In February, the U.S. Olympic Committee commissioned an investigation into former team doctor Larry Nassar’s abuse of hundreds of children over a period of decades. Now that report, conducted by independent law firm Ropes & Gray, has finally been released. Entitled “The Constellation of Factors Underlying Larry Nassar’s Abuse of Athletes,” the findings are damning: the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and USA Gymnastics (USAG) enabled Nassar’s abuse by prioritizing medals and money at the expense of the safety and wellbeing of athletes.
These same failures have enabled similar abuse over decades in gyms, pools, and other sporting facilities around the country.
But the failures outlined in the Ropes & Gray report extend well beyond Nassar’s abuse of gymnasts. These same failures have enabled similar abuse over decades in gyms, pools, and other sporting facilities around the country. Through the Ted Stevens and Amateur Sports Act, Congress has given the USOC essentially a monopoly power over all “Olympic-related activity” in the United States. Lost in much media coverage of abuse in Olympic sport, is that “Olympic-related activity” extends well beyond actual participation in the Olympics. Under the USOC, 47 national governing bodies (NGBs) also credential coaches and oversee teams at the local level.
Thus, the toxic culture described in the Ropes & Gray report also affects children whose involvement in sports is casual. I was an average swimmer, not an elite gymnast, yet many parts of the report felt familiar as I read through it. My perpetrator abused me starting in the mid-1980s, when at the age of seven I joined a swim team at my local YMCA.
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Not long after, my coach decided to start his own team at a non-regulation length pool in the basement of a local college in order to have less accountability and more access to me. The process was easy. He paid his dues to USA Swimming and became a USA Swimming team with me as his first and only member. His main work experience prior to founding the team was as an elementary school playground monitor and lifeguard. But because the USA Swimming and Olympic brand inspires trust, he soon had a steady stream of customers.
Thanks to the skewed priorities of the USOC, the “embedded features” of gymnastics are embedded features of other sports as well, as coaches and other adults in positions of trust demand “obedience and deference to authority,” normalize “intense physical discomfort as an integral part of the path to success” discourage parental participation, and isolate athletes. My coach required me to attend both morning and afternoon practices from a young age, prohibited me from attending school social events that conflicted with practice and positioned himself as the gatekeeper to my success. Even after the sexual abuse ended, he used his position as coach to exert control over me. I had very little autonomy over my life at an age when I should have been increasingly independent and empowered.
The Ropes & Gray report noted that many gymnasts believed “various forms of abuse they endured from coaches and other authority figures in their gyms were normal, as they lacked a broader reference point to inform their understanding.” When the USOC allows psychological, emotional, physical and even sexual abuse to become a reference point, it affects athletes of all ability levels across all sports. Parents and athletes are not equipped to identify abuse because it is normalized.
When reports of abuse did come to the attention of NGBs and the USOC, those reports were viewed as points of potential legal liability, according to the report. By now, the public is aware that Steve Penny, former CEO of USA Gymnastics, was arrested on charges of tampering with evidence related to the Nassar case, but the new report also revealed that former USOC CEO Scott Blackmun and recently fired chief of sport performance Alan Ashley were also allegedly complicit in the cover-up. As Chrissy Weathersby Ball, a former gymnast and sister survivor of Nassar’s abuse, told me, “The report firmly establishes complicity by the USOC in the coverup of the Nassar scandal at the highest levels. The toxic culture that allowed the Nassar scandal to take place still exists and needs to change.”
How can anyone trust the USOC with abuse prevention efforts? Even politicians are taking notice. So far, Congress has held hearings into the abuse of athletes in Olympic sports. When reports of abuse surfaced in USA Taekwondo, Arlene Limas, a gold medalist, Hall of Fame inductee and advocate summed up the feeling of powerlessness well. “I’ve walked around events with everyone buzzing, knowing that predatory coaches enjoyed the protected status of national coach and were allowed access to our athletes,” she told me.
Before I reported my perpetrator in 2014, I fantasized that the culture in sports had somehow changed and that children would be protected. I was wrong.
My case was certainly not an isolated one. Back in February, Scott Reid of the Orange County Register reported, “USA Swimming repeatedly missed opportunities to overhaul a culture within American swimming where the sexual abuse of underage swimmers by their coaches and others in positions of power within the sport was commonplace and even accepted by top officials and coaches.” Indeed, USA Diving is currently the subject of a class-action lawsuit alleging that they allowed predatory coaches continued access to athletes.
Before I reported my perpetrator in 2014, I fantasized that the culture in sports had somehow changed and that children would be protected. I was wrong. My abuser is now in prison and USA Swimming banned him from the sport. And yet, the team my perpetrator created to abuse me still exists and is now owned by a woman who called my abuser a man of impeccable character after he had pleaded guilty.
The USOC has an obligation to be a better steward of the Olympic brand. It has the means to protect athletes, but for decades has failed to adequately do so. The culture that existed when I was abused in the 1980s persists today because of the twisted priorities of those in charge. Pursuit of the Olympic dream should never be accompanied by life-ruining abuse, and participation in a sport should never compromise a child’s wellbeing.
Until the USOC — perhaps with the help of Congress — undergoes a seismic cultural shift, youth sports should come with a warning label. As this latest report shows, athletes across all sports governed by the USOC are at risk because of the same broken policies, practices, and culture that brought us Larry Nassar.