Maybe the shock is that we’re no longer shocked, yet as we stand in the rubble of the once-revered US Olympic Committee, as we look upon an institution meant to represent the best of the American dream, and realize what nightmares it hid under the surface, we have to feel the shock. We need to feel it more deeply than ever, absorb it more fully than ever, and ultimately, act on it in ways, well, that we never have before.
Because if the newest details unmasking how generations of young female athletes were failed by the leaders meant to protect them don’t force action now, what will it ever take?
The depravity exposed in the independent investigation by law firm Ropes & Gray can’t merely use deserving imprisonment of serial pedophile-disguised-as-a-doctor Larry Nassar as the answer to fixing the broken culture uncovered in USA Gymnastics. The USOC also must be targeted, prevented from hiding behind a much-belated decision to decertify USAG as a sufficient call to action. Seriously, how could decertifying USAG ever be enough after we’ve learned how much its bosses at USOC allowed Nassar’s abuses to continue?
There is no other conclusion to draw after the work of Ropes & Gray, which found shocking instances of abject indifference, willful ignorance, and rampant self-interest over the needs of the gymnasts in the charge of these governing committees, all of which resulted in a nearly 14-month span where the USOC was made aware by some in USAG of the sexual abuse allegations against Nassar yet did nothing to stop him.
Rather, former USOC CEO Scott Blackmun and his former sports performance chief Alan Ashley acted particularly heinously, doing nothing to notify proper authorities of Nassar’s actions, working to hide the accusations rather than investigate them, deleting e-mails about the topic (with Blackmun laughingly suggesting a fear of Russian hackers as justification), and helping Nassar exit his USAG job cleanly by making no mention of the criminal reason why.
All of that allowed Nassar to continue treating patients at his other job at Michigan State, subjecting so many women to abuse that could have, and should have, been prevented.
“Shame on them” doesn’t begin to suffice.
“Nassar’s sexual abuse of hundreds of girls and young women was a manifestation of a broader set of factors and conditions in elite gymnastics and Olympic sport that allowed the abuse to occur and then to continue uninterrupted for almost 30 years,” investigators Joan McPhee and James Dowden summarized.
“The fact that so many different institutions and individuals failed to stop him does not excuse any of them, but instead reflects the collective failure to protect young athletes.”
The USOC fired Ashley immediately after the report was released this week, about all the knee-jerking it had left, as both Blackmun and former USAG president Steve Penny have long since resigned in disgrace. And of course, it issued another statement expressing remorse.
“The U.S. Olympic community failed the victims, survivors and their families, and we apologize again to everyone who has been harmed,” said Susanne Lyons, USOC independent board member and incoming board chair. “The USOC board commissioned this independent investigation because we knew we had an obligation to find out how this happened and to take important steps to prevent and detect abuse.
“We now have a much more comprehensive view of individual and institutional failures. Everyone in the Olympic and Paralympic community, including the USOC, must learn from the report and take appropriate actions to strengthen protections for athletes. We recognize that we must do more, and we will do more.”
Color me skeptical. This is still the same organization that let Bela and Marta Karolyi run their national training center with virtually no oversight, fostering an environment that didn’t simply treat the gymnasts with cruelty over issues of weight and injury, but fostered fear of reporting any such issues to such a degree that Nassar was able to continue unchecked.
As the heroic Rachel Denhollander told me over the summer, no amount of promises or adjustments will matter if the bottom-line attitudes don’t change first. The system that rewarded Olympic hardware over children’s welfare has to be dismantled. Denhollander, who emerged as Nassar victim zero not because she was his first, but because she was the first to go public (in the Indianapolis Star), has remained steadfast in her role as public advocate.
“There’s not culture change unless you identify the abusive culture,” Denhollander told me in August, when USAG was prepping to host the national championships at TD Garden. “It goes way beyond Larry. Larry was a symptom of the problem.
“It’s about how they treat sexual abuse in general. Emotional and physical abuse, coaching techniques too. The whole sport is abusive, by and large. It’s always been allowed because they got results.
“If you think about what was happening to those gymnasts, 9 or 10 years old at the ranch, away from their parents, searching for food, it’s abusive.”
The months since finally put USAG in the crosshairs, and decertification is indeed a rare step. But the reality that the USOC is the one making that step takes so much of the confidence out of it.
These groups need real change. They need to put athletes first, make it possible, no, welcomed, for athletes to report problems. They need to make names of banned coaches and trainers accessible to parents, coaches, and athletes themselves. They need to continue to support Safe Sport initiatives, which both train adults in proper practices and also track those who don’t. They need to make sure potential coaches are properly vetted and certified.
They need to feel the shock, to absorb it, and most important of all, act on it. Nothing less will do.