USA Swimming works to prevent abuse

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- USA Swimming leaders adopted four proposals Saturday designed to protect young athletes from sexual abuse, part of an effort that has come under increased scrutiny after a recent flurry of media reports and lawsuits.

At its regularly scheduled board meeting, members voted to authorize the startup of a hot line and counseling service, and to create staff positions to focus on athlete protection. The board also voted to create an athlete protection committee with experts from both inside and outside the sport, as well as publish a list of coaches who have been banned for life by USA Swimming.

"Contrary to things that have been out there, this group does have the courage to do things right, and a high, high priority, if not the No. 1 priority, is to protect the athletes in our program," USA Swimming president Jim Wood said.

The heat on USA Swimming has been turned up in the wake of at least four lawsuits filed against the organization alleging improper contact between coaches and young athletes. A report on ABC's "20/20" said at least 36 coaches have been banned for life over the last decade because of sexual misconduct.

Wood said Saturday's action was on the agenda long before news of the lawsuits became widely known, and the vote was based on information from a task force he appointed in September.

Critics have their doubts, and said USA Swimming is more concerned with protecting coaches and adults within its ranks than the athletes who swim for them.

"They've had 32 years and the same people have been failing for 32 years," said Jonathan Little, an Indianapolis attorney who has filed one of the sexual abuse cases against USA Swimming. "And suddenly, they're going to act now?"

Little said he has made repeated offers to USA Swimming to provide experts to sit down and talk about a protective policy "that's a gold standard for children."

"And we haven't had a response to any of those offers," he said.

Other ideas include a six-point program that former USA Swimming vice president Mike Saltzstein has sent to the organization. He provided a copy to The Associated Press on Friday, and the AP story was a topic of conversation during the board meeting, though none of the proposals were voted upon.

Among Saltzstein's ideas are a requirement that two adults be on hand for any interaction with a youth swimmer and a rule prohibiting any coach from giving massages or rubdowns to an athlete unless certified to do so -- and then, never in a one-on-one setting.

Saltzstein wasn't impressed with the steps taken by the board on Saturday.

"It's all back to my original concern. There's no action being taken," he said. "What issue is possibly hotter than protecting minors. This is a great sport but this isn't the way it should be represented."

Wood and other board members said all of Saltzstein's proposals were legitimate and would be considered in the future.

"The worst thing we could do is to overreact and say, `Oh my gosh, we have to do that right now," said board member Carol Zaleski, a former USA Swimming president with nearly 40 years in the sport. "No. Let's keep on the road, stay with the process and not just jump because right now it's a hot issue."

The four measures the board adopted advance executive director Chuck Wielgus' "7-Point Action Plan for a Safe & Positive Environment."

Part of the plan included hiring Barry Nadell, who has expertise in background screening and will make recommendations on USA Swimming's screening program. One widespread problem with screening programs is that often, they only red-flag people who have been brought into the legal system, which can leave out coaches who have been fired or quit for inappropriate conduct but weren't arrested.

USA Swimming has nearly 2,800 independent member clubs and provides them guidelines and "best practices" on hiring and screening coaches.

"We are very satisfied with where we are in what's a very thorough and deliberate process," Wielgus said. "We took significant steps today and there are many more steps to be taken."