Last week, a drunk Ryan Lochte vandalized a gas station in Rio, and then lied that he’d been robbed at gun point. This episode has been cast as benign bro-ish-ness by the Rio Olympics spokesperson Mario Andrada, who said:
No apologies from [Lochte] or other athletes are needed. We need to understand that these kids came here to have fun. Let’s give these kids a break. Sometimes you make decisions that you later regret. They had fun, they made a mistake, life goes on.
Intentionally or not, the incident also further cleaves open the dialogue on white privilege. After all, Cam Newton, a black NFL quarterback, was vilified for sulking after his team’s loss to the Denver Broncos. Meanwhile, Lochte-the-vandal apparently gets a free pass — at the upper echelons of his sport, no less — as a well-meaning, fun-loving kid. If you’re white, vandalizing a gas station in a foreign country and then lying about it is akin to wearing grillz to a press conference (which Lochte has also done).
Just harmless fun, right?
There’s another angle to this story, however. Beyond being yet another example of the double standard black athletes often face, Lochtegate also highlights the hypocrisy of USA Swimming. On Sunday, Locthe apologized awkwardly, calling his original account of the incident an over-exaggeration. On Monday, he was dropped by several sponsors, including Speedo and Ralph Lauren. One voice is noticeably absent from this story. Where is the outrage from USA Swimming over Locthe’s false report?
The Safe Sport arm of USA Swimming purports to make the sport safer, protecting athletes from bullies, sexual predators, and other dangers. The Safe Sport program was formed in 2010, after a slew of allegations and confirmed accounts of coaches engaging in sexual abuse, assault, and misconduct. In many of these cases, USA Swimming ignored red flags, failing to protect athletes from known predators. Until 2010, the executive director of USA Swimming never reported an allegation of sexual abuse to authorities, according to a 2014 Outside Magazine report.
Sexual predators regularly infiltrate youth sports so that they can earn the trust of parents and the unquestioned loyalty of athletes. Too often, youth sports organizations ignore red flags and fail to protect their athletes. Predatory pedophiles and governing bodies that enable them are a dangerous combination.
USA Gymnastics is dealing with a similar scandal of its own, involving sexual abuse by coaches an inaction at the highest levels of the sports governing body. Ahead of the Olympics, the Indianapolis Star reported that USA Gymnastics failed to report allegations of sexual abuse by one of its coaches. One of the reasons USA gymnastics cited in their lack of action was concern over false reporting. During a 2015 deposition, Steve Penny, President of USA Gymnastics, explained:
“And one of the most important reasons that you substantiate a claim is because the potential for, if you will allow the expression, a witch hunt, becomes very real. And so it’s possible that someone may make a claim like this because they don’t like someone or because they heard a rumor or because they received information through other third parties…. And in the sport of gymnastics, it’s very competitive to gain and retain students and/or athletes, and people might have all kinds of reasons for saying things.”
In reality, false reports of sexual assault account for less than five percent of all cases. In fact, most victims of sexual abuse and sexual assault do not report their crimes to authorities, and many never reveal the abuse to anyone — not even friends, family, or mental health professionals.
Despite these statistics, USA Swimming includes protection against false allegations as one of only four objectives in their training and education program. Teams who go through the training will, according to the Safe Sport handbook:
Understand the scope and the effects of abuse in spot, recognize the signs of grooming behavior and boundary violations, understand how to establish boundaries and protect against false allegations, and know how to react and report when you suspect abuse.
USA Swimming’s Safe Sport handbook also outlines prohibitions against false reporting:
Filing a knowingly false allegation of sexual misconduct is prohibited and may violate state criminal and civil defamation laws. Any person making a knowingly false allegation of sexual misconduct shall be subject to disciplinary action by USA Swimming.
Their language implies that victims of abuse are potential threats and predators, deflecting the responsibility from the alleged perpetrator (who is found to be a true perpetrator at least 95 percent of the time, according to research). Do perpetrators really need training on how to blame shift and circle the wagons so their victims cannot seek justice?
Even by USA Swimming’s own admission, the inception of Safe Sport program was designed to improve the organizations image. USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus and President Bruce Stratton described the purpose of Safe Sport in a 2013 memo, “Our strategy moving forward will have the ultimate goal of improving the overall perceptions of USA Swimming’s Safe Sport Program efforts.”
Meanwhile, Ryan Lochte, one of USA Swimming’s most accomplished and revered athletes, faces no consequence for the false allegations he spewed about his incident in Rio. Despite the language insinuating that teams need to watch out for fake victims and clear prohibitions against making false reports about sexual abuse, USA Swimming has tacitly supported Locthe.
Perhaps USA Swimming’s treatment of Lochte is actually consistent with their overall mission. After all, Wieglus admitted that Safe Sport was created to improve USA Swimming’s image. The Ryan Locthe narrative, so the thinking goes, must be one of youthful indiscretion and drunken mistakes. Otherwise, it will reflect poorly on the organization.
Ryan Locthe lied about being a crime victim. In the world of USA Swimming, those kinds of false reports are acceptable. And when “false” reports of sexual abuse are directed towards a member club? The focus immediately shifts to providing training on how to protect the team’s image.
Refusing to discipline Locthe, or even make a forceful statement about his behavior, sends a dangerous message: False reporting is OK, so long as you’re a handsome, white, world-class athlete.