There is something rotten in the state of American swimming. USA Swimming is doing well competitively, but there are some serious issues that are beginning to appear in it's administrative side. The American Swimming Coaches Association (ASCA) provides many useful services, but it's leadership is the source of much scorn, and the organization seems to have a monopoly on coaching certification and accreditation. Has the time come to make a change in the USA Swimming leadership? Do we need an option to ASCA for our coaches?
I have been a member of Alaska Swimming for 34 years. I began swimming competitively at the age of 7, and have been swimming and for, and then coaching from that point forward. From a time before USA Swimming was the National Governing Body (NGB) for the sport. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) governed swimming back in the day, and while a lot of things have improved since the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, some things have gotten worse.
I was at the USA Swimming convention in 1997 when Chuck Wielgus took over as the CEO of our organization. I attended many of the workshops and meetings, and was extremely impressed with the efforts he and his staff were making in the branding and marketing of our sport. I was convinced that he had what it would take to make USA Swimming, and it's athletes, household names. I was right, and USA Swimming actually has become the biggest Olympic sport with the biggest stars.
Under the Wielgus regiem we have a lot for which to be thankful. However, in recent years, we have begun to see and hear things that may be an indication that it is time for a change. His interview with 20/20 in April 2010, concerning sexual abuse by some coaches, was a disaster. He came off as arrogant and insensitive, and while I sincerely believe that he does care about the victims of the abuse, the damage was done...and he knew it.
His response was to revamp and re-implement a fairly weak background check system that was being used by USA Swimming to screen out monsters and sexual predators like those brought to light in the 20/20 investigation. There has been some question however, as to how much money USA Swimming is getting as a "kickback" from the firm contracted to perform the background checks...Acxiom.
There is no argument from me that background checks for all coaches in USA Swimming is necessary. It is a tragedy that any adult could abuse any child in such a way. However, now USA Swimming has expanded it's search for these sexual predators to all officials and key deck personal (computer operators, deck management, etc). I can't help but think that perhaps this is starting to get a little on the ridiculous side. As people like the computer operators at swim meets begin to line up to be checked two images come to mind: 1) Big Brother from Orwell's 1984 and 2) the cash that is being stuffed into USA Swimming's pockets from background check kickbacks.
I can't imagine a reason that a computer operator would need a background check when there is nothing keeping a "creeper" from videoing swimmers in there racing suits. What is next...background checks for everyone who walks into a swim meet? Why not? It is certainly much more likely that a deviant would be sitting in the stands at a swim meet than in a white shirt, on deck, with all eyes on him/her. Does anyone else think this is crazy.
Then there is the is my most recent beef with USA Swimming...the LSC Evaluation & Achievement Program or LEAP. This is a program who's stated purpose is to help LSC's become more effective. A noble pursuit I suppose. My biggest issue with the program is that it is mandatory. Just recently Alaska Swimming came up against the deadline for completing their LEAP Level 1. The program has 50 separate items that need to be checked off or uploaded for evaluation. As an executive board member of Alaska Swimming I received an email with the following letter attached. Keep in mind, this was our first warning:
Whoa! What kind of organization did I volunteer for? By my estimation, Alaska Swimming has been doing just fine since the early 1970's. Since when did we need USA Swimming to come in and "spank" us for getting our assignment in late? And why are we being forced to complete this LEAP anyway? Where was this $100/day fine going to go? Any most of all, who wants to be a member of an organization that institutes such punitive actions against it's volunteers?
Let's segue from USA Swimming to ASCA by taking a look at the requirements (other than the background check) for being a coach member of USA Swimming. A coach must have current CPR, 1st Aid, Safety Training for Swim Coaches. Great! Safety first is what I say. Let's make sure all of the swimmers and coaches on deck are in a safe environment, and let's make sure that all of the coaches are trained to recognize and take care of whatever emergencies may arise. No problem, I have met all of those requirement and I have been hired to be a coach by a board of parents...or better yet, I will start my own club.
But wait, there is one more requirement...each coach must pass the "Foundations of Coaching" test. Well how hard can it be? I'll just log into USA Swimming at take this test. Wow, it has 180 questions. Ok, this is going to take some time. Oh, it seems to have a lot of questions that refer to this video and online text book...which by the way costs $25 (in addition to your annual USA Swimming registration fee). Who publishes this incredibly one sided and often questionable video? Why it's USA Swimming....and ASCA.
I have been a member of ASCA since 1992 and a life plus member since 1995. I have attended dozens of clinics and workshops over the years. I have taken correspondence classes and traveled to special training classes. I have been a member of USA Swimming and ASCA long enough that I am "grandfathered" from having to take this "Foundations of Coaching" test, but I have taken it with several of my assistant coaches...and it is esoteric, subjective, and poorly written. How is it that ASCA is the only authority on who is qualified to be a swim coach?
The Executive Director of ASCA is John Leonard. He has been in this position for over 26 year and it would appear that be a coach of any stature in USA Swimming, you must "kiss the ring" of John Leonard. This is the same John Leonard that has allegedly, according to various websites and blogs (www.usswimnscandal.com, scaq.blogspot.com, curbnorthside.blogspot.com), had multiple brushes with the legal, moral, and ethical boundaries espoused by the very organization he leads.
Is there a cabal between John Leonard and Chuck Wielgus to control swimming in the United States? Are these the kind of people that we want to have "lead" us. John Leonard seems to be out of control and a particularly bad influence on the direction of our sport. Likewise, it would seem it is time to take the positive things (branding, TV coverage, etc) that Chuck Wielgus has given us and move on to someone who can provide leadership away from the negatives...a growing, power hungry, and overpaid bureaucracy.
What is the next step? I am not sure, but something has to be done...soon...before all the progress we have made is lost.