Ten months have passed since Larry Nassar was sentenced on state charges in Michigan where more than 150 women and girls gave impact statements during his sentencing hearing. In the days that followed, the United States Olympic Committee threatened to decertify USA Gymnastics unless the entire Board of Directors resigned.
Now, after a series of hiring missteps, the USOC started the decertification process on Monday. New CEO Sarah Hirshland penned a letter to the gymnastics community explaining why the Olympic Committee has gone this route—one that survivors, former gymnasts and fans have all called for almost from the beginning.
“You deserve better,” Hirshland wrote.
Within her letter, there is one important caveat: “You should know that revocation is subject to a process clearly outlined in the USOC Bylaws, and that process does not guarantee a particular outcome.”
The process set forth in the USOC bylaws isn’t necessarily clear. There is no timeline outlined. The process falls under Section 8 of the bylaws and begins with an Initiation of Action that is brought by the CEO of the USOC. This is what Hirshland did in Monday’s announcement. She will also be in charge of creating a three-person hearing panel: a member of the USOC’s board (this person will chair the panel), one member of the NGB council and one person on the Athlete Advisory Council.
The hearing that follows will allow USA Gymnastics to provide factual evidence or legal argument. The panel will create a report outlining the non-compliance or deficiencies of USA Gymnastics and recommend what action should be taken.
Hirshland will provide her recommendations with a copy of the report to the USOC’s board, which will utilize those documents to make a determination about the status of USA Gymnastics
What does this mean for gymnasts, coaches and parents right now?
Right now, not a whole lot. The process has only just started, so right now, per Hirshland’s letter, gymnastics will go on. USA Gymnastics as an organization will continue to function until a decision has been made by the USOC. While the men’s and women’s artistic gymnastics teams just returned from the world championships (where Simone Biles came back with six medals, the U.S. women were the world champs, locking up their spot in Tokyo, and Sam Mikulak earned his first individual world medal), the trampoline and tumbling programs are on the eve of their own world championships taking place in Russia.
The process leaves plenty of unanswered questions: How long will it take to complete the process? What about the USOC’s role in the Nassar scandal?
The bylaws do not give specific timelines for when each step will be finished. Hirshland wrote in her letter that she doesn’t know how long the process will take. It has taken ten months from the initial threat of decertification to get to this point. It has been more than two years since the Nassar allegations became public and more than three years since both USA Gymnastics and the USOC was informed about Nassar abusing athletes under the guise of medical treatment. While Hirshland’s statement expressed plenty of uncertainty, she made it quite clear that the process, while it has started, does not have a predetermined outcome.
A USOC spokesman declined to comment on how long the process might take.
While the USOC has finally begun the steps to decertify the organization, they should not escape unscathed.
Attorney Michelle Simpson Tuegel, who represents former national team members Tasha and Jordan Schwikert and about 20 other survivors, said Monday in a statement, “Today’s announcement by (the) USOC seeks only to deflect from their total failure over decades to protect the gymnasts in their care. In protecting and enabling Larry Nassar for so long, USAG and USOC failed in its core mission—which it claims is to empower athletes—and gave a known child abuser unfettered access to hundreds of victims. It is high time that the institution and its enablers that failed to protect and care for these young women as minors be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
In a 2016 deposition, USOC Associate General Counsel Gary Johansen told attorneys for three women suing USA Taekwondo that “the USOC does not have athletes.” When he was asked about the power or control the USOC has over its national governing bodies, Johansen said that the organization didn’t have control over the NGBs. The USOC could decertify or withdraw funding from a national governing body through agreements.
In the past the USOC has disciplined other national governing bodies: threatening USA Track and Field with decertification because of the size of its board, taking over USA Taekwondo in for financial mismanagement and decertifying team handball in 2006 “due to a continued pattern of dysfunction.”
Sexual misconduct cases at USA Swimming, USA Diving, US Speed Skating, US Figure Skating, USA Volleyball, USA Taekwondo and USA Gymnastics, until now, had not been cause to begin decertification. All had prominent coaches or officials accused of sexual misconduct that eventually came to light. Each time, the organizations escaped unscathed and the USOC did not even whisper the word decertification. Governance and financial issues were plenty of reason to open up the process. Athlete welfare was not.