By Phillip Whitten
PHOENIX, July 21. THOUGH the public controversy over the future of the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) and its embattled President, Dr. Sam Freas, has settled down – at least in the world outside Florida – the underground campaign to oust Dr. Freas and keep the Hall in Fort Lauderdale has continued unabated.
Critics, led by 1976 US Olympic women’s coach and longtime Fort Lauderdale Swim Team coach Jack Nelson and eight-time US Olympic diving coach Ron O’Brien, have levied several serious charges against Dr. Freas, including the deterioration of the Hall’s display area and library, fiscal mismanagement, amounting to a loss of $400 million, and lack of leadership.
In early April, the group drew up a bill of particulars against Dr. Freas and enlisted the support of some 22 American Hall of Fame honorees, including some of the most storied names in aquatic sports. The group issued a call for Dr. Freas’ resignation, threatening to remove their medals and memorabilia from the institution if Dr. Freas was not gone or reassigned within 60 days. According to several reliable sources, only a handful of honorees, including Coaches Nelson and O’Brien, have followed through with their threat as of this date.
The action drew the attention of the Hall of Fame’s International Congress, which gave Dr. Freas a resounding 33-1 vote of confidence.
The following day, a seven-hour closed-door executive meeting of the Hall’s Board of Directors was held. According to several participants, each of the charges was exhaustively considered and discussed by the Board. At the end of the marathon session, the Board voted unanimously to retain Dr. Freas as President.
That’s not to say there are not problems with the Hall of Fame, several Board members commented afterwards. It is to say that the responsibility for those problems cannot fairly be laid solely at the feet of Dr. Freas. Board Chairman Dale Neuburger commented that the Board of Directors, itself, is responsible for establishing priorities as well as goals and objectives, and for monitoring Dr. Freas’ success – or lack thereof – in meeting them. In this, Chairman Neuburger conceded, it was the Board that had failed, not Dr. Freas.
Mr. Neuburger acknowledged, however, that he, as well as the entire Board, planned to take a much more active role in the future.
One thing that was left unsaid is that halls of fame around the United States – and, indeed, around the world – have found themselves in dire straits of late, with traditional sources of funding drying up like a desert lake in Arizona. Recently, for example, the College Football Hall of Fame was forced to shut its doors.
So the ultimate threat to ISHOF may not lie with the “failures” of any one particular leader or Board, but rather with a tight economy and a society that is becoming less deeply connected to its past, less concerned about its traditions.
Still, this writer, at least, holds out great hopes for ISHOF and believes the 40 year-old institution can not only survive, but it can prosper in the coming years. Accordingly, SwimInfo undertook its own investigation of the major charges levied against Dr. Freas. Though our fact-finding mission is by no means exhaustive, what we learned is that the serious charges do not appear to be supported by the facts.
The first item we considered was the charge that Dr. Freas mismanaged or squandered some $400 million in funds during the 15 years he has been head of ISHOF. This accusation turns out, in the first instance, simply to be an error, though a gross one. Various critics have accused the Hall’s leadership of mismanaging $400,000, one million dollars and four million dollars.
Of course, any fiscal mismanagement is a serious issue, but the leaders of the current critics appear simply to have erred — by several orders of magnitude. It hardly needs saying that there is a vast difference between $400,000 and $400,000,000. Or even between four million and four hundred million.
In fact, several years ago when the Hall was, indeed, under great financial distress, Dr. Freas took a two-year leave, with no salary from ISHOF while he worked as head coach of the University of Hawaii swim team. During that time he also continued to work – unpaid – as the Hall’s president and chief fund-raiser.
But there’s a much more authoritative arbiter of fiscal mismanagement than this writer: the IRS.
Apparently tipped off by an anonymous informer, the IRS undertook a major investigation of the Hall of Fame’s finances for the three years from 1999 – 2001. According to Michael Watson, the outside auditor retained by the Hall of Fame to represent it before the IRS, there were several IRS examiners who went through the books over an extended period of time with a fine-tooth comb.’
“They looked at an awful lot of areas, including payments made to Dr. Freas wife, Rosemary, and her company.
“After an examination that lasted for several years, the IRS found no wrongdoing whatsoever and announced that it was seeking no change,” Watson said.
(Now if you’ve ever had the unfortunate experience of being audited by the IRS, you know how unusual that outcome is. Even when the taxpayer has done nothing wrong, IRS agents seem determined to find some technicality on which they can base a demand for additional taxes – even if it’s only a small amount. Apparently the idea is that finding something indicates the investigation was not a total waste of time, effort and taxpayer money.)
The IRS examiners did, however, make one recommendation, on which ISHOF reportedly has acted: that the Hall should have a different set of accountants prepare its returns in the future.
General Decline in the Exhibit Area and Library
There has, indeed, been a decline in the exhibit area and the Henning Library, recognized as the finest aquatic library in the world, an appellation it achieved under Dr. Freas’ aegis. This decline is immediately apparent to any visitor. However, upon investigation, this situation appears to be due to two factors: (1) tight funds; and (2) an increase in the number of honorees over the past 15 years and the growth of the Hall’s unparalleled library and archives.
The Hall simply has run out of room to house and display all of its books, documents, artifacts and memorabilia. (That is one of the reasons the Board voted 19-0 several years ago to move to new digs outside Ft. Lauderdale, and why Dr. Freas has been pursuing that directive from the Board.)
Ironically, constitutionally, the President of ISHOF does not have authority over the display area and library. Still, as Coach O’Brien argued, "If a team or organization does not move forward over a significant span of time, the leader or the coach is the place where change is made."
Despite not having authority over the library, Dr. Freas played the key role in obtaining its funding, according to Preston Levi, head of the Henning Library.
“Some years ago,” Levi began, “Sam (Freas) made a tremendous effort in acquiring the seed money from Mrs. Henning. He also hired the library professionals needed to bring what was basically a good library up to modern-day organizational standards.
”What we have now,” Levi said, “is one of the three top aquatic libraries in the world. As it relates to the honorees and the history of swimming, it is unmatched There’s nothing comparable. Likewise, it is unmatched in diving, water polo and synchro.
“We have over 10,000 books here,” Levi said. Plus photos, records and a one million dollar video collection that Sam is solely responsible for.”
In all, the ISHOF library houses some 114,000 items, plus a rare book collection that goes back farther than any comparable collection.. It also contains the archival records of the current governing bodies of the aquatic sports plus their predecessors.
Lack of Leadership
While the outspoken Dr. Freas may not have been as focused as critics might like him to be, he has many notable achievements to his credit, including establishing the ISHOF web site in 1994. That year, following the World Championships in Rome, he traveled to Lausanne (where the IOC and FINA are located) and helped lay the groundwork for a worldwide sports computer network.
In one area, Dr. Freas’ leadership, though it was focused solely on south Florida, has literally resulted in saving many young lives. In 1997-98, a series of newspaper articles reported that drowning was the number one cause of death among children under five in south Florida.
According to several accounts, by sheer force of personality Dr. Freas assembled an action committee consisting of one of the journalists who brought the matter to public attention, a county commissioner, a school board member and himself to decide how to deal with the problem.
The committee met over a period of several months, enlisting key leaders of every organization dealing with kids – from SwimAmerica to the Scouts – and developed an action plan.
Kim Swank Burgess was hired as Director of Broward County Swim Central, and her organization began offering free swim and water safety lessons to children and running public service commercials on local TV. The program has grown every year; last year some 23,000 youngsters were made more water safe by Swim Central.
“In its first four years of Swim Central’s existence,” Burgess says, the number of children drowning dropped dramatically. In 2002, it was down to just seven.
“Of course, seven is still seven too many, but had it not been for Sam Freas’ leadership on this issue, the number would have been significantly higher each year.”
Most recently, at the US Olympic Trials, the Hall of Fame had two kiosks with displays that changed daily, as the events being contested changed. The graphic displays depicted historical events and featured its honorees relating to each day’s events – for example Duke Kahanamoku, Johnny Weissmuller, Helen Madison, Dawn Fraser, Mark Spitz and Jim Montgomery for the 100 meter freestyle – and quickly came to be among the most popular photo sites at the Trials. Everyone, it seemed, wanted photos next to the ISHOF kiosks.
The Hall of Fame, though it can and should be improved, is one of our sport’s great treasures. The swimming community must do everything it can to preserve it.