An investigation into allegations of abuse within the University of Utah swimming program has ended, and school president David Pershing declared last Tuesday that athletic director Chris Hill is the right man to lead the school’s athletic program forward.
What the report that landed on Pershing’s desk portrays, however, is Hill’s astonishing abdication of responsibility over the course of several years. Pershing has judged Hill worthy of keeping his job, but it’s hard to read this report with clear eyes and conclude Hill did anything other than turn a blind eye to a worsening situation that threatened the welfare of student-athletes at Utah.
By not firing head swim coach Greg Winslow in 2011 for alcohol abuse, the report states, “The department failed in its duty to the athletes in that regard.”
That failure is Hill’s to own and it should be Pershing’s to rectify.
Credit the president for acting quickly, calling for the investigation (albeit one paid for by the university and carried out by a team handpicked by the university) only one business day after Yahoo! Sports’ report detailing allegations of abuse from Utah swimmers and parents was published in March. The president got his investigation, yet he also got some disturbing conclusions – starting with the very first:
“With a limited number of possible exceptions in 2007-09,” the report states, “Winslow does not appear to have physically abused student athletes.”
With a limited number of possible exceptions? That’s like concluding that with a limited number of possible exceptions, Major League Baseball never had a steroid problem.
“No abuse is acceptable,” Hill told Yahoo! Sports on the day the investigation was launched. He was right: One single episode of physical abuse is enough to warrant the firing of a coach. We only need to look at Bobby Knight putting his hands on the throat of Neil Reed.
And on page 19 of the report, we learn that “swimmer [name redacted] told us that at a meet in his freshman or sophomore year, Winslow grabbed him by the neck and pushed him against a wall.”
That took place in 2010, according to a swimmer who was there, a year after the report’s authors concluded the “limited number of possible exceptions” had ended.
As anyone who has been abused physically or psychologically knows, the fear of abuse can be just as debilitating as the abuse itself. Seeing one abusive act can have a chilling effect throughout an entire team. Sarah Boylen, who swam at Utah from 2009 until 2011 (again, after this period of “possible exceptions” had supposedly ended), told Yahoo! Sports she was “nervous [Winslow] was going to physically hurt me.” Boylen says she went to compliance with her fear, and director Kate Charipar told her “Greg’s a monster.”
Clearly Boylen wasn’t alone in her dread, as the report states: “The most disturbing examples of [Winslow’s] abuse related to swimmers with physical or psychological disabilities. In these instances, Winslow demonstrated a shocking lack of empathy for the limitations and needs of these athletes.”
So it seems those “possible exceptions” included student-athletes with disabilities. That should alert not only overseers at the NCAA, but in Washington, D.C., as well.
One act of abuse that got the report’s authors direct attention was when Winslow punched an assistant coach. That was in 2011, again well after it was known Winslow had anger management problems.
“It’s hard for us to understand,” the report states, “why the athletics department would choose to retain Winslow as coach after he physically assaulted his assistant coach Charlie King in a drunken rage in July 2011. We think Winslow should have been terminated.”
Hill told The Deseret News Tuesday that he received an email from associate athletic director Pete Oliszczak stating an “altercation” had occurred, but apparently he didn’t inquire any further. “There’s no question that at that point in time, I should have had [Oliszczak] define what ‘an altercation’ is,” Hill told The Deseret News, “and I should have either fired the coach or suspended him to find out more.”
Let’s review: Two years after the end of two years of “possible” instances of physical abuse, a head coach punches his assistant “in a drunken rage” and he’s not fired. Nor was he fired in September 2012, after he “appeared drunk at a charity meet” in Salt Lake City.
Winslow was investigated by the school more than a year later, in 2012, because Hill was made aware of the swim coach forcing a student-athlete to do laps with a PVC pipe tied to his back until he blacked out. (That, by the way, was not deemed physical abuse by the report.) Winslow was not fired, nor even disciplined.
A lot of the blame belongs with Oliszczak, who oversaw the swimming program. But it was Oliszczak who told investigators he instructed Winslow to undergo anger management treatment in 2009. It was Oliszczak who went to human resources to draft a letter for Winslow to sign in which the university “listed its expectations that included the avoidance of ‘any behavior that may be perceived as verbal abuse of student-athletes and control of anger displayed at practices as well as competition.’ ”
Oliszczak told investigators Hill didn’t fire Winslow because “he doesn’t like confrontation.” The report gives Hill a chance to respond to that charge: “Hill denies that these conversations occurred. Hill stated that if he had been advised by Oliszczak to fire Winslow, and if he had realized the seriousness of Winslow’s alcohol problems, especially the violent assault on Charlie King, he would have terminated Winslow immediately.”
The report then goes on to list Oliszczak’s multiple failures as an administrator, leading up to his dismissal from the program in 2012.
Yet whatever flaws Oliszczak had as an administrator, Hill knew student-athletes had issues with Winslow at least as far back as 2008 when he received a letter from a parent complaining about Winslow’s alleged abusive tactics.
“It is my determination that the swimming program and the Athletic Department acted appropriately with respect to [swimmer’s name],” Hill wrote in his response to the 2008 letter.
Maybe the athletic department did act appropriately in that instance, but the complaints didn’t stop there. Emails and letters obtained by Yahoo! Sports document allegations of abuse leveled by five different swimmers between 2008 and 2009. The documents show those complaints landed on Hill’s desk.
By then, there should have been a zero-tolerance policy for any abuse – physical, psychological, or otherwise. But Winslow kept his job for nearly four more years. Winslow was interacting with high school recruits and their families for four more years. Winslow was using coaching tactics described by a university counselor as “cruel, archaic, humiliating, and embarrassing to the swimmers” for four more years. And Winslow was calling female swimmers like Boylen late at night, while drunk, for four more years.
“He said I was a beautiful girl but I need to accept my new body,” Boylen told Yahoo! Sports. “It was really weird. Why are you talking to me about my body?”
At Tuesday’s news conference, Pershing stated, “We enthusiastically embrace the recommendations from the independent investigators to first adopt written standards for safe and effective coaching methods in swimming and diving.”
Those written standards for safe and effective coaching didn’t exist before? They weren’t established after all the letters of abuse allegations hit Chris Hill’s desk? Hill has been in charge of protecting student-athletes for 26 years and he never had any written standards for safe and effective coaching? That speaks volumes. (And if other ADs around the country have also failed to adopt written standards, that speaks volumes about them, too.)
“The process, scope, findings and conclusions set out in the Report represent a profound disappointment and further evidence the dismissive attitude of the University of Utah,” legal counsel for several of the student-athletes said in a statement. It went on to say, “The Report’s dismissive conclusions are not surprising, but rather expected.”
The saddest part of this report is that it may never have happened if another former Winslow swimmer wasn’t moved to the brink of suicide. One young woman from Arizona had a physical relationship with Winslow starting when she was 15 years old – before either she or Winslow came to Utah – and she became so distraught over the coach’s treatment of her that she made an attempt on her own life.
That woman’s father went to the police, and that led to Winslow’s “suspension” from the Utah program. Charges against Winslow were never filed, because the age of consent in Arizona is 15.
But finally Chris Hill had to deal with Winslow after all those years. If not for one swimmer’s ordeal, Winslow may still be dealing with his alcoholism and his anger management problem while at the same time working on his practice plans. The father of that woman has done more to protect Utah swimmers than the athletic director.
“[Winslow] was an abusive coach doing things without oversight,” the father told Yahoo! Sports last week. “You had an athletic director who was complicit – at the very least not in control of his athletic department. Hill will say, ‘Yeah it was on my watch, sorry it happened.’ But Chris Hill was in the loop. You can’t claim you were once-removed. There were face-to-face communications. It’s the hubris of an AD, and Utah making the switch to the Pac 12. Swimming is a non-revenue sport, so who cares?”
On Tuesday, as this father predicted in advance, Hill apologized publicly. That apology doesn’t undo what Winslow did and what Hill failed to do. Hill can now go back to his comfortable office, his high-paying job, and his close circle of reassuring supporters. For the student-athletes who were terrorized by Greg Winslow, though, the “best four years of your life” are gone for good.
This article is reprinted here with the written permission of Yahoo!