Lessons in the News: $14 Million Abuse Settlement in Water Polo Case

On Friday, June 4, a $13.85 million settlement was filed in Orange County Superior Court after a dozen female water polo players accused USA Water Polo, and a California water polo club, of failing to protect them from alleged abuse at the hands of their coach

What We Know: 

  • The allegations involve multiple victims over a span of at least 5 years
  • Allegations first surfaced in 2017, but it appears no action was taken until 2018
  • The coach would allegedly grab victims’ private parts underwater and tell them he was teaching them tactics they would face in competition
  • While criminal charges have been brought, there has not been a conviction in this case

The Lessons:

Just as with cases involving Boy Scouts of America, USA Gymnastics and others, we need to be aware that society will severely punish not just the abuser, but also the organization, governing bodies and affiliated institutions for any shortcomings, perceived or otherwise, that may have contributed to the abuse. Fortunately, we also know that a pro-active, robust and values-led approach can greatly reduce the risk of abuse occurring, and if it does occur, that it is discovered early and survivors are given the help that they need. Below are some practical steps that each of us can take to make sure that nothing like this ever happens at our organizations:

Apply Multiple Layers of Protection
We do not know the details of what—if any—training or prevention measures were in place. However, we do know that no single safety measure is ever going to be enough to ensure safety. That’s why it’s important to always ensure that there are numerous layers of protection. This includes:

  • Thorough Vetting: When hiring staff or recruiting volunteers, background checks alone are not enough. Be sure to implement multiple layers of protection as part of your hiring process that include not only criminal background checks, but also professional and family references, interview techniques designed to identify red flags, as well as clear communication of abuse prevention expectations.
  • Hold People Accountable: We rarely catch abusers in the act of abuse. Instead, we catch them breaking rules. So be sure to create a zero tolerance culture where rule breaking is not allowed and staff are held accountable for their actions.

Zero Tolerance
In this case, it appears abuse persisted because survivors and those around them were not aware—or not sure—that the coach’s actions were abusive. You can help prevent this by:

  • Setting Expectations: Make sure that all staff and volunteers have signed and understood your organization’s Code of Conduct and are ready to hold each other accountable.
  • Communicating With Everyone: Make sure members, guests, staff and volunteers all know exactly what is expected of your staff, as well as what they should do if they have concerns. We have developed a simple “4 Rules” poster which you can use to emphasize this message, but in cases where specific activities bring additional risk and may require physical touch—for example swimming lessons or sports coaching—it is important to communicate exactly what activities are and are not considered acceptable and safe.

Be Ready to Respond
While the allegations first surfaced in 2017, it appears that USA Water Polo took no action until at least 2018. This appears to be a violation of the state’s mandated reporter laws, as well as the Safe Sport Act. Here’s what you can do to prevent this: