Exclusive: Hall of Fame Controversy Continues

By Phillip Whitten

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., June 28. ABOUT seven weeks ago, during the annual International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) induction ceremony and amid the pomp and pageantry of the Hall’s fortieth anniversary celebration, we reported on an insurgency that sought to oust 15-year ISHOF President Dr. Sam Freas.

SwimInfo has learned that despite being rebuffed at that time by the Hall’s Board of Directors, the leaders of the group determined to force Dr. Freas’ resignation have continued their campaign. For that reason, we have looked into the main charges and will report on them in our next article. This article focuses on what’s happened since the insurgents first called for Dr. Freas to resign.

The Accusations
Led by Jack Nelson, head coach of the Fort Lauderdale Swim Team and 1976 US Olympic women’s coach and Ron O’Brien, eight-time US Olympic diving coach, the insurgents drew up a bill of particulars against Dr. Freas and enlisted the support of some 22 American Hall of Fame past honorees, including some of the most storied names in aquatic sports. The group issued a call for Dr. Freas’ resignation, threatening to remove their memorabilia from the institution if Freas was not gone or reassigned within 60 days.

The discordant action, which cast a pall over the weekend’s festivities, was taken up by the Hall of Fame’s International Congress, which gave Dr. Freas a resounding 33-1 vote of confidence (with four abstentions).

Undeterred, Coaches Nelson and O’Brien pressed the Board of Directors to consider their demands. They then distributed a packet of documents to the Board, as well as to a small crowd of spectators, the centerpiece of which was a 1991 letter from the late Frank McKinney. The letter, in which McKinney resigned as Chairman of the Board of the Hall, contained a scathing indictment of Dr. Freas’ leadership, accusing him of mismanagement of funds, lack of management and leadership skills and disorganization.

Unreported by Coaches Nelson and Ron O’Brien in the distributed materials was the fact that in 1991, the Board had considered McKinney’s accusations and rejected them, choosing to accept his resignation as chairman and retaining Dr. Freas as president.

Dr. Freas characterized the information in the packet as “misleading, inaccurate, unfair and perverse. It grossly misrepresents what actually took place,” he said.

Coaches Nelson and Tim O’Brien (Ron O’Brien was at a diving meet in Houston) were then invited by current ISHOF chairman Dale Neuburger to address the Board of Directors in open session. They accepted the invitation. Tim O’Brien read a statement from his father, calling for Dr. Freas' resignation. Denying that his position was either personally or politically motivated, O'Brien wrote: "My stance is based on the fact that ISHOF is not in a better position today than it was when Dr. Freas began his tenure. In my opinion, it is in worse shape.

"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," he added.

Coach Nelson then spoke, repeating his charges against Dr. Freas, and adding that Freas had threatened his life and the lives of members of his family.

The previous two days, the Board had responded to the petition signed by the 22 swimming, diving and coaching luminaries by calling each of the individuals listed as supporting Dr. Freas’ dismissal. “We are talking to each of the honorees who signed the petition to determine what their concerns are,” said John Ebert, who was appointed spokesman for the Board of Directors. “If we feel that Sam may have done something wrong, we will look into it and take appropriate action.”

After hearing O’Brien’s and Nelson’s charges in open session, the Board adjourned into closed-door executive session for what turned into a seven-hour marathon meeting in which, as Chairman Neuburger told SwimInfo, each accusation was given due consideration and every member of the Board was given the opportunity to speak on each accusation.

Freas Responds
Earlier, Dr. Freas had responded, characterizing the accusations as unfounded and charging that the leaders of the group “may be motivated by personal financial and political considerations.”

In fact, since 2001, when the Board voted 19-0 to leave Fort Lauderdale, the Hall of Fame has been embroiled in controversy over its plans to move to another Florida city. Currently, Daytona Beach is the leading candidate. Such a move, Dr. Freas intimated, might lead to privatization. Dr. Freas says he opposes privatization; in fact, he says he wants coaches to make as much money as possible. The fact that the Fort Lauderdale pool reports a $500,000 loss each year is detrimental to the future of aquatics. If the coaches' salaries were reported, that loss would be put in a different perspective."

Dr. Freas went on to say that the group had chosen a most inappropriate time to lay its charges:

“They could have done this last month or next month or just about any other time,” he noted. “Why did they choose this moment, when we should be focused on our fortieth anniversary and on honoring the eight individuals being inducted into the Hall this year?”

The Board Meets
At the end of its seven-hour marathon session, the Board of Directors voted unanimously to retain Dr. Freas as President and. The unanimous decision came as a surprise to some observers, who had predicted that Dr. Freas would be asked to step down.

After the vote, Chairman Dale Neuburger told SwimInfo: "There were a number of valid issues raised by the group calling for Sam's resignation. But the fault for these problems does not lie entirely with Sam. Let's be honest: the Board must share in the blame because we haven't done our job of setting goals and criteria for success. To the extent that we have set priorities, Sam has meticulously followed those priorities.

Neuburger went on: "We take these issues very seriously. We plan to contact each of the honorees who supported the petition and we will try our hardest to address and be responsive to their concerns. I hope they will see that we are being responsive and are making appropriate changes, and that they will not carry through on their threat to withdraw from the Hall. After all, the Hall is the honorees.

Jack Geoghegan, a veteran member of the Board who is stepping down after this year, added: "This was a very long meeting, but it was the best Board of Directors meeting I've ever attended. Every issue was addressed, everyone was brutally candid, and nothing was left unsaid," he reflected.

That assessment was repeated by several other Board members, one of whom told SwimInfo: “Every issue but one was addressed thoroughly, respectfully and in-depth. That one was Sam’s alleged threat against Jack Nelson’s life. No one who knows Sam could possibly give that charge the slightest credence.”

The Battle Continues
Undeterred by his group’s lack of success with the Board of Directors, Coach Nelson sent an e-mail to Dale Neuburger, praising his leadership in glowing terms and appealing directly to him:

“Thank you for your excellent leadership, as it is the best we have had in the past fifteen years. Regardless of the ISHOF issues, I want you to know how much you are revered by our family of swimmers and the entire swimming world. I pray that the people ‘looking into’ your Board of Directors, your President and your Chairman-Elect, do not mistake you as one of them. It appears to me that the majority of the ISHOF Board does not support the greatness of swimmers and are only there to support Sam Freas, John Fletemeyer and their selfish agendas.”

Commenting on the unanimous vote of confidence Dr. Freas received from the Board, Nelson wrote:
As I perceive the situation, the unanimous support the Board gave to Sam Freas was due to ISHOF’s inability to buy out his contract, or he has managed to load the board with his cronies, or both! May I suggest a reference check be conducted on our board members before we allow them to vote again in the future?…”

Continuing, Nelson wrote:
“I have been advised not to make this a personal issue but when a man such as Sam Freas, who represented ISHOF, admittedly (sic) threatened my family you can bet your bottom dollar that I want to announce this to everyone. That way no one has to look too far to find the “lethal people” that he referred to who might want to carry out his threat. In my opinion, it already got pretty personal when Sam Freas and John Fletemeyer went to the City Manager with damaging rumors about my personal life and questions about how much money I make….”

Nelson concluded by writing:
“As of this date, I wish to have any and all pictures and other memorabilia of mine removed from the International Swimming Hall of Fame and returned to me.”

SwimInfo has learned that three other Hall of Fame honorees have also followed up on their threat and asked that their personal memorabilia be returned to them, even though the 60-day period specified in the petition have not yet passed.

So where does the truth lie? Are the charges against Dr. Sam Freas and his leadership of the Hall of Fame valid? Or are they distortions of the truth? In our next article on the Hall of Fame controversy, SwimInfo will report on our examination of the accusations.