What is USAG?
USAG stands for the United States Association of Gymnastics, which means that it is the national governing body for gymnastics in the United States. The organization has been around since 1963, which translates to nearly fifty-five years. Over the years, the organization has been responsible for selecting and training national teams that compete at international events as well as selecting teams for the Olympics in both men’s and women’s gymnastics.
Larry Nassar Connection
In 1996, the USAG Board of Directors appointed Larry Nassar as the USAG national medical director. And though it’s very likely that USAG was not aware of Larry Nassar’s tendency for sexual abuse at the time, there would be a pattern of sexual abuse on young female gymnasts that USAG was informed of in the several years following his appointment, and each time a complaint came up, they kept him as their medical director. For example, by the year 2000, two student-athletes at Michigan State University (MSU) had reported concerns about Larry Nassar. Both MSU and USAG did not investigate these concerns.
In 2014, fourteen years after these initial complaints and countless Nassar sexual assault incidents later, a student who recently graduated MSU filed a complaint that Larry Nassar once again took part in sexual misconduct during an appointment that she went to for hip pain. Unlike USAG, Michigan State University chose to investigate the alleged negligence. However, Larry Nassar was cleared of that charge and continued to work at MSU. Informed of other sexual assault allegations and pressured by the media attention Larry Nassar was starting to receive, USAG officially cut ties with Larry Nassar in 2015. Unfortunately, by then, it was too late.
USAG History of Unaccountability
Unfortunately, the negligence that USAG demonstrated in regards to Larry Nassar, who was put at an advantage in terms of evading sexual assault charges due to his high profile status as the Olympic doctor for Olympic gymnasts, was not an anomaly for the organization. In fact, as highlighted in a comprehensive IndyStar investigation, USAG failed to alert authorities about alleged child abusers participating in the gymnastics community on several dozens, if not hundreds, of cases. For instance, the investigation uncovered how a former gymnastics coach, William McCabe of Georgia, preyed on young female gymnasts for seven years after USAG dismissed the first four warnings about him. Part of the reason cases such as these occurred so often was the misguided policy that USAG officials sought to follow, which stipulated that the organization would dismiss sexual abuse allegations as hearsay until it came directly from a victim or a victim’s parent. However, this policy, which is a manifestation of unaccountability on USAG’s part, does not align with laws within every state that require people to report suspected child abuse, no matter their relationship to the child.
USAG Fails at Second Chance
Since the Larry Nassar Scandal, USAG has promised to cultivate a new culture, one in which accountability would reach the highest levels of an organization and athletes would feel powerful enough to speak out. However, USAG has failed to maintain this promise, thereby failing to reform its deep-seated culture of secrecy and unaccountability. Steve Penny, for example, resigned from his USAG presidency of 12 years over his secretive handling of USAG amid the Larry Nassar Scandal in March 2017. Moreover, Penny’s replacement, Kerry Perry, quit after 9 months on the job amid criticisms that she did not take enough action in reforming the organization’s policies and changing its culture amid the Larry Nassar fallout.
Furthermore, U.S. rep Mary Bono replaced Perry but resigned after less than a week on the job amid public criticisms for her choice to scratch out a Nike sign on a shoe, demonstrating her discontent for Nike’s backing of Colin Kaepernick. She was criticized, most notably by USAG’s biggest star, Simone Biles, for her willingness to have a bias against an athlete when USAG was supposed to be fostering a culture that allows athletes to speak out. Not only that, Olympic Gold Medalist Aly Raisman called out the interim president for being associated with Faegre Baker Daniels, which was a law firm that helped USAG make false statements about Larry Nassar. However, it’s important to note that Bono was not actually involved with the Nassar scandal while at the firm, as she worked at Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting, the legislative strategies and policies branch in Washington, D.C. Even still, it was not prudent for the optics of USAG to hire her when there were plenty of other candidates that had actual experience in the sport of gymnastics (as she was a congresswoman), again showing USAG’s failure to consider their athletes’ points of view.
What Can Be Done
Since the Larry Nassar fallout, USAG has struggled on its own to hire leadership that will help build a better culture of transparency and support of its athletes, with its leadership choices so far only contradicting the new culture that it has been trying to create. Thus, it’s time for another entity, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), to decertify the gymnastics governing body and take control of the instability that USAG has only perpetuated since former president Steve Penny’s ousting. Specifically, the USOC has a fresh outsider’s perspective that will allow them to lead a more transparent and independent investigation than USAG ever could. Using its clear oversight authority to rebuild a better national governing body for the gymnastics community, the USOC can implement a governing body that has an athlete liaison on the board that will have a vote on all decisions and be allowed to communicate with the public on matters that directly involve athletes (such as sexual abuse allegations). They could also implement a policy that requires all of the new governing body officials that the USOC appoints to report sexual and/or child abuse allegations against people in the gymnastics community to the authorities, whether it comes directly from a parent or not.
Overall, with the first step in decertifying the current USAG organization as is, perhaps the gymnastics community will finally start to have faith that their gymnasts are the ones being protected. This would provide a refreshing contrast to the countless neglectful reputations of USAG officials that USAG has chosen to prioritize over the years, who by the way, have either resigned or been fired in the domino effect that Larry Nassar’s long overdue firing initiated.
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