RIO DE JANEIRO — On the eve of the Olympics, The Indianapolis Star produced a damning report about USA Gymnastics’s failure to investigate allegations that coaches sexually abused children. But this is not just a gymnastics story, any more than doping is just a track story.
Former Olympic diver Megan Neyer, who works with an organization called Safe4Athletes, told me Thursday: “Gymnastics is no worse off than any other sport about these issues.”
And Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former Olympic gold-medal-winning swimmer who is now an attorney and the CEO of Champion Women, said: “USA Gymnastics, more so than other national governing bodies, has been on top of it in some aspects.”
Child abuse is a problem in almost every corner of the U.S. Olympic “movement.” Officially, the U.S. Olympic Committee cares. Officially, in 2014 the USOC created safesport.org (“Where your game plan starts”) to help combat sexual abuse. A year later, it added a Safe Sport Advisory Council, and a year after that, it added a board of directors. If that seems like slow progress to you, you’re not alone.
Hogshead-Makar says, “They’ve created the board, but they haven’t done a single investigation. It is just no coincidence that they didn’t move before the Olympics. They didn’t want any publicity around the topic of sexual abuse at all.”
Keep that in mind as you hear about this “gymnastics scandal.” It’s not just a gymnastics scandal; it’s a window into how most governing bodies operate. The Star story, and USA Gymnastics’ responses, reveal fundamental flaws in the approach to a deadly serious problem.
The organization claims it reports allegations to law enforcement “whenever circumstances warrant,” but what does that mean? USA Gymnastics should not be determining that standard. It should report any and all allegations to law enforcement, which it clearly did not. And then, while law enforcement does its job, USA Gymnastics should go above and beyond that with its own investigation, as any business should.
Instead, USA Gymnastics only investigates when the allegation comes directly from a victim or from a parent, which shows a shocking fundamental ignorance about victims of sexual abuse, especially children. Victims are often reluctant to accuse a coach, out of misplaced guilt and fear of retribution. Parents are not always the first to know. Put it this way: If your child was abused by a coach, and a third party turned the coach in, wouldn’t you want the coach investigated?
Says Hogshead-Makar, “It’s a way for (governing bodies) not to have to deal with a problem. They’re looking for these little rules like this that will cut their workload by half … to say ‘We don’t trust these reports of sexual abuse because they don’t come from the victim’ is head-shaking.”
Elite underage athletes spend an inordinate amount of time with coaches—often in a town far from home, with a lot of time alone, and a much higher rate of acceptable physical contact than, for example, a math teacher and pupil. That shortens the bridge between acceptable and unacceptable physical contact. The environment is ripe for predators.
During one deposition, USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny said he was wary of investigating a coach for fear of impugning the reputation of an innocent person. He doesn’t seem to realize that a) even in the highly competitive environment of Olympic sports, very few people will concoct a false allegation of pedophilia, and b) that is even more reason to go to the police. Making a false allegation to law enforcement is a crime. Bringing the police into it could weed out those false accusations.
Again: This is not just a gymnastics scandal. Ask a swimmer. In recent years, USA Swimming faced even more allegations of abuse and misconduct. In 2014, 19 swimmers who said they were sexually abused signed a petition to rescind USA Swimming chief Chuck Wielgus’s invite to the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Wielgus withdrew from consideration. But he kept his job.
Neyer says, “The leadership failure at the USA Swimming level was beyond comprehensible to me. My jaw still drops when I go: Are you kidding me? That person didn’t lose their job?”
Shortly after Wielgus withdrew from Hall of Fame consideration, the USOC announced it would create an entity to address sexual abuse. But so much more needs to be done. In 2013, Hogshead-Makar sent the USOC a letter detailing how to assemble an independent entity to investigate sexual abuse and harassment. She is still waiting to hear back. (USA Gymnastics declined to comment beyond its official statement, and the USOC has yet to reply to a request for comment.)
“The USOC was very late to this party,” Neyer says. “It was very late to addressing issues having to do with sexual abuse within national governing bodies. That is unfortunate. Not unlike the Catholic church, we’re seeing how turning blind eyes and systemic ignorance has led to all sorts of problems.”
Neyer also said: “The NCAA started doing some things way earlier than the USOC.”
Think about that: The NCAA moved faster than the USOC! That’s like losing a footrace to an elephant carcass.
Look: It’s easy for flame-throwing columnists to scream that somebody cares more about winning medals than children. This is not that simple. Nobody is saying the heads of governing bodies condone sexual abuse. They just avoid dealing with it. They have failed to implement a comprehensive system to combat it. And because they are membership organizations instead of businesses, they don’t have the same legal obligations as employers.
Organizations employ former FBI agents to look into doping accusations; they should do the same for abuse allegations. Instead of deciding whether an allegation is worth investigating, then deciding whether to alert police, governing bodies should alert police, then investigate.
This is not a new problem. It is not even a newly exposed problem. In 2011, the Orange County Register contacted Penny about coach Doug Boger, who had been accused of physical and sexual abuse by a dozen former gymnasts. Penny e-mailed back: “I take responsibility in this area very seriously and nothing is taken lightly.”
But that same year, according to The Star, USA Gymnastics received a detailed complaint that coach Marvin Sharp touched children inappropriately. The organization did not report Sharp to police until four years later, when Sharp was accused again.
And in 2013, Hogshead-Makar pushed the USOC to pass a simple rule prohibiting intimate athlete-coach relationships, regardless of the athlete’s age. It passed. She says she asked to publicize it, to get the word out, so athletes and coaches would know. She says the response was, “No, no, no. Stay away, Nancy. We’re going to our own PR on this.” And she also says: “I saw naught.”
Thursday’s report will likely fade from the public consciousness, the way the swimming scandal did. But in bedrooms around the United States, and probably here in Rio, there are young athletes who will be damaged forever because they were abused and nobody helped them.