well and agree with everything you said, very well stated.Getting to the heart of this issue is key, not making a parody of it and twisting it to get readers to come to your site. There are some serious issues revolving the welfare of children in many outlets, as stated above and as someone with children and someone that works with children, I am constantly aware of creating a nurturing, healthy protected environment for them. I also think this is an unfortunate turn of events for all of those involved, but at the same time I get very discouraged on how the media can ruin someone's life before making sure the facts are correct and supported. I was a journalist as well and that was one of the things I could never support, which is probably why I'm not a journalist now. Taking a story and running with it, before having concrete facts and making sure all evidence was supported. You in fact do more harm to the situation then good.

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  4. Do you really care?December 11, 2011 at 7:11 PM

    Anonymous part 3, did you read Chris' post? How can he possibly post "the facts" as you (and Ben) see them if Ben won't give him "the facts". If all journalism were run how you wish it was, then pedophiles would never be exposed. All they'd have to do was say "no, that's not true" and fold their arms, and then nobody would ever report on what they've done.

    I don't know the facts in this case, but it's pretty obvious to me that Ben seems to have a whole lot of problems with what has been written without much in the way of answers.

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  5. so i guess its guilty until proven innocent...
    that usually works

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  6. I find it unbelievable that accusations can be published without evidence. Ben lost his jobs because he was a PR nightmare. No charges have been filed. To equate him with known pedophiles, was a journalistic kick in the balls, and the east bay express should be ashamed. Oakland will continue to benefit from the hard work and momentum this young man put into place for many years. Until there is real evidence of wrong doing, charges filed, and a sentence handed down, he gets the benefit of being innocent, period.

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  7. You know what? I think it's a freaking crime that these days all one has to do is basically cry wolf whether the allegations are true or not, and a guy is ruined for life sans the proof, sans the legal charges, and the like. Ben worked his tail off for more than 10 years. He rarely got paid what he deserved, especially during all those early days at the Undercurrent when he was living out of a van and barely making ends meet. I find the whole story sketchy at best and USA Swimming is the worst offender of all in this whole deal. I swear, all a kid needs to do--and more to the point, their parents--- is cry wolf. Perhaps Ben pissed a kid off for leaving her off a relay? What's the keep a parent from planting some serious sh!t because you pissed the wrong person off? I have dealt with my own issues from a whacked out parent solely because of something a boy allegedly did to her daughter---4 YEARS AGO! They had a fight after practice. It allegedly "escalated" and then the boy supposedly anally raped this girl. Nothing was ever said nor reported nor told to me nor club officials---oh, until 4 years later. Guess who the parents blame? Yep, the coach! Never mind it was after hours and the two were "dating". The parents are whacked out and decide someone must pay. Well that person was me. Now I have to deal with all the sh!t these people tell the community and so, the rumor mill begins. It's as if I was the one who anally raped this girl.

    Ben, I feel for you man. You got jobbed. Great work was contributed to the Oakland community for more than 10 years. Hard work. Lots of kids who are now on the road to success. Kids of whom you changed their lives. Countless kids. And because of a coupla complaints, you can no longer do this great work. There is the crime.

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  8. Ben, has worked his a$$ off for years in a very rough and often racist(against whites) climate. As a young mixed woman that grew up around Ben in and around the pool deck I have one thing to say. SHUT UP!

    Ben is a good kind hearted person that has put his heart and soul into OCPP. Now, he and I didn't always see eye to eye business wise but never in the over 10 years that I've known him did he ever make me feel uncomfortable. He saw me in my bathing suit all the time and he is older than me and totally could have taken advantage if he had wanted to.

    I believe the issues of this sex crap come from our over coddling of children and our hyper sexualized notions of what touch is. My Coach used to massage me on the pool deck in front of everyone including my parents. Those massages nearly made me scream but boy did they get the knots out of my shoulders so I could finish practice! My coach hugged me when I got my best times and yeah I totally had a coach crush but he was kind and scary and I respected him and he respected me as a swimmer. I never felt weird. All that is to say that Ben never ever did what my coach did to me so please give me a break.

    Maybe some girls had coach crushes on Ben and he didn't respond to their advances favorably and got hurt and upset and lashed out? I think this is more likely people!

    Ben is awesome! He has had to change his whole life due to the stuff that was said and not able to be proven! Yeah folks, all investigations that were made brought up NOTHING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! What do you say about that?

    Can you leave the man alone and let him get back to what he's good at which is making awesome fast swimmers!!

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    1. WELL SAID!! I agree. I know him as well and know of this is deserved, nothing has come about it, until something were to ever come out of this. Let Ben live his life!

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  9. I gave Ben a gift of $1,000 dollars last year, then I read about the alleged behaviour He was in a panic and even cashed the check at a check cashing store. i really respected him till that point, even getting my company to donate to Oakland Undercurrents. He needs help.

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  10. Oh come on---Ben worked his @$$ off for years with little to no pay. If he wanted to really make $$ he would have---he's a Cal grad and very bright. My theory is some people had it in for him because of whatever. We all make mistakes and Ben probably just said something lame on Facebook because Facebook is lame and hence--someone jumped all over that like this is who Ben is. Ben does not need help. He spent years mentoring kids year after year. You need help.

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  11. Is this a case of where there's smoke, there's fire or is this a case of irresponsible journalism? I think the paper in Oakland owes some kind of follow-up. This issue has broad ranging implications for coaches/swimmers alike. It just seems more and more like after these incidents of coach impropriety happen (examples include Mission Viejo, John Trembley, Ben Sheppard, etc.) they all seem to get swept under the rug (The question is, who is sweeping them away). The outcome seems to be that the person's name is ruined and many people (except those insiders on the know) are left to wonder what really happened. I am one who tends to think tehy are true but without any follow up, everyone is left to wonder what happened.

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  12. The police found no evidence! That is the ONLY follow up you should need! A small time weekly paper is not the court of law you or I should EVER ascribe to..... If anything of evidence existed it would have surfaced by now, yet the chatter continues. It's sad to think a swim coach(soccer, et al), can't tell a kid that has been in a program since early childhood that they are "special" "beautiful" etc without being tarnished with the intention of initiating sexual contact....This whole thing is b.s. Ben is not perfect, he is human, and over zealous in his attempt to lift underprivileged kids to the level needed to compete in a college competition. That's the fact. And thus far there is nothing that has warranted an arrest or charge. Ben if you read this, sorry you got burned at the stake. Somebody wanted you gone, and now you are, such is the game of politics.

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  13. For all of you who say you know Ben you certainly don't know him in all respects. I have seen him in action, both good and bad with the kids. The particular incidents which lead to his firing I can not attest to but I can tell you that the way in which he dealt with sexual issues on his team was horrendous and totally inappropriate.

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    1. So are you saying you know him? Doesn't seem like you do

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  14. The way he dealt with sexual issues? That is the such a week and vague statement with no meaning...people
    Continue to throw stuff out there with no merit. It's really sad.

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  15. And as for his coaching with Oakland...he wasn't fired he resigned amidst a cloud of gossip. Again...sad for all involved.

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  16. Just wanted to say that Ben helped us out tremendously in getting our club--which serves culturally diverse and disadvantaged kids-- off the ground. Without Ben's help we'd probably be toast. I'm saddened that Ben didn't get to finish his story with the Undercurrent, especially in light of the fact that it was mere ALLEGATIONS, not fact--that drove him out. Ben didn't help just our club, but many throughout the region/country. I have faith he will be back building a new entity. Though he likely won't ever need our help, rest assured we'll be there if he needs it, and we'll cheer him on. Great coach. He changed lives. He made a difference.

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  17. 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.

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  18. Ben had at least one relationship with a teenage swimmer whose parents were aware of the situation. Undercurrents since its inception were more than Ben. Undercurrents continue today in spite of Ben. He is a cancer.

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  19. Well, now USA Swimming has completed both its investigation and the entire administrative process, including a lengthy appeal. And Ben has been banned from USA swimming FOR LIFE.

    There are some of us who have known for more than a decade about the troubling ways in which Ben freely intermingled his personal and professional swimming lives.

    We know Ben's extraordinary capacity to educate and uplift. His ability to preach the zen of swimming. We can imagine few as gifted.

    We also know the specific, individual girls who Ben targeted. Some were merely approached, and experienced painful emotional conflicts. For some others, the degree of involvement went past the "just approached" line. Far past.

    I don't think (and I could be wrong) anyone who was close to this mess will call Ben a pedophile. But many have remarked on the extraordinary narcissism that led Ben to believe, truly and in his heart of hearts, that "rules" just don't apply to him. Its what allowed him to lie so freely to so many who supported him so unconditionally for so long.

    Yes: Undercurrents since its inception was more than Ben, and it continues today BOTH because and in spite of him.

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    1. Just found this page. Am still regularly haunted by my experiences with Ben which began nearly ten years ago, as a teenager and young adult. Your post above really rings true for me. I have such conflicted feelings toward Ben, feelings I continue to wrestle with many years later: deep admiration and gratitude for all he taught me and inspired me to do as a swimmer, matched by unfathomable sadness, pain, deceit, betrayal, violation, disgust. My particular relationship with him went far past the line you speak of, and has had a tremendous negative impact on my sexuality, self-image, body-image, and trust in relationships. As the reality of my relationship with Ben began to make itself clear (and as I began to grow up and understand what it actually was), I suspected the narcissism you speak of. I really believe that he suffers from a personality disorder, one that allows him to maintain the charisma we all admire in him as a coach, but also prevents him from knowing right from wrong.

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