Misplaced Faith | BY MICHELE KORT
Molested by their coaches, unprotected by their sport’s leaders, women athletes are breaking the silence about sexual abuse
The following is an excerpt from “Misplaced Faith” in the Fall 2014 issue of Ms. Read the whole article by getting a digital subscription to the magazine.
She is special.
That’s what club swim coach Norm Havercroft in Saratoga, California, told the mother of 15-year-old competitive swimmer Jancy Thompson in 1997. And because she was so special, Havercroft needed to spend one-on-one time with her every morning, at 5 a.m. So the mother, who also had an infant son, got up before dawn to drive her daughter to the pool and wait in the parking lot, breastfeeding the baby.
But, according to the allegations of Thompson’s 2010 lawsuit, the coach wasn’t giving her training tips. Before the rest of the team arrived for practice, Thompson claimed, Havercroft allegedly was taking her into a private room and molesting her.
Havercroft was accused of molesting at least one other young girl, but was never convicted and kept coaching for years despite the revelations, denying all charges. But there’s a growing Hall of Infamy among U.S. swim coaches who were convicted of sexual abuse—including Andy King (serving 40 years in prison), Rick Curl (serving seven years) and Brian Hindson (serving 33 years for secretly videotaping female swimmers in their locker room). There are now at least 68 coaches and swimming officials “banned for life” from USA Swimming for sexual abuse or misconduct.
The problem isn’t just what coaches have done to underage athletes, but the fact that national sports governing bodies (NGBs) such as USA Swimming—which boasts 400,000 athlete members—didn’t take swift actions to protect vulnerable young competitors from such predators. Even when coaches would leave a swim club because of abuse allegations, there was no warning from USA Swimming to other clubs or to swimmers’ parents about the coaches’ behavior when they moved on to a new locale and new victims.
“The thinking was to keep it very quiet,” says Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who won three gold medals at the 1984 Olympic Games. “They were afraid of defamation lawsuits. When they knew about somebody who was a sexual abuser, it wasn’t [the NGB’s] responsibility—it was society’s responsibility, it was the police’s responsibility, it was the parents’ responsibility, it was the club’s responsibility.”
Sounds like the Catholic Church hierarchy. Indeed, over the past decade, sexual-abuse scandals have emerged in a number of corners of American culture—from the priesthood to the military to college campuses. It’s not that those abuses hadn’t been going on for decades, or even centuries, but survivors have typically been scared or shamed into silence. No more. One of the latest actions taken by abuse survivors from the swimming world was to challenge the induction of longtime USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Nineteen victims of coaching sexual abuse—including Cuba-to-U.S. marathon swimmer Diana Nyad (who has alleged that her coach Jack Nelson molested her 50 years ago)—signed a petition pointing out Wielgus’ longtime inaction against abusive coaches.
In early June, Wielgus withdrew his nomination from the Hall of Fame and offered a blogged apology for not having done more to prevent sexual abuse, admitting that he should have said “I’m sorry” four years earlier when he was interviewed by ABC’s 20/20 for the newsmagazine’s exposé of abusive swim coaches. When he finally did apologize, he pleaded ignorance about issues of sexual abuse prior to 2010—much like those in the Catholic Church hierarchy have done.
“Too little, too late and forced,” said attorneys Robert Allard and Jon Little. Allard, who’s based in San Jose, California, has become the go-to barrister for athletes who were abused (he has sometimes partnered with Indianapolis-based Little). He remembers clearly his first contact with a parent looking for representation: The caller’s 12-year-old daughter, training under Andy King at San Jose Aquatics, had been isolated in a shack-like facility adjoining the pool so that King could supposedly massage her shoulder. Before long he was taking off her top and massaging her breasts as well.
Since the call about King, more than 100 women have dialed Allard’s number—often women in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Hogshead-Makar, currently senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation, explains why reporting may take so long: “Right about when [women] either have kids that are the age they were when they were molested, or they hit 40…that’s when they ‘find their mojo’ and realize that the coach is still on the [pool] deck. But by that time, there is no remedy from the police [because the statute of limitations has expired].”
Read the rest of the article by getting a digital subscription to Ms.
Our law firm thanks senior editor Michele Kort for going inside the world of sports coaching and sexual abuse.