Gymnastics, on the surface, is thriving in the USA. Millions of kids participate. At the 2018 World Championships, Simone Biles demonstrated once again that she’s on a level above anyone else. Morgan Hurd and Sam Mikulak won the all-around titles at the recent World Cup stop in Tokyo. And business goes on as usual – St Louis will host the 2020 US Olympic trials.
Behind the scenes, things are a little messier. USA Gymnastics and the US Olympic Committee are trying to address dozens of lawsuits and blistering criticism for failing to prevent the atrocities of former national team doctor Larry Nassar, working together but also trying to avoid bearing the full brunt of the reckoning to come. The third major party in those lawsuits, Nassar employer Michigan State University, has settled its claims for $500m. USAG does not have that kind of money. Its annual revenue ranges from $22m in a lean year to $35m in an Olympic year. Most of its sponsors are gone. It’s in bankruptcy proceedings, and it’s battling insurers to subsidize payouts its financial documents estimate at $75m to $150m.
On another front, USAG is both working with and defending itself against its parent organization, the USOC. The USOC moved late last year to decertify USAG, taking Biles and company through an abyss of uncertainty to a new governing body of some kind. Decertification is a rare process more typically used in smaller sports such as team handball and shooting, from which the National Rifle Association was removed as the national governing body a couple of decades ago.
These moves won’t appease the plaintiffs in the Nassar case, their lawyers and the USOC and USAG’s critics. Nor did the leadership purges. The USOC turned over several of its senior staffers, and USAG ditched even more, along with most of its board of directors.
USAG has a new CEO, former NBA vice president, and American Ninja Warrior contestant Li Li Leung, who won’t need to go far to exceed the nine-month tenure of Kerry Perry or the weekend-long stint of Mary Bono. She has a long to-do list. USAG is trying to implement 70 recommendations – everything from bylaw changes to annual training for coaches and athletes on how to combat sexual abuse – from a June 2017 report by veteran prosecutor Deborah Daniels. It’s also digesting a damning report from Ropes & Gray, a law firm hired to perform an independent investigation. And all these duties fall on a smaller staff at USAG – down from 72 to 53.
All the moves raise a question: Is the USA Gymnastics of 2019 the same as the USA Gymnastics of 2016, the one that failed to prevent Nassar from committing his crimes?
Lawyers certainly haven’t relented – Vince Finaldi, one of the lawyers representing many of the Nassar plaintiffs, pointed to the continued employment of Amy White, a national team manager accused in the Ropes & Gray report of carrying out orders to remove documents relating to the Nassar case, as an indication that USAG has not yet gotten the message.
In announcing the site of the Olympic trial, Leung expressed confidence that USAG would remain in place to run the event. Nothing is certain, though – Leung conceded that the deal included a clause to move the rights to the USOC itself if USAG is no longer the sport’s overseer.
But USAG wasn’t the only organization scorched by Ropes & Gray. The wide-ranging investigation raised questions for the FBI (letting the Nassar case languish) and the Texas Rangers (showing up at Karolyi Ranch, where Nassar is alleged to have committed acts of abuse, without a warrant, which the report alleges gave people time to move evidence). An Indianapolis detective in charge of the police department’s child abuse unit was accused of leaning on the Indianapolis Star, whose investigation into sex-abuse issues broke open the Nassar case, to back off.
The more relevant problem for Olympic sports was the considerable blame hurled at the USOC, which some claim gave USAG and other governing bodies – most notably USA Swimming – free rein to fail at self-policing. All of these organizations are accused of fomenting a culture in which accusations weren’t taken seriously.
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic swimming medalist and founder of an advocacy group called Champion Women, puts it succinctly in an email shared with the Guardian: “The USOC KNEW that [national governing bodies] were doing a poor job of addressing sexual abuse, and did not intervene on behalf of athletes. I attended SafeSport workshops in 2013 in Denver, and there was no training as to how to conduct a complaint process … nor were those resources available online.”