Drowning In Abuse

Katy Waldman absorbs an exposé by Rachel Sturtz on “the scourge of sexual abuse in competitive swimming”:

Sexual abuse cases in youth sports “happen with much greater frequency than people realize,” Sturtz asserts in the Outside piece, and then goes long on the institutional forces that have allowed the abuse to silently metastasize. Unlike most European countries, the United States has no government agency dedicated to protecting kids from molestation by their youth coaches.

Instead, that responsibility falls to the United States Olympic Committee, which then outsources the task to national governing bodies, or NGBs, like USA Swimming, USA Football, and USA Taekwondo. This decentralized structure ensures that the people dealing with complaints of sexual abuse are those with the closest ties to the athletic community under investigation, officials who are more likely than disinterested third parties to wish to preserve appearances and reputations. With “the fox … guarding the henhouse,” Sturtz writes, “the USOC’s system historically protected the institution and its coaches more than children, dragging out investigations and lawsuits until sexual-assault survivors lost what little fight they had left.” …

The Outside piece is long and powerful. But one of the most affecting parts, for me, was when Sturtz spoke to an expert about “grooming,” the process by which “children are conditioned to believe that inappropriate behavior from an adult is a logical outgrowth of their relationship.” Adults groom kids by gently, imperceptibly nudging boundaries. First, a coach may take a special, friendly interest in a swimmer, then meet with her alone, then touch her hand, then remove her suit. At no point on the slippery slope does a single act register as inappropriate, yet the seemingly natural flow of events deposits the child in an alien, nightmare world.