- Investigators are beginning into how Larry Nassar was able to prey on young athletes, but it's already clear that USA Gymnastics needs to be rebuilt.
Two years ago, the U.S. nearly swept the women's artistic gymnastics competition at the Rio Olympics, winning gold in the team all-around and in three out of five individual events. But now, halfway through the four-year cycle to Tokyo 2020, the sport's governing body, USA Gymnastics, is in free fall, its very existence thrown into doubt by its handling of the cases of sexual assault perpetrated by its former national team doctor, Larry Nassar.
On Jan. 25, a day after Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in jail—in addition to a 60-year sentence handed down on Dec. 6 and another sentence of up to 125 years on Monday—an open letter by Scott Blackmun, CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, warned that if USA Gymnastics did not quickly implement a series of six reforms, "the USOC will have no choice but to pursue termination of USAG's NGB [national governing body] status." Number 1 on that list was a requirement that the entire board of directors resign within a week. One day later all 21 members were on their way out. President and CEO Kerry Perry, who took on her role only on Dec. 1 after a 20-year career in multimedia sports branding, will now oversee an organization stripped of much of its institutional experience.
One-by-one, major sponsors have ended their support for USAG. In mid-December, Kellogg's and Procter & Gamble decided not to renew their sponsorships. Hershey's opted to let its contract run out, while Under Armour announced, also in December, that it would end its association with the organization. On Jan. 23, in a Lansing, Mich., courtroom near the end of a week of victim impact statements—156 in total—that preceded Nassar's sentencing, AT&T issued a statement saying it was cutting ties with USAG "until it is re-built and we know that the athletes are in a safe environment."
Susanne Lyons, an independent member of the USOC board of directors and a former executive with Visa, has been assigned to work as a liaison between USAG and the USOC and with selecting an outside investigator to determine how Nassar's abuses went unchecked for decades. On Feb. 2, the USOC announced that the law firm of Ropes & Gray would conduct the investigation. A thorough examination of the Nassar case is paramount of course, but with USAG essentially paralyzed and unsponsored, hopefuls for Tokyo 2020 are wondering not only how their sport got here but also where does American gymnastics go now?
National governing bodies are responsible for the day-to-day running of their sports. For USA Gymnastics, that includes setting rules and policies, organizing clubs, promoting the sport, developing athletes, training coaches and running as many as 4,000 events per year across the country. USAG is also responsible for nominating athletes for international competitions, including the Olympics.
While fans might pay little attention to gymnastics most of the time, the sport surges into the national consciousness during the Summer Games. On Day 4 of the Rio Games, U.S. swimmers Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky, and the U.S. women's gymnastics team combined for four gold medals, attracting an NBC audience of 33.6 million.
Since its founding in 1963, USA Gymnastics has become home to 148,000 athletes who train at more than 3,000 clubs across the country. In the NCAA, there are 62 Division I women's gymnastics programs, each allowed to issue as many as 12 scholarships, and 15 Division I men's teams, each with 6.3 scholarships available. Even for the thousands of gymnasts who won't make the U.S. national team, gymnastics can be a route to college. And the vast majority of those athletes will have risen through the ranks of USA Gymnastics. The USAG slogan: BEGIN HERE, GO ANYWHERE.
The organization's to-do list before Tokyo 2020 is long. USA Gymnastics needs to elect a new board, find a new training center (the Karolyi Ranch in Huntsville, Texas, site of some of Nassar's crimes, has been shuttered), attract new sponsors to raise money, select national teams and ensure those teams qualify for competition. And, of course, it must cooperate fully with all Nassar-related investigations and develop policies and procedures to give its athletes confidence that they will be better protected.
The first chance to qualify for the team competition in Tokyo will be at the 2018 world championships in Doha, Qatar, in October. Finishing on the podium qualifies a team for the 2020 Games. If the selection procedure were to follow that used before Rio 2016, the gymnasts for the team all-around competition would be chosen by a three-person committee following the U.S. Olympic trials in '20. All members of that group will be new. Márta Károlyi, the former coach of the U.S. team, will be absent from that panel for the first time since '00. With her husband, Béla, Márta is maybe most responsible for the current domination of the U.S. team, which has trained at the couple's ranch in Texas since '01. Their absence leaves a power vacuum at the heart of American gymnastics.
Olympic medals brought sponsors. In August 2016, during the last Olympics, USA Gymnastics had 18 sponsors listed on its website. Actual contributions from each brand are not detailed in the organization's tax returns, but the total revenue that year, including more than $2 million from the USOC, was $34.5 million. Expenses added up to $32.4 million. The loss of sponsors will leave a hole in USAG's revenue, and no major company has indicated an intention to return to supporting USAG. In fact, USAG has deleted the sponsors page from its website. Finding companies that are willing to be linked to USA Gymnastics today may be extremely difficult.
Also, USA Gymnastics could be liable for significant damages from lawsuits brought by Nassar's victims, and current or former staff could face criminal charges. The cultural problems at USA Gymnastics run deep.
Deborah Daniels, a former federal prosecutor, was hired by USAG in November 2016 to review the organization's policies, and in June 2017 issued a report calling on USAG to better protect young athletes, recommending that "USA Gymnastics needs to undergo a complete cultural change, permeating the entire organization and communicated to the field in all its actions." In his Jan. 25 open letter, Blackmun echoed the opinion: "USAG culture needs fundamental rebuilding."
At Nassar's sentencing hearing on Jan. 19, two-time Olympian and triple gold medalist Aly Raisman read a statement petitioning judge Rosemarie Aquilina to give Nassar the harshest sentence possible and criticizing how USA Gymnastics and the USOC had failed her and others. She also criticized new USAG president Perry for leaving midway through the hearing, and the USOC for being absent entirely. "For this sport to go on, we need to demand real change, and we need to be willing to fight for it," Raisman said. "It's clear now that if we leave it up to these organizations, history is likely to repeat itself."
There have been calls for USAG to be decertified, but there is no comparable organization that could easily step in as a national governing body. Without USA Gymnastics, the USOC might struggle to develop young talent. In a statement addressed to Team USA on Jan. 24, Blackmun explained that the reason for not decertifying USA Gymnastics is that doing so might do more damage than trying to rebuild the organization. "USA Gymnastics includes clubs and athletes who had no hand in this and who need to be supported," he wrote. "We believe [decertifying] would hurt more than help the athletes and their sport. But we will pursue decertification if USA Gymnastics does not fully embrace the necessary changes."
USA Gymnastics is set to have an interim board of directors in place before the end of February. For an organization with hopes of defending its Olympic title in Tokyo, choosing at least one prominent former gymnast would make sense. The most decorated athlete on the previous board was Ivana Hong, who had been elected in December. Hong won team gold at the world championships in Stuttgart in 2007. For an organization that is struggling to overcome the worst sexual abuse scandal in sports history, seeking out the voices of Nassar's victims is also essential. Though neither has put her name forward for consideration, Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar, and Raisman would seem to be ideal candidates.
From 1936 to '76, the United States picked up just one medal (bronze, London '48) in team gymnastics competition at the Olympics. But then the Károlyis defected from Romania during an '81 gymnastics tour of the U.S. Under their coaching guidance, Mary Lou Retton went on to win gold in the individual all-around in '84, and her scores helped to lift the team to a silver medal. Over the next eight Olympiads, the paternal (and maternal) Károlyis played pivotal roles in the success of the U.S. team. In that period Team USA won a total of 39 team and individual medals, a dozen of them gold.
In the wake of the Károlyis' departure and the complete turnover at the top, USA Gymnastics must begin again. Will we return to the days of being sixth-place also-rans? Or can we reach a point at which team success and athlete rights are no longer mutually exclusive?
Begin here, go where?