Kobritz: Win-first culture enabling monsters

Column: Beyond the Lines

First, it was USA Swimming. Then it was USA Gymnastics. And now, we have USA Volleyball following in the footsteps of its sister organizations. They all knew, and did nothing.

Sexual abuse in USA Swimming is an “old” story, but it bears repeating. Hundreds of swimmers were raped and abused by their coaches over a period of decades. Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming from 1997 to 2017, admitted in a deposition he was aware of the charges but took no steps to ban guilty coaches and worse, failed to implement changes that might have prevented further abuse.

For the past few months, we have witnessed a similar story unfold at USA Gymnastics. Larry Nassar, the organization’s doctor, will serve the rest of his life behind bars for sexually abusing hundreds of young girls and women. Even when victims complained, those who had an obligation to protect them did nothing. The fallout from multiple criminal trials included the termination or forced resignation of a number of high-ranking officials in USA Gymnastics, the USOC, and at Michigan State University where Nassar also worked.

Late last year the Chicago Sun-Times published the result of an investigation into charges of rape and sexual abuse lodged by several women against former USA Volleyball coach Rick Butler. The charges stem from the 1980’s and 90’s, when the women were teenagers. A recently filed class action lawsuit against Butler says USA Volleyball initially sided with the complainants and imposed a lifetime ban against the coach in 1995. However, Butler continued to coach at his own volleyball school, which was affiliated with the Amateur Athletic Union. USA Volleyball partially lifted its ban against Butler in 2000, before permanently barring him for a second time earlier this year.

There are a number of commonalities in the victims’ stories and the actions of the governing bodies. The crimes were perpetrated by controlling and very successful coaches, and in Nassar’s case, a medical professional. Because the three organizations involved depended on these individuals for their success, they chose to support the powerful over the weak.

Stated another way, Butler, Nassar and all those swimming coaches were protected and enabled by a culture that prioritizes money and winning over the health, safety and welfare of young athletes, many of whom were mere children when they were abused.

If you’re wondering how to prevent a repeat of these tragedies, the answer isn’t to dismantle the organizations, as some have suggested. Another entity will merely take its place, which, without proper safeguards and strong leadership will inevitably lead to where we are today. We must change the culture in every sport organization where children are at the mercy of their coaches and executives are dependent on those coaches for their titles, prestige and income. That starts at the top. Executives must be held accountable for implementing and fostering those changes or be made to suffer the consequences.

If one more child has to suffer for a lifetime to satisfy the goals of an adult, shame on us.

Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in and chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.