Sports of The Times: Facing Congress, Some Sports Officials (Not All) Begin to Confront Sexual Abuse
“He began to massage my legs, and then quickly moved inwards on my thighs,” she said. “He then massaged his way into me.”
Give these women credit for telling their stories. They’re a main reason Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, decided to introduce a bill that would make it mandatory for national governing bodies of Olympic sports to report sexual assault to the police. It would be a federal crime not to report abuse.
Give Adams credit, too. In the past, the Olympic committee had failed to prioritize the issue of sexual assault and appeared to turn a blind eye to the issue by handing it off to the governing bodies of each Olympic sport. But on Tuesday, finally, Adams said something that was a long time coming.
He said sorry.
“The Olympic community failed the people it was supposed to protect,” said Adams, the head of organizational development for the national governing sports bodies, which exist under the umbrella of the United States Olympic Committee. “We do take responsibility, and we apologize to any young athlete who has ever faced abuse.”
Nassar was fired by U.S.A. Gymnastics in 2015 and is currently in jail in Michigan, where he is facing multiple sexual assault charges and federal child pornography charges. He has denied any wrongdoing.
You would think U.S.A. Gymnastics would also go out of its way to apologize for its role in a scandal that has shaken Olympic sports and caused the ouster of its president, Steve Penny. More than 80 athletes have accused Nassar of abusing them. But the gymnastics organization did not even have a representative in that Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room.
Feinstein had asked U.S.A. Gymnastics to testify, and said its board chairman, Paul Parilla, was thinking about it but backed out.
Instead, Parilla provided a statement. It said that the board of directors offered “our sincere and heartfelt regrets and sympathies” to any athlete harmed and that U.S.A. Gymnastics was “appalled that anyone would exploit a young athlete or child in the manner alleged.”
No apologies. Court documents released this month showed U.S.A. Gymnastics had complaint files on 54 coaches regarding sex abuse claims from 1996 to 2006.
No apologies, even for its lack of a backbone and for sending only a lobbyist to the hearing. That lobbyist first identified himself as working for U.S.A. Gymnastics — which I figured, considering he was holding a file folder that said, “USAG 50 copies” on it. A few minutes later, he said, no, he was actually there for U.S.A. Hockey.
The federation has had no shame, either. When the sex abuse bill was introduced, Penny and others from U.S.A. Gymnastics met with Feinstein about the federation’s sexual assault policies. How about this for a public-relations stunt: Tagging along was Mary Lou Retton, the smiling, bubbly sweetheart from the 1984 Games, as they said that the federation’s policies were solid and that gymnastics was a happy, safe place.
On Tuesday, Feinstein and her fellow senators weren’t thrilled that the gymnastics federation had ditched them this time.
“If they really cared, they would be here,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said as he looked at Dantzscher and Howard, the abused gymnasts who testified. “They have to answer for what happened to you.”
At a news conference later, Blumenthal called for an investigation into “who knew what and when.”
Feinstein said she would like to see the gymnastics board of directors change and for its replacement to be people who make the sexual assault issue a priority. The U.S.O.C. should hasten that change. It can do so by decertifying U.S.A. Gymnastics, which would basically kick the federation out as the national governing body for the sport of gymnastics in the United States.
To let U.S.A. Gymnastics back into the family, the Olympic committee could demand that the federation clean house and start new with fresh faces. The committee has used this power with other federations, and it used its influence to push out Penny when the Nassar case exploded into one of the biggest abuse scandals in sports history. It might as well go a step further, if only to show athletes and other federations that it won’t tolerate sexual abuse on its watch.
When asked if U.S.A. Gymnastics knew about the abuse of gymnasts at the hands of Nassar, Feinstein said: “Do I believe they knew about it? Absolutely, yes, I do.”
But they didn’t report it, she said, and that’s the culture of the sport.
If Feinstein’s bill passes, it would help change that culture. The new U.S. Center for SafeSport — a nonprofit formed to prevent and handle abuse in Olympic sports — should help, too, if it ever gets going the way it should. Last week, after many delays, including a struggle by the Olympic committee to find funding, the center finally opened for business.
There should be a hotline for athletes and others to anonymously report abuse in Olympic sports. Good luck finding it on the center’s website. Feinstein said the Olympic committee should easily find money to fund the site and keep it running, whether it’s through raising money from the private sector or using its own cash.
“The Olympic committee has money, so they can use it the way they want to use it,” she said.
Mattie Larson was sitting in the public seats at the hearing on Tuesday. She is 24 now, but I first met Larson, a senior at U.C.L.A., when she was 15, sometime before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She was quiet, and a rising star. She said she was being molested by Nassar around that time.
So many years later, in 2016, when The Indianapolis Star published an article about a gymnast who accused Nassar of abusing her, Larson’s former teammate on the national team called her and said, “Read the story and tell me what you think.”
The two said they realized that Nassar had abused them. It had never occurred to them that his so-called “intravaginal treatment” was sexual assault. After all, he was the head doctor for U.S.A. Gymnastics. If the federation trusted him, they should, too.
Now Larson replays the abuse in her head, again and again. What could she have done to stop it? What should U.S.A. Gymnastics have done to stop it?
“I’m mad at myself for not knowing,” she said of the abuse. “On so many levels, it was complete betrayal.
“You’d think in a sport with young girls, with young girls wearing leotards, prancing around with their legs flying all over the place, that U.S.A. Gymnastics would educate gymnasts and coaches and parents about sexual abuse. But they didn’t. And they knew they should have.”
Larson said it could have saved her and others, countless others, if the U.S. Center for SafeSport had existed when she was competing.
“There are so many more victims who haven’t come forward yet,” she said. “I know them. They’re national team members, Olympians.”
At the very least, U.S.A. Gymnastics or the United States Olympic Committee could have mandated sexual abuse awareness training for athletes and their parents. The committee didn’t require its national governing bodies to run abuse education programs, or even conduct criminal background checks, until 2014.
When Adams was asked why so many years had passed with no independent entity like the SafeSport center, his answer was vague.
“It took too long to happen,” he said.
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