USA gymnasts are absolutely amazing! The team just won their fourth consecutive world title at the World Gymnastics Championships in Doha, Qatar.
A key member of Team USA is Simone Biles, one of the best athletes of all time. Biles dominated during the competition (even after messing up, and even with a kidney stone!). She now has a vault named after her. Biles and her teammate, Morgan Hurd, the reigning all-around world champion, will go on to compete in the Women’s All-Around finals this week.
While these USA gymnasts are taking the world by storm, their sport’s governing body, USA Gymnastics, is a complete and utter dumpster fire.
On the same day that the girls and women of USA Gymnastics won the Women’s World Team Championship by their largest margin ever, the former president of USAG, Steve Penny, was in a Texas court pleading not guilty to charges of tampering with evidence related to the investigation of convicted serial sexual abuser and longtime USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.
What the hell is happening at USAG and who is going to fix it, for the sake of the athletes who compete under its banner and win gold medals doing it?
This juxtaposition ― between the horror show that has been and continues to be the leadership around USAG, and the brilliance of the athletes who are the reason the organization exists at all ― should give everyone pause and lead to a deep reflection on sporting culture in this country and the ways we protect our athletes. I won’t hold my breath, though.
In March 2017, Penny resigned as the president of USA Gymnastics after 12 years. During his tenure, according to in-depth reporting by the Indianapolis Star, predatory coaches were allowed to work at different USA Gymnastics-certified gyms. Under Penny’s leadership, USAG compiled a list of problematic coaches, then filed it away. And coaches who had been convicted of molesting children often never appeared on any lists of banned coaches.
It turns out there’s a distinct possibility that Penny interfered directly in at least one investigation into Nassar’s abuse. The indictment against Penny says that once he learned Texas law enforcement was looking into Nassar’s conduct with gymnasts at the Karolyi ranch, he ordered the removal of documents relating to Nassar. Those documents are still missing.
The avalanche of poor leadership at USAG is continuing. Penny’s arrest came shortly after the organization’s interim president, Mary Bono, resigned after only four days on the job.
Bono didn’t last long because Simone Biles drew attention to Bono’s diss of Nike after the company announced its new advertising campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who took a knee on the sideline of NFL games during the national anthem in order to protest racial injustice (Nike sponsors Biles).
Bono had her brief position only because the former USAG president, Kerry Perry (who initially replaced Penny), resigned nine months into the job after the organization’s hire of Mary Lee Tracy as elite development coordinator.
Like Bono, Tracy lasted only days and quickly resigned under pressure after Olympian Aly Raisman tweeted her disappointment at the hire because of Tracy’s support of Nassar, even after more than 50 athletes had come forward about abuse and he’d been charged with sex crimes.
USAG has hired a consulting firm, Spencer Stuart, to conduct a search for the next president. But even this move is being questioned because, according to the Orange County Register, Spencer Stuart last year “recommended a college president with a misdemeanor sexual abuse conviction at Ithaca College.”
What the hell is happening at USAG and who is going to fix it, for the sake of the athletes who compete by its rules and under its banner and win gold medals doing it?
The only people truly holding anyone accountable at this point are the gymnasts themselves and survivors.
USA Gymnastics is such a mess that there are calls for the United States Olympic Committee to decertify the organization altogether, a complicated but doable action. The USOC, though, is under scrutiny itself because gymnastics is not the only Olympic sport with a sexual abuse problem (see: swimming, speedskating, taekwondo, or volleyball), and the USOC has long failed to act on reports of abuse.
Congress could do something about the USOC (and, in turn, USA Gymnastics), but it’s hard to turn to Congress right now as a body we can trust to deal with reports of sexual violence. Following Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony and before the confirmation vote for now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Morgan McCaul, an 18-year-old gymnast who was abused by Nassar, came forward to say it was hard to wrap her mind around the fact that senators who vowed to clean up abuse in sports would also vote for Kavanaugh.
“That would invalidate my identity as a survivor,” McCaul told ThinkProgress. “It is baffling on a moral level.”
Meanwhile, Michigan State (which also employed Nassar) is also a total mess post-Nassar, including the board of trustees and the current interim president, John Engler. Reports last year about problems in the football and basketball programs were met with some discussion (including my own addition), a lot of anger from fans, and little, if any, change (in fact, the new athletic director is an inside hire and coaches of both teams were supportive of that decision).
The NCAA has washed its hands, as it is wont to do. It’s hard to see major fixes for gymnastics coming through collegiate influence.
Nike, which sponsors Michigan State in addition to Biles, said it is “closely monitoring events at Michigan State University” when the company was asked by Lindsay Gibbs if it would pull out its contract with the school to support survivors’ calls for Engler to be fired. (This is Nike’s go-to answer on these things. See, most recently, its comments on the rape allegation against Cristiano Ronaldo.)
The only people holding anyone truly accountable at this point are the gymnasts and survivors, who continue to use their voices and their bodies to speak out. Some also are suing USAG, Michigan State and Nassar.
While the USA gymnasts are taking the world by storm, their sport’s governing body, USA Gymnastics, is a complete and utter dumpster fire.
The media ― including reporters at Lansing State Journal, Detroit Free Press, and the Indianapolis Star; Lindsay Gibbs at ThinkProgress; Nancy Armour and Rachel Axon at USA Today; Dvora Meyers at Deadspin; and the podcasts Gymcastic and Believed ― continue to investigate and report this story. Every once and a while, we get another glossy feature that tells us what these survivors have been through over the decades, and once more, their stories.
This is a story that involves the leadership of multiple major sports organizations and a top-level university enabling and even participating in criminal behavior, and a culture of sexual abuse that harms children and collegiate athletes. Unfortunately, except for a few moments during Nassar’s trial and sentencing, this story is just a blip or a footnote for most of the major media.
The sports world needs a culture change that deals with emotional and mental abuse as part of its prevention of sexual abuse. As former gymnast Kristen DeCosta recently wrote, “Larry Nassar is the result of years and years of verbal and physical abuse being normalized. Larry Nassar is the result of an entire sport working in the dark.”
So, while we marvel at what Biles and the other American gymnasts are doing on the beams, bars, vault and floor, and cheer her and other survivors as they continue to put pressure on leadership and demand change, the truth is that it’s not their job to do the latter, and they shouldn’t have to.
The sports world should be deeply ashamed at the culture of sexual abuse and lack of accountability it has created and continues to defend. Someone needs to do something now ― yesterday, in fact ― but who? There’s no one left to trust.
Jessica Luther is a freelance journalist, an author and a co-host of the feminist sports podcast “Burn It All Down.”