On Nov. 5, what felt like the inevitable finally happened. The US Olympic Committee announced plans to pursue decertification of USA Gymnastics after its role in enabling the largest sexual abuse crisis in sports history and continued mismanagement once the extent of the abuse suffered by hundreds of young women at the hands of former Olympic team and Michigan State trainer Larry Nassar became public knowledge.
The scandal that is USA Gymnastics has been going on for three years. Athletes and survivors have been calling for this step for years, but decertification—characterized as a last resort—never came.
The USOC did not invoke this last resort when Nassar was found in possession of more than 37,000 images of child pornography, or when Nassar was sentenced to between 40 to 175 years as a result of pleading guilty to ten counts of sexual assault of girls. Or after watching their victim impact statements go viral—videos of women and girls, either crying or steelily explaining how their abuse impacted their athletic careers and lives. The USOC was similarly unmoved when the federation burned through three executives in two years. (One of those executives, Steve Penny, recently pled not guilty to evidence tampering related to the Nassar case at the legendary Karolyi ranch in Texas. Another, former Republican Congresswoman Mary Bono, made disparaging remarks about Colin Kaepernick’s Nike ad before she took the job; the tweet was resurfaced and Simone Biles, a Nike athlete, was not pleased to say the least.)
So, while the decision has felt inevitable and obvious, it has also been a long time coming, and carries with it a lot of uncertainty—namely how will a sport so inextricably linked to the Olympics carry on with its governing body in so much legal limbo.
In her public statement announcing the largely unprecedented move, USOC CEO Sarah Hirshland said there are plans in place for the athletes to thrive as the process of decertification goes on (review panel, hearings, fact finding, etc.), but the specifics of it aren’t mentioned. In an open letter to the athletes, Hirshland admits that Olympic hopefuls will have support for the Tokyo games, but that’s about as concrete as it gets. If you—or your child—are a club gymnast training in Iowa or California, though? “We are developing both a short- and longer-term plan and will communicate it as soon as we can,” Hirshland wrote in the open letter. “The clearest answer I can provide is that gymnastics as a sport will remain a bedrock for the Olympic community in the United States. Young people will continue to participate, refine their techniques and have fun.”
But her statement and open letter seem to question if USA Gymnastics would continue to exist in its current form when all’s said and done. “In the long-term, it will be the critically important responsibility of the recognized Gymnastics [national governing body], whether the existing organization or a new one, to lead gymnastics in the United States and build on the supportive community of athletes and clubs that can carry the sport forward for decades to come. We are prepared to identify and help build such an organization,” Hirshland said in the statement.
How this plays out is anyone's guess. Hirshland gave an email at the end of the letter for gymnasts, coaches, trainers, club owners, etc. to reach out with “ideas and suggestions,” which is better optics than Hirshland’s first meeting with gold medal-winner Aly Raisman at a Senate hearing in July. But the optics of the already fraught situation fail to negate the fact that Hirshland’s letter makes it seem like their hands are tied by this last resort, even as the USOC works on long term solutions. “There is a process that must be followed based on the USOC Bylaws that lay out how we recognize, and revoke recognition, for an NGB. We have filed a complaint. A review panel will be identified, a hearing will be held, a report will be issued and a recommendation will be made. Then the USOC board will vote to continue to recognize USAG, or to revoke that status,” she writes.
On Tuesday, a top USA Gymnastics official made it clear that this process will likely turn messy before we see resolution. In an email sent to athletes, coaches and parents, Tom Forster, USA Gymnastics high performance team coordinator, wrote that call for decertification was a “strategic move” to appease critics, Scott M. Reid of the Orange County Register reported. While that is almost certainly true, Forster’s email is telling in that his words show he thinks that the Nassar scandal is just a PR nightmare, instead of a horrifying assault against hundreds of women that could have been prevented. This is a real opportunity to confront safety issues within an elite sport that breeds intensely close one-on-one relationships between adults and children.
Here’s a portion of the email Reid obtained:
"I have met with Sarah Hirshland, the president of the USOC, a few times and it was communicated to me the USOC believes USA Gymnastics will suffer from the legal problems associated with the lawsuits from the survivors which will, in their opinion, hurt our High Performance Teams,” Forster wrote. “I believe this to be a strategic move on their part to appease our critics and congress for the perceived lack of progress we have made as an organization to solve our public image problems. If the USOC takes on the task of managing our [high performance] Teams USA Gymnastics will still be facing the challenges of litigation from the survivors.”
Forster completely missing the point is only natural for someone who worked in the same organization that was briefly run by Kerry Perry, an executive who hired Mary Lee Tracy, a well-known coach, as Elite Development Coordinator, even though Tracy defended Nassar in December 2016 . As a reminder, by mid-December 2016, Nassar was indicted on federal child pornography charges, not to mention multiple sexual assault charges in Michigan. Tracy was asked to resign three days after her hiring was announced because she attempted to contact Olympian Aly Raisman, who is suing USA Gymnastics. Time and again, this is the story of USA Gymnastics: the adults charged with mentoring and protecting children fail to grasp the extent of hurt that their inaction enabled.
The purpose of pursuing decertification is acknowledging that USA Gymnastics failed hundreds of young gymnasts, from medal winners to girls just starting out. The organization failed its athletes, and it repeatedly demonstrated an inability to find executives who could credibly and decently rectify the situation. By pursuing decertification, there is the opportunity to build an organization that privileges the safety of children and adult competitors over the medals they can bring home. (An unintended side effect of pursuing decertification is that the USOC could see some positive PR, but that’s unlikely as even the most casual watchers of the Nassar scandal seem horrified by everyone’s lack of action.)
Even so, Reid also reported that USA Gymnastics could put off the entire process of decertification by filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy as it would result in “an automatic stay” on the organizations’ litigation proceedings while the finances are sorted. Again, from the Register:
“If I was USAG and I wanted to stop decertification by the USOC I would go (to bankruptcy court) because it prohibits you from proceeding,” said attorney Jim Stang, who has written extensively on bankruptcy issues and served on the creditors committee in 13 child sexual abuse cases. “The bankruptcy court judge is like a traffic cop. Should I allow this decertification to continue? Or should I let it go for now or just stop it or keep the red light on? Is there something that can be worked out to keep USAG’s value (to raise funds to pay creditors)? What is the value if USAG is decertified?”
It’s a popular strategy that’s been used in clergy sexual abuse cases, Reid told popular gymnastics podcast GymCastic: The Gymnastics Podcast in early November. “If you look at the history of these Roman Catholic archdioceses cases, they repeatedly did this where they filed Chapter 11,” Reid said.
In 2004, the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon was the first diocese in the country to file for bankruptcy relief when facing lawsuits related to clergy sexual abuse. Plaintiffs at that time were seeking more than $160 million in damages, according to The Associated Press. This strategy was employed in Tucson, Arizona; Spokane, Washington; Davenport, Iowa; and Wilmington, Delaware, to name a few.
“This is their playbook; this is their go-to play. I think you’re going to see this with USA Gymnastics. There’s a huge financial benefit for filing Chapter 11 for both USA Gymnastics and the USOC,” Reid told GymCastic.
So not only are we looking at no definitive plan for helping athletes at all levels during the (likely lengthy) process of decertification, but there’s the possibility of another legal front that could halt litigation being brought by survivors. The consequences of how this plays out are important not only for athlete safety (and, you know, morals), but also because USA Gymnastics isn’t the only governing body being accused of enabling or looking the other way on sexual abuse. There’s USA Swimming and USA Taekwondo and the U.S. Equestrian Federation, at the very least. (Deadspin’s Diana Moskovitz’s deep dive into SafeSport, the initiative by Team USA to reduce misconduct in their ranks and how it has utterly failed is worth your time.)
It’s impossible to predict if USA Gymnastics will set an example for how to treat other organizations failing to protect its athletes—or if the outcome will be an unmemorable stop on the many years of litigation USA Gymnastics is certain to face. If decertification comes to pass, maybe the USOC will finally draw a line in the sand when it comes to protecting athletes from abuse. But what if a Chapter 11 filing happens first? Even after all this pain, money and medals could still rule the day.
If you think the 2020 presidential election is soon, the 2020 Summer Games are even closer. And it’s shaping up to a Valley of the Dolls redux of 2016 in Tokyo: The Americans will dominate the games (led by Simone Biles), while the failure of USA Gymnastics and the USOC to protect its athletes hangs in the air like an Amanar vault waiting to be stuck.