RIO DE JANEIRO — One of the many disturbing parts of the exhaustively detailed IndyStar.com report that was posted Thursday, alleging that USA Gymnastics was laggard or perhaps in violation of state law when it failed to act more quickly or respond at all to sexual abuse allegations against some coaches, is that the bones of the scandal are hardly unique. It’s the latest heartbreaking reiteration of a pattern that has surfaced elsewhere in sports national governing bodies, with similarly disturbing results.
USA Swimming and Volleyball have been rocked by similar sexual abuse scandals in recent years, and the pattern of inaction and inattentiveness in such cases is often similar. Mentally ill millionaire John du Pont’s ability to insinuate himself into the USA Wrestling program for years before murdering a former Olympic medalist he hired as a coach was the subject of the 2014 movie “Foxcatcher.” Abusers carry on for years before their complaints are dealt with or accusers are finally believed.
Just last week, the New York Daily News updated the tale of girls volleyball coach Rick Butler, whose alleged sexual misconduct was the subject of a similar investigative story that appeared in Sports Illustrated way back in 1997. (Full disclosure: ESPN’s Lester Munson and I wrote the initial story, “Betrayal of Trust.”) The club volleyball players that Butler allegedly raped when they were 15 or 16 are now women in their late 40s. The stories that three of them tell about how Butler groomed them as victims are eerily similar. Though Butler was sometimes censured, he has since relocated several times but continued to coach.
The Star report details the same sadly familiar pattern in gymnastics. It shows how female athletes, their parents, and would-be whistle-blowers believed their complaints went unheard by USA Gymnastics. The article cites specific cases that USA Gymnastics was made aware of involving four male coaches who, it turned out, are now serving time for molestation, posting child porn online and other offenses. Some of the girls were as young as 10 or 11 when the abuse occurred. The Star said it has also filed a court request to unseal records that USA Gymnastics has refused to turn over because it is being sued by one of the gymnasts who says she was sexually abused.
But that lack of information didn’t change the basic premise of the Star’s story: “Top executives at one of America’s most prominent Olympic organizations failed to alert authorities to many allegations of sexual abuse by coaches — relying on a policy that enabled predators to abuse gymnasts long after USA Gymnastics had received warnings.”
USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny, one of the officials cited in the story, is in Rio de Janeiro with the U.S. men’s and women’s Olympic teams, which began training here the past week. In the competitive arena, the women’s squad, in particular, is one of the jewels of the US Olympic program; all five athletes are legitimate medal contenders and are expected to win the team competition in a rout.
Penny declined to speak to reporters Thursday on the advice of counsel, according to a USA Gymnastics spokesperson. Instead, he released a five-paragraph statement that read in part:
“Addressing issues of sexual misconduct has been important to USA Gymnastics for many years, and the organization is committed to promoting a safe environment for its athletes. We find it appalling that anyone would exploit a young athlete or child in this manner, and recognize the effect this behavior can have on a person’s life. USA Gymnastics has been proactive in helping to educate the gymnastics community over the years, and will continue to take every punitive action available within our jurisdiction, and cooperate fully with law enforcement.”
Penny added, “The organization has continually reviewed its best practices on how it addresses these issues and has been among the first to initiate new policies and procedures including publishing a list of banned coaches and instituting national background checks. … We feel the Star left out significant facts that would have painted a more accurate picture of our efforts.”
However, Penny did not dispute the Star’s assertion that USA Gymnastics sometimes decided not to act on complaints if reports didn’t come to them from “firsthand” sources. As an example, the Star cited a 2013 lawsuit filed by one coach’s victims. Two former USA Gymnastics officials admitted under oath that the organization routinely dismissed sexual abuse allegations as hearsay unless they came directly from a victim or victim’s parent.
The article also suggests USA Gymnastics, like many organizations, seems to have an ad hoc policy when it comes to fielding sexual abuse complaints and, just as concerning, such policies don’t always hew to what experts in the field or individual states recommend and require. In a case involving William “Bill” McCabe, who is currently serving a 30-year sentence for the sexual exploitation of children and making false statements, the federation acknowledged in court records that it seldom, if ever, forwarded allegations of child abuse to police or child protective services without being asked.
If true, that’s unconscionable.
Shelley Haymaker, an Indiana attorney who represents abuse victims in child welfare cases, told the Star that USA Gymnastics’ approach “sickens” her.
If even half of the Star’s characterizations of the gymnastic federation’s behavior are accurate, it’s a remarkable piece of reporting.
One of the important takeaways? The process of acting on such complaints needn’t be this complicated.
The U.S. Olympic Committee should require every single one of its federations to follow a simple rule: If you’re made aware of allegations of abuse, report it to the proper authorities. No excuses, no exceptions. Then let the authorities or experts parse out what is criminal or not, fair or unfair, slanderous or revelatory.
The idea that USA Gymnastics (or any federation, for that matter) has the wherewithal, expertise, resources and tools at its disposal to conduct an effective “investigation” into such serious complaints is an absurd conceit.
Let federations wade in to discipline coaches on the back end of the process, after the authorities have spoken. Hammer out a policy about provisional suspensions.
USA Gymnastics has a tough job. Its membership numbers more than 121,000 athletes and 3,000 gyms. The cycle of abuse the Star reported on happens in all walks of life. Finding it, let alone stopping it, is incredibly difficult because of the shame and fear the victims often feel and the climate of disbelief that molesters actively cultivate.
But reporting such allegations once they surface should be this straightforward: If you hear something or see something, say something. Doesn’t matter if you’re an athlete, coach, parent or president of a multimillion-dollar federation that prospers on the back of the very athletes who now feel they have been left unforgivably unprotected, underserved and unheard.