Things could not have been better for USA Gymnastics at the 2016 Olympics. The governing body for the sport in the United States saw their women’s team win an unprecedented number of medals and their best results in history: team gold, all around gold and silver, vault gold, uneven bars silver, balance beam silver and bronze, as well as the floor exercise gold and silver.
Basking in all their glory, the organization seemingly attempted to brush aside allegations of sexual abuse that first emerged right before the Rio Games. This week it was revealed that over 350 gymnasts have come forward as survivors of sexual assault in their gyms; many of the athletes naming longtime national team doctor Larry Nassar as the perpetrator. After further investigation we now know that USA Gymnastics not only knew about many of the incidents, but that the organization failed to protect athletes by not notifying authorities and thus allowing potential offenders to continue in their roles.
IndyStar is currently involved with investigating allegations and institutional mishandling of the assaults:
“No one knows exactly how many children have been sexually exploited in America’s gyms over the past 20 years. But an IndyStar-USA TODAY Network review of hundreds of police files and court cases across the country provides for the first time a measure of just how pervasive the problem is.
At least 368 gymnasts have alleged some form of sexual abuse at the hands of their coaches, gym owners, and other adults working in gymnastics. That’s a rate of one every 20 days. And it’s likely an undercount.”
USAG’s success over the past sixteen years has overshadowed the sexual abuse allegations that first surfaced this summer. The investigation has shown that not only did USA Gymnastics know about abuse allegations, but also that the organization protected the coaches over their athletes. USAG needs to take responsibility for their clear lack of ability in handling issues of sexual assault, as well as better protection of athletes, and enforcing regulatory standards that require reporting accusations to the police and following up in gyms. The gross negligence by the organization to address these issues requires institutional changes in both their system and leadership.
A successful program can’t only be defined by the number of medals won.
The Sport of Women’s Artistic Gymnastics in the United States
USAG is a large organization with huge influence:
“USA Gymnastics sets the rules and policies that govern gymnastics in the U.S., and it develops the U.S. Olympic team.
Today, USA Gymnastics counts more than 121,000 athletes and more than 3,000 gyms in its membership. With $23 million in annual revenue, according to its most recent tax return, USA Gymnastics touts itself as a ‘big time brand’ and partners with sponsors such as Kellogg’s and Hershey.”
In the past 20 years American women’s gymnastics has evolved to a semi-centralized system. Following the 2000 Olympics, Marta Karolyi (who, along with her husband Bela, famously trained Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Dominique Moceanu, and Kerri Strug) took over the position of National Team Coordinator. There she changed how training and selection for assignments was conducted in the US. She implemented a semi-centralized system which meant that all athletes trained at their own gym, but met at the Karolyi Ranch (yes, the National Training Center is at the HOME OF THE KAROLYIS–no conflict of interest there) about every month for training camp. There the gymnasts would verify skills and were chosen for competitions.
This setup is important to note because it is often heralded as not only one of the factors leading to the success of the women’s program after Sydney, but how the gymnasts continually were working with the same staff of coaches, coordinators, and doctors from 2001-2016 as well. This location is famously in a very rural area of Texas (the Sam Houston National Forest) with no cell phone service or access to the outside world. The isolation–especially as the athletes travel only with their coaches, no parents are allowed–is deemed one of the contributing factors to the program’s winning streak; all is overseen by Martha.
The system seemed to work. The US women have dominated the past 15 years of competition; winning team silvers in 2004 and 2008, team golds in 2012 and 2016, not to mention the all around champion in all four of those Olympic games, and countless individual and team medals in world championships. Even now, USA Gymnastics wants to continue this system after Marta has retired, having actually purchased portions the ranch from the Karolyis to continue to hold training camps under their new Coordinator, Valeri Liukin.
Allegations of Abuse Against Dr. Larry Nassar
In August 2016, IndyStar published a report detailing numerous instances of not only sexual abuse, but also how USA Gymnastics failed to protect athletes from perpetrators with a history of assault. Many of the accusations were directed at former national team doctor Larry Nassar.
The national team doctor for the women’s program from 1996 to 2015, Nassar was hired by Michigan State University following USAG’s decision to fire him under the reason of “athlete concerns,”–this was the private reason, not the public one–although Nassar claims he resigned the position because “he wished to pursue other interests outside of USA Gymnastics”.
In October 2016, two women came forward with allegations of sexual assault against the longtime team physician. The first, known as Jane Doe, is a 2000 Olympic medalist who filed a civil lawsuit against the doctor where she “accuses him of fondling and groping her breasts… and introduced his bare hand to Plaintiff’s vagina and anus, on multiple locations, in Plaintiff’s assigned sleeping quarters, as she lay on the edge of her bed, alone and without any supervision or a chaperone…” The lawsuit in full can be found here.
The second athlete, Rachael Denhollander, also came forward with allegations of abuse at the hands of Nassar. The complaint, filed with Michigan police, details incidents similar to Jane Doe’s lawsuit, including procedures that included penetration. In her interview with IndyStar, Denhollander explains the emotional turmoil of the abuse she experienced at age 15:
“I was terrified,” she recalled. “I was ashamed. I was very embarrassed. And I was very confused, trying to reconcile what was happening with the person he was supposed to be. He’s this famous doctor. He’s trusted by my friends. He’s trusted by these other gymnasts. How could he reach this position in the medical profession, how could he reach this kind of prominence and stature if this is who he is?”
Following the complaints by Jane Doe and Rachel Denhollander, IndyStar and Doe’s lawyer reported they were approached by an additional 16+ athletes from different states that were also under Nassar’s care. These stories of abuse again mirrored the already filed complaints: inappropriate fondling of breasts and vaginal penetration treatments performed unprofessionally (either without lubricant, gloves, and/or without parental consent).
Nassar was fired from MSU for “lack of compliance” after these lawsuits were filed. Gymcastic believes this reason is due to Nassar (a tenured professor at the university) being accused of similar actions against a graduate assistant in 2014, an incident that was investigated by police but no charges were filed; as a response to these allegations, the university set new requirements of Nassar into his contract. Nassar’s first lawyer stated that he did not perform intra-vaginal treatments, which was then contradicted by his second lawyer who explained that yes, the doctor performed this particular treatment, but was done in a professional, medically-sound way.
Later in October, Jane Doe #2 came forward not only with allegations against Nassar, but USA Gymnastics, her coaches, as well as Marta and Bela Karolyi. A member of the national team from 2004-2010, this athlete details similar instances of abuse by Nassar at the Karolyi Ranch during national training camp, as well as stating that the famed coaches “turned a blind-eye to Nassar’s sexual abuse of children at the ranch” and “instituted a regime of intimidation and fear at the ranch for the minor children under their custody.” The claim also outlines other forms of mental and emotional abuse at the ranch; the full lawsuit can be found here.
Over fifty gymnasts have come forward accusing the doctor of sexual abuse. In November he was arrested for assault against a 13 year old non-gymnast. This Friday (12/16), he was arrested on federal charges after a search found over 2,000 images of child pornography in his home.
A System of Abuse: How USAG Failed to Protect Athletes Institutionally
As the sole umbrella organization of their 3,000+ gyms in the United States and the decision-making institution for the sport, USAG’s role is one of the most important aspects of these sexual abuse allegations. USA Gymnastics does have a complaint process in place meant to protect athletes; I believe this method for reporting abuse not only failed miserably, but demonstrates USAG’s sheer lack of accountability and how little action the organization made to ensure the safety of their athletes against sexual predators.
“In August, an IndyStar investigation revealed that USA Gymnastics executives repeatedly failed to forward allegations of sexual abuse at its member clubs to law enforcement authorities. The organization relied on a policy of not alerting authorities unless allegations came directly from an athlete or an athlete’s parent or guardian, according to testimony in court records.”
In court records, the former and current presidents of USAG (Bob Colarossi and Steve Penny) acknowledged that they did not report claims of sexual assault to police for numerous reasons, one being the protection of the coach’s reputation should the allegations were found to be false.
Again, according to records from USAG subpoenaed by IndyStar, former president Colarossi said he “inherited an executive policy of dismissing complaints as ‘hearsay’ unless they were signed by a victim or victim’s parent — a policy that experts said could deter people from reporting abuse. It’s not clear exactly when that policy was created or by whom.”
Here is IndyStar’s outline of the multiple coaches accused of sexual assault and how USAG mishandled the complaints:
Ray Adams: Adams abused over 12 gymnasts in multiple gyms over the course of 16 years. He was not only fired on a number of occasions for inappropriate behavior, but also had
many police reports filed against him by family members of victims (including one where both prosecutors declined to press charges after he undressed a student). Adams continued to find work as a coach, even after confessing to molesting children; in 1997 he was allowed to continue working at a St. Louis YMCA (where he abused children). By 2003, he was hired by famed coach Mary Lee Tracy (gymnasts include 1996 gold medalists Jaycie Phelps and Amanda Borden, as well as 2016 Olympic hopeful Amelia Hundley) and Buckeye Gymnastics (a gym now known for coaching 2016 gold medalist Gabby Douglas) even though 12 girls had accused him of sexual abuse. Adams was continuously hired because he still had good standing with USA Gymnastics, a fact that USAG blames on the justice system for failing to list his convictions on his background check.
After a parent of a former student saw Adams was still coaching at a local competition, she wrote a letter to USAG insisting they revoke his membership; a letter the organization denies ever receiving, even with proof that the letter was delivered. In 2009 he was convicted of felony molestation and while on house arrest was arrested for possession of child pornography; it was only after his first conviction that USAG banned him as a coach. He is currently serving his sentence. A detailed timeline including police reports can be found here.
James Bell: Even with a record of sexual misconduct, including those filed through the police and USA Gymnastics, James Bell was able to continue to coach in the US. A former employer reported Bell to police in 2004. Once apprehended, he was convicted of three counts of molestation.
William McCabe: William McCabe is one of the most damning cases showing the failings of USA Gymnastics. In 1998 USAG reportedly received at least four complaints about McCabe from employers. One letter, sent to USAG after the head coach overheard McCabe say he planned to “f— her very soon” about a gymnast, stated that:
“My feelings are this, no individual should be allowed to work with children or teenagers under any circumstances if there is even a hint of a problem. To allow this scum bag to continue working within the gymnastic community would be a terrible insult… In my opinion this person has no right to work with children and should be locked in a cage before someone is raped.”
The complaints were never reported by USAG–allowing McCabe to not only walk free but also continue coaching–and begin molesting his gymnasts in 1999. He is now serving a 30 year sentence for sexual exploitation of children.
Mark Schiefelbein: Even though Schiefelbein had numerous complaints of sexual assault against him, he was still able to find coaching positions in a number of gymnastics clubs. He was accused of photographing a young athlete, as well as molesting her, in 2003.
Marvin Sharp: 2010’s Women’s Coach of the Year, Sharp is known for training 2008 Olympian and 2009 World Champion Bridget Sloan. A 2011 report stated that Sharp was inappropriately touching gymnasts; after a second allegation surfaced four years later, USA Gymnastics reported him to police. Arrested on child pornography and molestation charges in 2015, Sharp committed suicide in his jail cell.
Why Things Need To Change
There are now 368 gymnasts coming forward with allegations of sexual abuse over the past twenty years. While USA Gymnastics did not commit any of the assaults, they created and implemented a system that failed to protect athletes, allowing perpetrators to continue to abuse gymnasts, while protecting their image. The fact that these coaches and Dr. Nassar are just a few of the cases currently being reviewed demonstrates the extreme lack of accountability of USAG to report crimes to authorities and following up in gyms.
The very organization being heralded as the “great gymnastics power” is the same entity that allowed offenders to continue coaching even at the expense of their own young gymnasts. I personally believe this is for two reasons: Sexual abuse of children is an uncomfortable topic to discuss, particularly for a sports organization that has a majority of underage athletes and USAG relies on sponsorship for competitions and makes millions off of the success of their athletes.
Even the firing of Nassar was done quietly; if USA Gymnastics was in fact trying to protect gymnasts and let him go as a result of athlete complaints, how can the organization in good conscience not publicly state the true reasoning for firing Nassar? How can USAG allow Nassar to not only walk free but be hired as a professor at Michigan State University, a Division I school that also has many former USAG athletes competing on scholarship?
These men were in positions of great trust and power. Many survivors of sexual assault feel embarrassed, guilty, or ashamed of the abuse that happens to them. Gymcastic reported on an article by Women’s Health that stated how often this type of abuse occurs:
“In a new survey of nearly 500 women conducted by Women’s Health and the anti–sexual violence group RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), 27 percent said they’d been violated by a doctor—reporting everything from lewd comments to masturbation, inappropriate touching, and even rape.”
The continued rhetoric that strangers are the most likely people who abuse only further perpetuates this notion that those close to you will not harm you. As girls, teenagers, young adults, we are taught to carry pepper spray and not walk alone, but hardly ever do we talk about how to handle our coach, doctor, family member, or friend making advances. Even discussing sexual abuse is often seen as taboo. It’s clear that abuse is occurring; we need to start having frank conversations about it. Remaining quiet only further emboldens abusers and silences survivors.
In an interview with BBC, Denhollander explains:
“…The other dynamic is that he was very trusted. It was very difficult to reconcile the person he was supposed to be with what he was doing, so the only conclusion I could come to was that I must be making a mistake… That the truth has not come out in the past 18 years is something that has haunted me. The only thing that I feel now is very deep grief. I did not feel the need to come forward publicly for myself – there is nothing I gain from this for myself. But to be able to see the other women have a voice, that is worth everything. That is more powerful a motivation than fear.“
Journalist Mark Alesi, who has been working on compiling accusations for the case, stated: “There’s a lot more to come out, we suspect, on how USA Gymnastics handles sexual abuse complaints. As part of our investigation we have learned that it was keeping files of sexual abuse complaints but not reporting them to authorities. If we get to those, we think there will be a lot more to report.”
Both BBC and IndyStar report that there are many more athletes coming forward.
Updates as of December 22nd, 2016:
- After finding over 37,000 images of child pornography, Dr. Larry Nassar was arrested without the option of bail. Judge Ray Kent noted Nassar was “‘worst’ kind of danger to the community.” The hard drives containing the images were found by officers searching Nassar’s home; an officer noted that the garbage pickup was running late that day and checked the cans. The drives–which included Nassar’s name and phone number–included graphic videos of underage girls being abused, some of which included abuse at the hands of Nassar in his swimming pool.
- Multiple athletes from other sports at Michigan State University have come forward with allegations of abuse against Nassar, bringing his total accusers to more than 60. He has plead not guilty to the charges.
- A former MSU softball player, Tiffany Thomas Lopez, has also come forward saying she told at least three trainers at Michigan State about the abuse, but all complaints were ignored. She is the 16th former MSU athlete to file a lawsuit against Nassar.
- USA Gymnastics insists they are “determined to raise standards” of sexual abuse protocol.