As the USOC started the USA Gymnastics decertification process, survivors and former athletes share their thoughts on what a new organization needs to be to ensure a better future for the sport.
The calls to decertify USA Gymnastics began in earnest as the Larry Nassar case unfolded and only got louder as victims came forward, new information about those involved came to light, and the organization continued to stumble.
With Monday’s call from the USOC starting the decertification process, questions are arising about what this new national governing body for gymnastics should look like. What kind of leadership should this new organization have? Should this person come from a gymnastics background or be completely outside of the community? What are the programs or policies that need to be in place?
Both survivors and former athletes were adamant that the person or a member of the group in charge needs to be someone who knows gymnastics and understands the sport and its history. They pointed to the fact that both Steve Penny and Kerry Perry came from marketing backgrounds—and look how that turned out.
“It’s going to be important that it’s someone who understands the world of elite gymnastics,” Rachael Denhollander said in a telephone interview. “They can identify abusive coaching structures, they can know how cleverly [the structures] can be masked, they can know what’s normal and what’s not normal.”
The bigger question might come with what type of leadership should be put into place. In the past, there was a CEO/president and a board of directors. But perhaps now, a better solution might be to appoint more than one person, to limit the amount of power given to one individual.
“I think a committee would be best because when you have more than one person, I think you have some checks and balances,” Sister survivor Emily Meinke said. “If you appoint one person then, as we’ve seen, they have free reign to do whatever they want. Even if there is someone bringing something to their attention, they have the authority to just shut it down.”
Meinke suggested a combination of those inside the gymnastics community understand the sport and others from outside the community who are knowledgeable in their fields and can bring a fresh perspective. But above all, that it was important to have people in leadership roles that were willing to be open-minded and to seek out expertise when needed. Survivors could also have a role through a committee or even in a consultant position.
“I think that having a committee is an excellent idea. Put the survivors on that committee, put a parent on that committee, put a coach on that committee. It’s probably the smartest thing to do to [avoid] one person messing it up. Other people would have opinions and ideas [to contribute],” Meinke said.
Jonathan Horton, a two-time Olympian, agreed that the position could be split into multiple leadership roles to combine the business and gymnastics sides.
“We could split the CEO position into two people,” Horton said. “They need to be equal roles. You have your corporate businessperson and then you’ve got the person who works directly side-by-side who is the gymnastics guru. The person who can be the outspoken voice and a leader.”
Three-time rhythmic national champion Jessica Howard pointed out that the organizational setup could be indicative of how leadership is set up across all national governing bodies and that changing that structure might be more difficult.
“All federations under the USOC have that setup where there’s a president and then a board of directors. The president represents the organization everywhere internationally,” Howard said. “I don’t know how far they would stray from that in building something. I do think there need to be checks and balances that have not been in place before because the president, at least in my experience being on the board of directors, had nobody [who would] stand up to him.”
From 2007–13, Howard served on the on the USA Gymnastics board of directors. She, too, was clear that the new leadership must include someone who understands the intricacies of the sport, because that experience would be invaluable.
“You can’t bring in somebody from the outside who has been super successful at [what they do] and expect them to know how gymnastics works. It’s a completely different beast. I believe that whoever that is, with the right council, can bring in somebody who knows how money works and someone who knows the legal side of an organization that’s dealing with millions of dollars. I believe those things can come in from outside and they can be highly trained individuals. I think the one thing you cannot replace is how gymnastics works.”
Former Olympic champion Dominique Moceanu has been outspoken about the sport’s abusive practices for years. She pointed to continuing education courses for coaches that she’d like to see in place, including those covering spotting, strength and conditioning, flexibility and nutrition.
“So many kids struggle with [nutrition] and coaches don’t know how to approach that. They don’t have that knowledge. I think the best way to help [the athletes] is to educate them,” she said. “Find a nutritionist, an expert, to teach them why the foods that they eat help them or why the foods that they eat aren’t good for them or what’s good to be fueling them.”
Howard suggested better communication between the new governing body and its gyms, parents and coaches for basic topics like safety and rules. Meinke would like to see an athlete advocate truly lobbying for the athletes. That person should not be compensated by the National Governing Body and could act as a liaison between the NGB, coach or gym and parent. For Denhollander, the best policy would be an attitude shift towards abusive training techniques and understanding what abuse looks like. The banned members list absolutely needs to be brought into the new organization as well—all of the survivors and former athletes are hoping new leadership puts athlete safety and welfare ahead of medals and money.
While the future of the sport is murky right now, there is one thing that is very clear: the need for change.
Said Denhollander: “Unless the new organization is populated with people who are willing to stand up and say: this is wrong, we are not going to do it this way, this is not the right priority, this is not the right value systems, we’re just going to end up with another organization that repeats the same problem.”