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Tara Sullivan

USA Gymnastics owes so much more to sexual abuse survivors

New USA Gymnastics CEO Li Li Leung's statements on sexual abuse suffered by athletes have been tone-deaf corporate-speak.
New USA Gymnastics CEO Li Li Leung's statements on sexual abuse suffered by athletes have been tone-deaf corporate-speak.Andrew Spear/NYT

By the time the credits roll on the Netflix documentary “Athlete A,” there is one only emotion left.

Fury.

There is no room for anything else. The sadness, the shock, even the empathy, all of it ends up swallowed by blind rage aimed squarely at USA Gymnastics and those in power who could have done so much to protect the young female athletes in their charge but willfully chose to do nothing.

Worse than nothing. As the latest revelations remind us in horrifying detail, former USAG CEO Steve Penny, former national coaches Marta and Bela Karolyi, former internal investigator Fran Sepler, unnamed FBI agents, all of them worked actively to impede reform and action. From the moment Maggie Nichols, the young woman formerly known as Athlete A and the first on record, in 2015, to report Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse directly to USAG, these creeps set off on a trail of depravity that casts them alongside Nassar as perpetrators of a criminal enterprise disguised as a sport.

It is a trail of lies, deception, and cruelty worthy of any true crime drama to cross our airwaves. What Netflix did in showing us the heroism of local journalists from the Indianapolis Star, of local prosecutor Angela Povilaitis and detective Andrea Munford, and above all, of the victims themselves, that must be honored, and not simply by outrage, but by action. This new trail, our trail, must be so loud that it will not be silenced until justice is served, taking the horror we felt when Nassar’s hidden world of sexual assault first set this tinder box alight for the public and doubling it down on those who could have stopped him.

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He’s in jail for the rest of his life.

But what about them?

Disband USAG, file criminal charges against Penny et al, not just for removing evidence (a crime for which Penny was already arrested) but for ignoring that evidence when the law demanded they act on it. Their failure to report Nassar allowed his crimes to go on for years. Their failure to report turned into vengeance when Nichols was kept off the 2016 Olympic team. Their failure sullies the very heart of a sport that deserves to be celebrated for its athleticism, its grace, its power, and its bravery. If they would just listen, they can alter a coaching culture steeped in fear, abuse, power, and deprivation and turn it into something nurturing and positive, and ultimately prove that winning gold medals can result from the latter as much as the former.

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“I think the biggest thing we’re looking for is the community response, one that goes beyond an emotional pull and translates into action,” said Rachael Denhollander, who might not have been Nassar’s first victim, but remains his bravest, the first to put her name to the Star investigation. “It’s that same question that I ask all the time, ‘How much is a little girl worth?’ is not a rhetorical question, but one we have to remember to ask.”

The USAG’s answers are consistently chilling. Its most recent settlement offer was resoundingly rejected when it included provisions to release Penny et al from liability, a request Denhollander called simply “a slap in the face.” New CEO Li Li Leung’s tone-deaf corporate-speak statement in response to Athlete A touts nebulous organizational reforms while saying, incredibly, “We owe these survivors an incredible debt of gratitude for igniting these changes across the sport.”

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You know what you owe them? Transparency, honesty, reparation. Stop looking to them to fix what they never broke in the first place.

“Everyone is still really struggling,” said Aly Raisman, Olympic champ, survivor, and Needham native. “The way a survivor heals is directly linked to how their abuse is handled. USAG continues to sweep it under the rug. Look at the Indy Star article that came out in 2016 during Olympics, it had quotes from [then-CEO] Scott Blackmun, from Steve Penny, blanket statements about athlete safety being the highest priority. Go back decades, it’s same thing.

“Now Li Li says the same thing: ‘We applaud these survivors, because of them we’re doing a great job.’ Everything is going back to themselves. You cannot say you’re doing enough until you understand exactly how this all happened … It’s so much bigger than Larry Nassar. So many people enabled him, covered it up, and so there are so many others that are also abusive, and still, USAG is not investigating.

“It’s dangerous because you have parents listening. It’s not their fault, they want to trust, all over the country you have these little girls who love gymnastics and dream of going to the Olympics. Their parents have good intentions, want them to be happy. When Li Li puts out these statements that it’s OK now, that’s dangerous and very, very damaging.”

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Be decent. Be human. Admit you didn’t listen enough when this began. Listen now. Honor the trauma of the survivors. Work to prevent it for others.

“We could have all been fighting together for reform, could have been a team effort instead of exhausting battle,” Denhollander said. “We are just in limbo going around and around with these organizations because at every turn their response is to deny and obfuscate.”

That effort takes its toll. Rachael and her husband, Jacob, are busy enough raising four small children, and even as we planned to speak Friday, she was delayed in dialing the phone when one of the kids took a tumble off the family couch. But she called anyway, as did Raisman, because this is a burden they have chosen. No matter how difficult it is to repeat their experience, no matter how painful to recount their feelings, they will do what it takes to keep this story alive, to keep the pressure on those who failed them and all of their sister survivors.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.