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Schubert 'Ready To Go Back To Work'

Nov 17, 2010  - Craig Lord

They played Mozart to journalists while we waited to listed to the first words spoken in public by Mark Schubert since his dismissal as head coach and team manager of the USA swim team. Divertimento, in D-for-drama Major, was the theme for a conference call organised poignantly at the International Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and clearly not intended as a requiem.

Instead we heard a man ready to deliver a stark message to his former boss at USA Swimming: I was fired and the terms of my contract were broken. Moreover, the head man at USA Swimming had issued a verbal offer of employment until 2016 or even 2020 and had never issued the coach with a written warning about anything now at issue, Schubert claimed.

Asked if he had had messages of support or otherwise, Schubert said that he had had no contact with Chuck Wielgus, CEO of USA Swimming, since being informed a month ago that he was to be dismissed. "I heard from virtually no-one because Mr Wielgus told everyone 'do not contact Mark cos this is a personal matter," Schubert said.

Schubert sat to the right of leading employment laywer Michael Bernstein, who said that in 2006 "an in-depth, clear contract was signed between Mark and USA swimming" that ran until December 31, 2013. "We haven't gotten to that date yet. Based on my initial investigation I am coming to a conclusion that the firing was not justified" under the term of the contract, he added.

He was in negotiations with USA Swimming. Asked what coach Schubert was seeking out of those negotiations, Bernstein repeated what Schubert had just said, namely: "I'm ready to go back to work. If the athletes and coaches want me back I am ready to go back to work."

Schubert, wearing an official USA Swimming shirt to emphasise a point, said that he was not in dispute with USA Swimming but had had a disagreement with "staff". He added that he had been answerable to only one man under the terms of his contract: Wielgus.

Bernstein said that it would not be professional to comment on the reasons cited by USA Swimming in the letter informing Schubert that he had been dismissed. However, he invited journalists to contact the federation and put that question to them. 

SwimNews understands that Schubert is being accused of "behavioural" problems, including showing disrespect to sponsors. Bernstein opened the teleconference by saying that he was there to "address rumours and innuendo being disseminated to the public" concerning the reasons for Schubert's dismissal. Blogs and news sites are rife with references to the coach having stepped down voluntarily (denied categorically by him and his attorney today) and the sexual abuse cases that have rocked USA Swimming (Bernstein gave a categoric confirmation that there was "absolutely no link" between that issue and Schubert's dismissal).

"I am investigating the circumstances of his firing," said Bernstein. "At this point I do not feel that his firing was in the parameteres of his contract, nor was it  justified in law nor fair in any way whatsoever. I am pleased to say that negotiations have begun with USA Swimming" and its leadership.

He was "optimistic that any dispute will be promptly and amicably settled" but "as a lawyer and a friend to the swimming world I am personally concerned with what this is doing to coach Schubert's reputation ... which is in my opinion is unparalleled," Bernstein added with a nod to Schubert's success at the helm of the world No 1 swim team, a man whose career is in focus not only in the US but worldwide.

"I will not hestitate to seek damages against anyone who seeks to tarnish" Schubert, said Bernstein. Publication, then, of the details of the dismissal letter sent to Schubert from USA Swimming might well, in Bernstein's professional mind, constitute libel.

Asked how he felt about the run of events, Schubert said: "I am pretty shocked with the actions that have take place over last month. The executive director [Wielgus] expressed displeasure with me at the Pan Pacs but promised me I could stay on until 2016 or 2020 ... then I received a notice of termination about a month ago."

To a question put by SwimNews as to how many verbal and written warnings he had received before the dismissal notice, Schubert said that an exchange of words with Wielgus at Pan Pacs was the only voice of "displeasure" he had heard officially, and that had come in the same breath as the one that told him he could stay until 2016 or 2020. Schubert added that "... other than that I heard only praise ... after Pan Pacs he [Wielgus] shook hands with me several times and said 'Good Job'."

He did not specify why Wielgus had expressed "displeasure with him at Pan Pacs. Some swimmers on the Pan Pacific team described Schubert as unusually intense, US reports suggested. However, Schubert stated: “I wasn’t screaming; I was coaching. There’s a difference."

Expanding on the theme, he described a situation during the Pan Pacific meet in which he berated three US team members for not standing attentively, with their hands on hearts, during the playing of the national anthem.

"If teaching them the right way to act during the playing of the national anthem got me fired," Schubert said, "so be it."

Schubert appeared to break down emotionally a few times, once when talking about the effect events had had on his family, his wife having spent many a long year as a voluntary manager for US Olympic and world championship teams, among other roles, also when talking about his work with athletes, and when asked about the death of Fran Crippen.

To a question on the latter, Schubert answered: "It's my view that it is the most tragic situation to ever happen in the sport of swimming..." He then spoke of his friendship and working relationship with the Fran Crippen's sisters on Olympic teams and added before breaking down "I could not go to the funeral". Under the terms USA Swimming imposed during a 60-day leave of absence, he was not allowed to have contact with anyone involved in US swimming. 

Schubert refused to comment on Wielgus's leadership and when asked whether he thought that marketing was taking precedence over performance at USA Swimming, he replied: "The performance of our national-team athletes is to do the ultimate and win a gold at the Olympic Games and that is more important than money."

Schubert said "I really don't know" when asked if he felt it was a coincidence that his dismissal had followed hot on the heels of his having pressed for changes to the Athlete Compensation Plan that had "displeased" the United States Olympic Committee. You can read up on that here and here.

Schubert appeared not to be in favour of splitting the roles of general manager and head coach to the US national squad, as apparently intended by the federation, in line to some degree with events that contributed to Alan Thompson leaving his job at the helm of the Dolphins Down Under at the start of this year. Schubert believed that the man or woman at the helm ought to have "world-class coach" as part of their credentials, for only someone of that ilk could possibly understand the true nature of the task and job at hand.