Another athlete accuses USA Gymnastics of covering up sexual abuse

Eric Adelson
Columnist
Maggie Nichols is the latest gymnast to accuse former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. (AP)

Aly Raisman. Gabby Douglas. McKayla Maroney. Maggie Nichols. These are not only four of the best American gymnasts of the last several years, but four of the best American gymnasts the nation has ever produced. Three are Olympic gold medalists and the fourth, Nichols, very well could have been if not for an injury.

Former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar is credibly accused of sexually assaulting all of them.

Imagine this in any other sport. Imagine the nation’s best swimmers: names like Phelps and Lochte. Imagine the best soccer players: names like Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan. What would be the fallout for the organization charged with protecting those athletes? Would it be simply a new CEO and a dedication to do better next time? Or would it be a complete overhaul, from the ground up?

Nichols released a statement on Tuesday saying Nassar began molesting her when she was 15 years old, in 2013. This took place at the Karolyi Ranch, which was the mecca of the sport – the epicenter where Olympians are tested, trained and ultimately chosen. If a 15-year-old can’t feel safe there, something is terribly wrong.

“I trusted what [Nassar] was doing at first, but then he started touching me in places I really didn’t think he should,” Nichols said in her statement. “He didn’t have gloves on and he didn’t tell me what he was doing. There was no one else in the room and I accepted what he was doing because I was told by adults that he was the best doctor and he could help relieve my pain.”

It gets worse. Nassar contacted Nichols on Facebook, according to her statement, and sent messages complimenting her looks. Eventually Nichols’ coach overheard her athlete discussing Nassar’s behavior and reported him to USA Gymnastics. But according to Nichols’ complaint, her parents were hushed.

CEO Steve Penny “discouraged [Maggie’s parents] from reporting Nassar’s conduct to law enforcement and pressured them to keep the matter quiet,” according to a filed complaint.

Steve Penny, right, was president and CEO of USA Gymnastics from 2005-2017. He resigned in March and received a $1 million severance package. (AP)

USA Gymnastics adamantly denies this. “Contrary to reported accusations,” the organization said in a statement, “USA Gymnastics never attempted to hide Nassar’s misconduct.” The statement goes on to say, “When Maggie’s comments were relayed by her coach to the organization, USA Gymnastics immediately contacted her parents and hired an experienced, independent investigator to speak with her and others at a mutually agreed date and time.”

Except that investigator, Fran Sepler, spoke to Sports Illustrated and said the following: “I was not hired as an investigator. I was only asked to conduct several interviews by US Gymnastics, who indicated they were conducting an investigation into allegations and needed someone who was a skilled interviewer. I did not decide who to speak to and did not provide any advice or recommendations except that law enforcement needed to be involved.”

USA Gymnastics says it contacted the FBI in 2015 and again in 2016. The Nichols family says the FBI didn’t contact Maggie until 2016, only a few days before the Olympic Trials at which she had worked her entire life to arrive. Between Nichols’ initial report and that FBI contact, Nassar treated 19 additional gymnasts who would go on to accuse him of molestation.

“The information that Maggie and later a second athlete provided was important,” USA Gymnastics said in its statement, “but did not provide reasonable suspicion that sexual abuse had occurred.”

In a statement Tuesday, Nichols’ lawyer, John Manly, accused USA Gymnastics of deception. “I think the worst thing about this case is the absolute effort by USA Gymnastics to deceive that family, to silence that family and without any regard for how that was going to affect that child,” Manly said.

This organization has lost a lot of its credibility. What exactly makes it reliable as an institution if it can’t succeed at its most crucial task? USA Gymnastics’ mission statement includes these four tenets: “Encourage participation in all aspects of gymnastics; Support athletes in their pursuit of competitive excellence; Generate public awareness of the sport of gymnastics; Commitment to Customer Service throughout the organization”

If four of the best athletes you have feel betrayed or unprotected or both, those goals are unmet. The mission is a failure.

“We must investigate to figure out the many flaws in [USA Gymnastics] system,” Raisman tweeted Wednesday morning. “We must understand how this happened to make sure it never occurs again. This problem is bigger than Penny and Nassar. The system has to change so that athletes are safe. Enablers need to be held accountable.”

What limited spotlight there is on this scandal is because of the bravery of the women who have come forward, but it’s important to realize that spotlight would be much dimmer – or non-existent – if there were no major names involved. This nightmare happened to superstars. It happened, at least in part, at the Karolyi Ranch. Imagine the reaction to complaints from teenagers at remote gyms in small towns. If the lionesses of the sport do not get justice, how will the little girls across the country feel safe?

This is ultimately why there must be major change at USA Gymnastics. Nobody wants anything like this to happen again, but everyone must have solid reason to believe it won’t. That faith has to be grounded in something besides SafeSport guidelines and good intentions.

Nichols and the other elite gymnasts are asked to be flawless in front of the world. They are asked this from before they are old enough to drive. Often, this is an unfair request, and it leads to sacrifice in silence. That’s where USA Gymnastics should come in, making sure any pain and suffering has a safe outlet. That requires complete trustworthiness, not a hope and a prayer.

The gymnasts themselves rarely get another chance to be flawless in front of the world, so why should the adults in charge of watching over their safety?

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