Marlins Must Make Room for Dissent

To the Editor:

The “Marlins Make Waves” article in the last issue of The WIRE highlighted a bitter division among team parents.

Only a year ago, our team was unified and proud of overcoming the temporary loss of the Sportspark pool during its renovations. Now entire families and individual kids are being threatened with removal from the team for “violating the code of conduct” and “spreading negativity.” One family was in fact kicked out by the board (as covered in the article), but the board’s decision was reversed by the court last week.

As a longtime member of the team, I believe the cause could be traced to hiring coach Roman Sludnov a bit more than a year ago, and subsequent changes to the board. Coach Roman is an accomplished athlete, who brought to the team the rigor and discipline required for winning. Many swimmers improved their times and got top places at swim meets. A number of parents and board members were impressed by these results and are very appreciative of coach Roman’s contributions to the team.

Unfortunately, that success came at a cost, a cost that for some was more than the ‘results’ were worth. Roman is not receptive to suggestions or feedback; when facing a conflict, which is inevitable in any organization, he will not work with families for a solution, nor does he ever compromise. Typically, he threatens to resign, unless children’s and parents’ concerns are dismissed. Most recently, he emailed the team requesting a public investigation when some of the parents who have voiced their objections to his uncompromising coaching style were nominated for board positions in the current elections. He did resign after the publication of The Main Street WIRE article, but re-appeared on the pool deck with no explanations just a few days later.

The team’s board has experienced unprecedented turnover – six members have resigned in the past 10 months. Of the six board members that we elected in April of 2017, only the three that unequivocally defend Roman are still on the board and, as all others left the board one by one, the remaining board members filled the vacancies with like-minded parents. The overriding goal of keeping Roman from resigning means the board lost the ability to help parents with any issues that could be viewed as related to coaching.

Just last week, in an email, the board informed the team that “the precious work of the Coach Roman Sludnov ... should be protected by all means as a factor of our successes.” Any parents who raise any concerns are now considered as “interfering with Roman’s coaching” and “spreading negativity.”

This policy, focused on protecting the coach rather than our kids and families, has pushed many athletes from our team. Most significantly impacted were kids who wanted to compete, but did not have the physiological or emotional strength, or simply the time commitment required to train at the rigorous level that Roman demands. As the article mentioned, 65% of the Seniors – one of only two groups coached directly by Roman – left the team. The impact was especially hard on girls. Since Roman joined the Marlins, eight girls 13-17 years old left our team. These were not beginners who changed their mind about swimming. These were all Seniors – girls who were committed athletes, children who spent years and years on the team, made lasting friendships; in fact, the Marlins was a large part of their childhood. It was sad to see them go. Of the five girls remaining, one is leaving for college this summer and three others have now received written warnings from the board that they are in danger of being removed from the team due to code of conduct violations. If this is allowed, there will be only one girl left in the Seniors group (12-17 year olds) – coincidentally, a current board member’s daughter.

The board has been very vocal that it is only one or two people who are creating this story and “spreading negativity,” but that is just not true. There are many families who are upset and I was not surprised to read that some of them chose to speak with The Main Street WIRE. These are the parents who saw their friends pushed out of the team for imperfect attendance, who saw their kids ignored because they weren’t the most talented in the team, who tried to raise valid issues with the board and coach and were ignored or whose kids were punished as a result.

Sensing opposition, the board went on the offensive and warned the team multiple times to be wary of a “small” group of parents spreading “negativity” and attempting to “destroy the team.” That tactic worked. The numerous code of conduct violations issued by the board for both parents and kids in the context of the witch-hunt for negativity-spreading families created a climate of fear. Parents spoke with The WIRE only on the condition of anonymity. The board discussed barring families who disagree with the current policies (and were therefore deemed to be spreading negativity) from running in the board elections. This would be truly catastrophic for democratic governance of our club, a parent-run organization, based on the club’s bylaws.

There is a clear solution to the problem of divided Marlins: a more representative board. We need to elect board members who are not only parents of the elite athletes or their friends. We need to elect a diverse group of parents, including those from the large learn-to-swim program – where the bulk of the Marlins members are. And I personally believe that many of the divisions could be solved by refocusing the board from getting “the results” and suppressing dissent “by all means” to making our team a welcoming place for all swimmers.

That clearly means protecting the coach should not be the goal of the board. After all, Roosevelt Island needs a coach that fits our neighborhood team, and not a team that fits the coach. The only way to make that work is to listen carefully to the opinions of all team parents. And we need to work together to find solutions rather than labeling people as “spreading negativity” and removing them from the team, no matter how much we disagree with their opinions.

Yuri Seliger

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