Irv Muchnick, a California blogger whose posts on his concussioninc.net website regularly level broadsides at alleged abuses in the world of swimming, last year started honing in on what he reported was foul play at North Baltimore Aquatic Club (NBAC), famous for training world-class swimmers like Olympic gold-medal winners Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt.
In April, in an attempt to generate local coverage of his findings, he emailed City Paper with the subject line, "Scandals at Michael Phelps' North Baltimore Aquatic Club." About a month later, he was sued for defamation in Maryland federal court in Baltimore for some of what he'd been publishing and pushing other media to cover-allegations that a February 2012 incident involving NBAC team members amounted to a "sexual assault," even though a law-enforcement investigation concluded without charges.
The lawsuit was filed by "John Doe" because the plaintiff-one of the team members, who Muchnick cast as one of the two perpetrators of the alleged assault-was a minor. Muchnick had named the plaintiff and the other alleged perpetrator, also a minor, in his coverage of the incident, which allegedly occurred during NBAC practice at the Meadowbrook Aquatic Center, calling them perpetrators of a "sexual assault."
On July 19, after a settlement agreement between the parties had been reached, the lawsuit was dismissed. Muchnick, according to court documents, was ordered to remove the allegedly defamatory posts and to cease naming the teenager, referring to the incident as a "sexual assault" or characterizing it as involving "criminal activity," and referring to or discussing the details of any Maryland state-agency or law-enforcement investigation into the incident. That last prohibition targets Muchnick's references in his posts to juvenile-agency and police records about the incident, to which he should not have had access since they involved minors.
What's clear from court documents in the case against Muchnick is that something happened between three young NBAC swimmers at Meadowbrook Aquatic Center in February 2012. But when Muchnick started publishing posts about it in December-about 10 months after it occurred-and as he continued to do so in the subsequent months, his reporting morphed the incident into something sensational and alarming.
According to the lawsuit, what actually happened was that, during a swimming practice, the two swimmers who Muchnick accused of assault "accidentally bumped or contacted" a third swimmer who "was stopped purposefully and was blocking the wall" of the pool. After complaints by the mother of the swimmer who'd been bumped, the two other swimmers wrote "apology notes" that were "accepted," and "at no time" did anyone involved say there had been "any conduct of a sexual nature"-until 10 months later, after Muchnick started writing about the incident.
"The alleged incident had been investigated, discussed and resolved between all parties, and the minors involved apologized and apologies were accepted," the teenaged plaintiff's attorney, Anne McKenna, wrote in court documents. But "ten months after this incident, Muchnick falsely, maliciously and repeatedly began to publish defamatory statements that Minor John Doe is a 'sexual predator,' a 'child sex abuser],' a 'social deviant' and a 'sexual assailant' who 'digitally penetrated' and was repeatedly 'jabbing fingers' in 'the anus' of another swimmer."
"I certainly violated common corporate journalistic convention by deciding to publish names of minors," Muchnick says in an interview after the settlement, "and I have dialed that back" since he was ordered to do so by the court.
Days after the interview, on July 28, Muchnick resumed his reporting on the incident with a post entitled "February 2012 incident at Bob Bowman and Michael Phelps' North Baltimore Aquatic Club remains under investigation by USA Swimming," the country's national governing body for competitive swimming. Bowman, Phelps' coach, is the CEO of NBAC. Muchnick's post reprints the apologies written by the two alleged perpetrators of the incident and, citing unnamed "swimming sources," says it is still the subject of a USA Swimming probe.
Muchnick's initial coverage of the incident began on Dec. 21, 2012, with a post headlined: "Teen was sexually assaulted by teammates at Michael Phelps' North Baltimore Aquatic Club." Though the alleged crime was never prosecuted, it was investigated, according to court documents-but only after Muchnick's reporting apparently had stirred the alleged victim's family to file complaints with the police and the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.
Muchnick clearly was aghast at officialdom's decision not the bring charges, and in a March 25 post for the first time named one of the two alleged perpetrators, saying he did so "because of his despicable arrogance in bragging loudly about the criminal justice system's disposition of an episode for which he had earlier, and apparently insincerely, apologized." Later, on April 18, Muchnick posted a blog that named the plaintiff, calling him the "co-sex assault perpetrator" in the incident. Finally, on April 22, he castigated NBAC for "the generally out-of-control bully behavior by a cast of privileged preppies, whose capstone was the unprosecuted sexual assault by two of them."
Competitive swimming in the U.S. has been scandal-ridden in recent years, with sexual-abuse prosecutions of coaches and civil lawsuits against USA Swimming prompting widespread media coverage, including of the recent Maryland conviction of well-known coach Rick Curl, who pleaded guilty to child sexual abuse suffered by one of his swimmers 30 years ago. Muchnick sees himself as working to expose the problem-and as willing to break journalistic rules to accomplish that goal.
"In the course of rooting out systematic sexual abuse," Muchnick explains, "there is a possibility that, somewhere along the way, there's going to be a false positive in the allegations, but that doesn't mean to me that you just sit back." He adds that, "I don't mind people characterizing me as edgy, aggressive, or unorthodox as I report on the creepy world of coaches who have a certain type of power relationship over very young athletes."
NBAC's attorney, Frank Morgan, declined to comment for this article or about Muchnick's allegations of unaddressed problems at NBAC. But McKenna, the plaintiff's lawyer, says Muchnick was "really using his website as an internet bully pulpit" and that "his goal was increasing his search-engine optimization" by using terms such as "sexual assault" together with famous names, like "Michael Phelps," "Bob Bowman," and "North Baltimore Aquatic Club."
"I teach media law," McKenna continues, "I get it-the internet, the First Amendment, I wrote the book on wiretapping and electronic privacy-so it's unusual that I come out ever wanting to limit speech. But this case was so horrible, what was happening to this family at the hands of this internet bully." As for Muchnick's purported larger goal-exposing misdeeds among the swimming world's powerful-McKenna says, "more power to anybody who wants to work to uncover something that is really horrible, but this isn't."
Muchnick's lawyer, Laurie Babinski, puts a positive spin on the lawsuit's outcome, saying in an emailed statement, "We are glad to have reached a settlement that protects Mr. Muchnick's First Amendment rights to report on important matters of public concern involving USA Swimming and its most prominent local organization, the North Baltimore Aquatic Club."