Written by Jeff Utsch
I have been blessed to have been coached by some of the greatest names in swimming and to have shared lanes with hard-working, talented legends.
These athletes and coaches were guided by ideals, values and principles that governed their daily lives as they strived to be the best they could be.
One dictum common to all: “Don’t be governed by fear.”
Fear of failure, fear of pain, fear of racing, fear of choking, fear of trying, fear of not being good enough. In a sense, we were hearing a sports-version of FDR’s warning – “the only thing we have to fear is fear, itself.”
Face your fears, we were told, then overcome them, one at a time. Yes, you can overcome your doubts, your trepidations, your self-imposed barriers, your weaknesses. You are able to forge yourself into the swimmer and person you want to become.
Courage, toughness, focus, dedication, teamwork, selflessness, doing hard things every day and taking risks were to be the ethos of the day.
“Yes, you can,” became a way of life.
Sadly, I venture to say, we no longer live in the, “can do” environment woven into the fabric of our being.
Coaches, today, in all disciplines, are preaching and behaving in the opposite way. Many are governed by fear. Fear dominates the NCAA coaching culture; it is not a healthy way of life for anyone.
Yes, it is certainly understandable that, in an era of our “cancel culture,” fear as the emotion “du jour” makes sense. After all, who wants to court an unforgiving, self-righteous mob, both online and potentially, in-person for speaking their mind?
And what coach gets paid, or is strong enough to endure that?
Silence, sadly, even in the face of gross injustice and wrongdoing, is the norm.
To speak up may be dangerous and the consequences severe. So, fear governs actions and rationalization sets in. But, overcoming fear and making the hard choices is what our coaches have taught us, nay, expected us to do.
So, my question: Why aren’t they?
It is obvious that having biological men swimming in women’s races is unfair, wrong, damaging to the sport and the women who compete. Very few, if any, coaches were excited about the progress of the sport when Lia Thomas won the NCAA 500-yard freestyle. Very few, if any, are excited about a male dressing in the female locker room. Very few, if any, of the actual women competing at the NCAA Women’s Championship thought it was fair to race against a biological male or good for them or the sport.
Yet, that’s exactly what happened.
Because we want to be tolerant, understanding, accommodating, pleasant. We are also afraid to protest, point out the obvious and incur the wraths of retribution and cancelation.
So, we let it happen and let our good selves be governed by fear, all the while rationalizing our unwillingness to do the right thing.
The right thing would be to protect our young women, their opportunities and future development. The right thing would be to listen to your athletes, encourage them to speak the truth and speak the truth yourself. The right thing is to protect the sport. Do what needs to be done and do it now. Do whatever it takes to stop the injustice perpetrated by the mostly male dominated NCAA leadership on our female athletes.
Coaches may think they are saving themselves by staying out of harm’s way and remaining silent. They are not. They are guaranteeing their own demise. Their position of authority and respect is, and will be, diminished by those who love and respect them, those who listen to them and have faith in their coaching and their counsel.
This is why:
Swimmers know biological men in women’s swimming is unfair and wrong.
Coaches know biological men in women’s swimming is unfair and wrong.
Swimmers know the coaches know biological men in women’s swimming is unfair and wrong.
And coaches know the swimmers know the coaches know biological men in women’s swimming is unfair and wrong.
Because of this, swimmers see the coaches’ hypocrisy: they preach to them what they are not willing to practice, themselves.
Follow? What this means is that the coach’s risk is greater staying silent because the outcome – failure — is guaranteed if they do. The path is toward eventual loss of confidence and respect of the swimmers and self. True, the judgment will be slower and less painful, initially, but more painful and more destructive in the end. The piper must be paid.
The short-term cost of doing the right thing – defending female athletes – may be expensive.
The long-term, however, will be worth it.
Coaches, respect for self, derived from setting an example, will win the day.
Your team will take the cue and promote you to its high-esteem and even its legends. Support from the swimmer’s parents will be strong. Cheering from the swimming community, at large, may be stilted, at first, but will be persuasive and overwhelming over time.
The risk then becomes what will your employing institution do.
Can it fire you for speaking out? Is it illegal as per your contract working for an NCAA Division 1 school to speak your mind even if it is contrary to current policy? I don’t know, and this is a huge career risk, and yet it is still less risky than taking a seemingly easier path that, contrary to what it appears, is actually a shortcut to self-destruction.
I can’t imagine any of my coaches not making the right choice on this.
Frank Busch, Dick Jochums, Terry Laughlin, Doug Fonder, Dudley Duncan, Don Wagner, Ron Basso, and Rick DeMont are but a few who had significant impacts on this practitioner’s time not only in the pool, but in my life’s trajectory ever since. Each and every one holds an exalted place in the Utsch universe.
While each had a different coaching style and talent, all sought to help athletes reach their potential in and out of the water.
It is hard to conceive of any of them marching in lockstep to the new sports realities. It is hard to conceive of any maintaining silence. And, if I was swimming for them during a crisis like this and they didn’t step up, their influence in my life would end. Plain and simple.
There is no hiding. The issue needs to be handled right here and now.
So Coaches, it’s not your fault you find yourself involved in this. But, you are.
You know it’s not right, it’s not fair, it never will be. To stay silent is to be complicit. It is to participate in the dismantling of women’s sports, Title IX and the plethora of progress made in the last 50 years.
Advice to the men and women I revere, who made me, through their tutelage of swimming and life, the man I am to be today:
Do the right thing, do it now, do it boldly, do it without reservation, lead the charge, show others the path. This is the way, the only one, to long-term success.
Jeff Utsch, a Tucson resident, is a former captain of the University of Arizona Men’s Swim Team and an NCAA All-American