INVESTIGATION

When abuse scandals hit, colleges hire "independent" investigators — and the cover-up begins

Third-party investigation of college abuse scandals: A dubious industry whose main job is to limit the damage

By Irvin Muchnick

Contributing writer

Published June 20, 2022 10:02AM (EDT)

Empty american football stadium (Getty Images/Cunaplus_M.Faba)
Empty american football stadium (Getty Images/Cunaplus_M.Faba)

In the wake of a devastating series of reports by Scott Reid of the Orange County Register about the toxic, bullying culture of the University of California-Berkeley women's swimming program under Teri McKeever — onetime head of the U.S. Olympic team staff — the most successful female coach in the sport's history could be through.

If even a fraction of the massive allegations of McKeever's (non-sexual) abuse of her athletes across decades are true — throwing equipment at them, refusing to acknowledge and properly treat their injuries, and even driving several of them to contemplate suicide (one swimmer says she was mocked to her face when she directly told McKeever of almost killing herself) — then she deserves to be through.

I come here, however, not to make a judgment on Teri McKeever's employment future. That is the task, at least officially, of the San Francisco law firm of Munger, Tollos & Olson, which was recently named to conduct an "external investigation." Exactly how much a public university pays for a job like that, out of its state legislature allocations, ever-rising tuition fees, real estate holdings and hedge fund investments, is unknown. University spokesperson Dan Mogulof told Salon: "We cannot anticipate the costs of an ongoing investigation. In addition, as a matter of policy, we do not release total expenditures until a firm's work is completed."

RELATED: Dead in the water: The tragic human cost of swimming's abuse scandals

In a statement that many Cal swimmers and their families found frustrating, athletic director Jim Knowlton said the McKeever investigation could take six months.

In a sense, that is to be expected: The playbook of supposed independent investigators in situations like this is to broadcast no playbook. I told Hailyn Chen, the lawyer co-leading the Cal investigation, that one swimmer has described the structure of the probe as calculatedly passive, with no clear mission to reach out to accusers for in-depth interviews. (Such interviews, it's worth noting, might go beyond the coach's own malfeasance to the conduct of university administrators who, over the years, were informed of lurid details of alleged misconduct yet did nothing.) Chen directed me to Mogulof, who said he was barred from answering the question "by law and policy."

Chen seemed unaware that by passing the buck to the campus flack, she was unintentionally revealing that the "independence" of her firm's investigation was something of a fiction.

There is now a cottage industry of such supposed independent investigations of scandals in amateur or college sports, which remains largely unexamined. Those who conduct them are often figures of reputation as much as production, something like the Robert Muellers of the sports-entertainment complex, whose primary function is to make their patrons look good and themselves even better.

Those who conduct "independent" investigations of sports scandals are like the Robert Muellers of the sports world: Their main function is to make their patrons look good, and themselves even better.

 

Probity, or at the very least a convincing simulation of it, is their brand. The impression they seek to give is of being upfront, forthright, statesmanlike and tight-lipped — seeking just the facts, ma'am. Such investigations often deliver a few obligatory concrete findings, if only to keep the crowd thirsting for more. In pro wrestling, the credo of the bad guys goes, "Win if you can, lose if you must — but always cheat." For the independent investigators, this could be boiled down  to "Exonerate if you can, indict if you must — but always make sure the check clears."

*  *  *

I've been following abuses of the non-adult and non-professional (but exceedingly dirty and increasingly money-driven) sports system for more than a decade. For the most part, these have involved sex crimes in swimming, victimizing mostly but not exclusively girls, and egregiously avoidable deaths in football, cutting short the lives of boys. The work is grim, often soul-searing. Challenging the default nice-guy investigators and their subtle agendas is a subset of that work, but sometimes the takeaways can be dosed with comic relief.

In 2013 my colleague Tim Joyce and I broke the story of a 97-page police report of a mature criminal investigation, in Maricopa County, Arizona, of University of Utah swimming coach Greg Winslow, on allegations that he had serially molested an underage female swimmer while coaching the USA Swimming age-group club on the campus of Arizona State University. Utah promptly pulled Winslow from the deck of the Pac-12 swimming championships and suspended him. Next, the university hired Michael Glazier to handle the independent investigation.

The website for Glazier's Kansas City law firm describes him as a prominent "collegiate sports attorney." What this means is that, over time, he has made it to the NCAA shortlist for managing such clean-up operations. As wizardly with equivocal words as Harvey Keitel is with disinfectants in "Pulp Fiction," Glazier and his co-author issued a report concluding that Winslow had done many bad things both earlier in his career and while at Utah, largely due to his alcohol addiction. (His abuse of the Arizona girl, who followed him to Utah before returning home and attempting suicide, was just the first item on a list of sexual offenses and other misdeeds.) Utah's athletic director at the time, Chris Hill, announced that he'd had no idea about any of this.


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Of all the wimpy independent investigations I have covered, my personal favorite was the 2013 review of USA Swimming's SafeSport program by the National Child Protection Training Center of Gundersen Health System in Wisconsin. That was a complicated, omnibus production with a national political context — although our society's hunger for athletic divertissement, and its essential indifference to morality and child safety, are truly bipartisan sentiments.

USA Swimming covered up for D.C.-area coach Rick Curl for decades before he finally went to prison. The organization's "action plan" treated the whole thing as a PR headache.

 

In 2012, USA Swimming's decades-long cover-up of Washington, D.C.-area coach Rick Curl began unraveling, with portents both ominous and global. Curl had repeatedly abused an underage female swimmer, who went on to the University of Texas before her personal life cratered. In the intervening sub-criminal manipulations, Curl had been forced out of his coaching job at the University of Maryland and gone into gainfully employed exile as a coach in Australia. But by 2012 he was back on pool decks in the U.S. when the survivor spotted him in televised coverage of the Olympic trials and was enraged.

After a Washington Post reporter told the story, Curl was arrested, copped a plea and went to prison. The Post editorialized that swimming's well-documented history and ongoing record of abuse required a congressional investigation. Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, stepped up.

On July 2, 2013, the late and disgraced USA Swimming chief executive, Chuck Wielgus, along with president Bruce Stratton, distributed a long strategy memo to the board of directors, with the subject line "Updated SafeSport Action Plan." The plan whittled the sexual abuse problem down to a PR headache. Here are some pertinent excerpts:

  • We recognize that some of the issues we face today are an increasing unfortunate fact of life for all youth-serving organizations and that our evolving role and responsibilities related to inappropriate conduct by our members is permanently with us." [Emphasis added.]
  • While we believe that our Safe Sport program is a model for other sports and we are proud of the progress we have made, we acknowledge that there is always room for improvement. Therefore, we will engage a reputable and independent entity to undertake a thorough review of our entire Safe Sport Program and provide a report back to us that will evaluate our program against the best practices of other organizations, as well as make recommendations for how USA Swimming's program might be improved. This review will help USA Swimming gain greater public trust with our membership, the media, and the general public. This is a big project ...
  • There is a financial impact to this plan. By far, the most expensive piece will be the independent review, yet we are confident that it will be worth the cost in order to be able to improve our program and help victims of abuse. There will also be costs for media training and other PR and communications aspects of the overall plan. In total, we estimate the expenses could run between $100K and $200K. It's still early in the quad and we're hoping to be able to find the funds to cover the necessary expenses from the Executive and Business Development budgets.

In January 2014, Wielgus and Stratton released the report by National Child Protection Training Center "expert" Victor Vieth, without even sharing it first with the USA Swimming board. There is not enough space in this article to catalog that document's extensive betrayal of abuse survivors and the overall cause. (Here's one: Despite being beseeched by one victim's mother, Vieth refused to talk to her, and five days after the report's publication, USA Swimming dismissed that family's complaint against the abusive coach.)

My executive summary paraphrase of the report, only slightly facetious, goes like this: USA Swimming is doing a fine job. One person we spoke with was unhappy with the job it's doing. Needless to add, there is always room for improvement! And we hope swimming indeed continues to improve!

As USA Swimming had hoped, this report blunted the already glacially slow progress of Rep. Miller's investigation. Late in 2014 — shortly before announcing that he was retiring — Miller sent a paint-by-numbers letter to FBI Director James Comey (later to become famous for other reasons). As someone who was in constant, at times near-daily contact with Miller's staff members for more than a year, I can attest that the letter contained perhaps one percent of the information and well-documented allegations his office had received.

For his part, Comey didn't even bother to respond to Miller himself, delegating that task to an assistant. The FBI thanked the congressman for the information and told him not to worry his pretty little head over abuse allegations in swimming: The bureau was already all over it.

The FBI tends to reinforce the bogeyman theory: Outside predators will somehow reach pool decks, seeking to harm children. But almost every abuse case in swimming involves a coach.

The FBI's relationship with USA Swimming, the governing body of Olympic and youth swimming competition in the U.S., has always been, shall we say, a bit skewed. USA Swimming educational conferences promoting its SafeSport program have regularly included FBI agents on panels. These appearances reinforce the bogeyman theory, that is, the premise that outside predators may somehow pierce the perimeters of America's pool decks, seeking to do harm to children. In point of fact, almost every single case of abuse of swimmers involves not a stranger but a familiar person: usually the swimmer's coach.

A group of American gymnasts, including Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and others less well known, are now suing the FBI for doing nothing  for years with the voluminous complaints about Larry Nassar, USA Gymnastics' infamous former doctor, now in prison after pleading guilty to 10 counts of sexual assault, among other charges. (Nassar allegedly abused as many as 265 young women and girls over an 18-year period.) Gymnastics richly deserves to be in these headlines. But the FBI's fumbling of coach abuse allegations, at a bare minimum, is similarly outrageous in swimming.

When Miller retired from Congress, he announced that he would pass the baton to another California representative, Jackie Speier, as the House Democrats' new unofficial watchdog for abuse issues in youth sports

In 2016, a visiting Irish legislator, Maureen O'Sullivan, met with Speier in Washington to discuss the two-continent campaign for justice and accountability for George Gibney, a former Irish Olympic swimming head coach and legal U.S. resident who had become the most notorious at-large sex criminal in the history of global sports. Speier issued a statement promising to continue to "monitor" the Gibney case "and look for ways to constructively engage in this ongoing legal process."

In 2019, after I met with O'Sullivan and others in Ireland, I sent Speier a lengthy letter updating the information from my Freedom of Information Act litigation seeking material from Gibney's immigration files, plus potential steps for Irish and U.S. activists concerned with the issue. Speier did not respond, instead forwarding my letter to Rep. Barbara Lee (also a California Democrat) with the explanation that I lived in Lee's district and was, she surmised, seeking constituent services.

Speier, who herself will retire from Congress this year, did not respond to Salon's questions about whether she would appoint a successor as the House Democrats' youth sports abuse point person.

*  *  *

I have no special knowledge of the Teri McKeever scenario – that was Scott Reid's story, and one I hadn't even seen coming. I have, however, previously butted heads with the University of California over its "independent investigation" of the football team's strength and conditioning program following the 2014 death of Ted Agu, a walk-on student-athlete. Agu, who was Black and was known to carry the sickle cell trait, died after an exertional attack, a well-understood risk of his condition. That happened during an especially grueling offseason drill directed by Damon Harrington, the strength and conditioning assistant under then-head coach Sonny Dykes.

I sued the university under the California Public Records Act, leading to the release of a batch of internal university documents exposing the cover-up of the circumstances and PR management of Agu's death, which I would describe as unprosecuted manslaughter. Since I was the prevailing party, the judge ruled that my attorney, Roy Gordet, was entitled to reimbursement of his fees for five years of work. The parties negotiated a figure of $125,000 — at least until  Cal appealed the lower court judgment to the state Court of Appeal. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has weighed in with a "friend of the court" submission on my behalf. Oral arguments lie ahead.

The "independent review" after Ted Agu's death did not interview the Cal football whistleblower, only players supposedly chosen at random. It found no problems with the conditioning program.

 

After Agu died, another Cal football player acted as a whistleblower, taking his concerns about Harrington's lethal coaching methods, language and culture first to a deputy athletic director, then a senior vice chancellor and ultimately to the campus police. Yet the ensuing "independent review" did not interview that young man, and may not have interviewed any of the other players who were prepared to air their criticisms of a football program in which a teammate had died. Those chosen to be interviewed were said to have been plucked from a random computer-generated lottery.

University emails would reveal that the co-author of the review, an athletic department crony from UC Davis, Dr. Jeffrey Tanji, spent exactly one day in Berkeley interviewing football players. While there, he stayed at the historic Claremont Hotel, recently renovated as a luxury resort, where his wife joined him. 

Tanji's report found no problems with the football conditioning program at Cal. But it struck so many observes as unprofessional and rife with blatant conflicts of interest that then-UC Berkeley chancellor Nicholas Dirks, near the end of his short and tempestuous tenure, was ultimately compelled to commission a second "independent review" of the program, by two sports medicine experts.

But before that review could get started, and while Agu's parents were in the midst of settling their multimillion-dollar civil lawsuit against the university and sitting down for an interview with ESPN's "Outside the Lines," Dirks changed the rules of the game. The second review was directed to turn the page and look forward, without considering whatever mistakes may or may not have been made in the past. It took years for that report to be completed and published — and I will affirm that it offers an impressive model for healthy, science-based football conditioning programs and best practices.

But by then, as far as the public was concerned, the young man whose death had sparked the original controversy was effectively forgotten. Misled by the university, which also withheld key documents, the local coroner had ruled that Agu's death was from a generic cardiac episode. Only later did the coroner admit that he was wrong, and that this had been a classic "sickling" attack that occurred in stages and could almost certainly have been curtailed with timely intervention.

In other words, Ted Agu's life could have been saved. But if you Google him right now, you will learn that he died of "hypertrophic cardiomyopathy." For the University of California, that's the only thing that counts.

Read more from Irvin Muchnick on abuse scandals in sports:


By Irvin Muchnick

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College Football Investigation Ncaa Sexual Abuse Sports University Of California Usa Swimming