On Monday night, the U.S. Olympic Committee made a long-overdue announcement: It is taking steps towards decertifying USA Gymnastics by revoking its recognition as one of the USOC’s National Governing Bodies (NGBs).
Now, what’s to come is not going to be an overnight fix. Decertification is a complicated process — one that involves a review panel, a formal hearing, and a finding-of-fact before it becomes official. But the USOC has stressed its commitment to making sure that athletes are well-served during this time and that all training and competitions proceed as planned in the run-up to the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo. Additionally, the USOC plans to play a part in building and fostering a revitalized, athlete-centric governing body for the sport. It’s a significant step toward true accountability and change.
However, hold the applause. It’s crucial to remember that the USOC is not the hero of this story. That honor is reserved for the brave sexual abuse survivors who have been calling for drastic measures of this kind for years.
The USOC had numerous opportunities where they could have — and, indeed, should have — stepped up to protect the athletes over whom they has responsibility. Time and time again, however, the USOC decided to do absolutely nothing.
USOC has known about sex abuse in Olympic sports for decades. More specifically, it knew about USAG national team doctor Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse around the same time that USA Gymnastics first did, way back in 2015.
And yet, in 2016, when the IndyStar first published its report about USA Gymnastics’ systemic enabling of sexual abuse, the USOC defended USAG, saying it was “one of our most active, supportive and concerned partners” when it comes to preventing sexual abuse.
Of course, in retrospect, it’s surprising that the USOC even pretended that it was partnering with organizations to prevent sexual abuse. After all, in 2014, the USOC said — in court! — that it was not a “top priority” to protect its athletes from sexual abuse. Why?
“The USOC does not have athletes,” USOC Associate General Counsel Gary Johansen told Stephen Etsey, a lawyer for USA Taekwondo athletes suing the USOC for mishandling sexual abuse complaints, in a deposition.
For years, the USOC adamantly insisted that it was unable to do much of anything about sexual abuse in Olympic sports because the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act prevented it from intervening into the governance of National Governing Bodies (NGBs).
Of course, their action on Monday proves that this was always a lie — the Ted Stevens Act actually provides the USOC with broad authority to ensure that NGBs are following the USOC’s own bylaws.
The simple truth is that the USOC chose to not use that power to go after coaches and trainers who were sexually abusing athletes because they were afraid of being sued by a banned coach. Their logic on that end was a stretch, at best: The Ted Stevens Act guarantees everyone equal access to the Olympic movement, and the USOC interpreted that to mean that alleged sexual abusers have just as much right to be involved in Olympic sports as their victims. That’s the Olympic spirit!
For decades, whether it was in gymnastics or swimming, taekwondo or speed skating, figure skating or diving, the USOC diligently washed its hands of any responsibility when it comes to sexual abuse.
So while it’s a huge deal that the USOC is finally stepping up, it is vital to remember that the USOC is directly responsible for much of the trauma that it is now attempting to triage.
“You might be asking why now?” wrote Sarah Hirshland, who became USOC CEO in August. “The short answer is that we believe the challenges facing the organization are simply more than it is capable of overcoming in its current form. We have worked closely with the new USAG board over recent months to support them, but despite diligent effort, the NGB continues to struggle. And that’s not fair to gymnasts around the country.
“Even weeks ago, I hoped there was a different way forward. But we now believe that is no longer possible. This is a situation in which there are no perfect solutions.”
Even though USA Gymnastics has been in complete turmoil for years, the past couple months stood out as particularly dysfunctional. Two months ago, then-USAG CEO Kerry Perry hired Mary Lee Tracy as its elite development coordinator. The decision created an uproar, given that Tracy had been a vocal public defender of Nassar even after he has been charged with sexual abuse, who’d victim-shamed Nassar survivors on social media in 2018. She stepped down days later.
The entire debacle caused the USOC to call for USAG to “consider making adjustments in the leadership.” Days later, Perry — who had only been at the helm of USAG for nine moths — resigned.
Earlier this month, USAG attempted to appoint an interim CEO, former GOP congresswoman Mary Bono. That did not go well. Immediately, tweets surfaced of Bono criticizing Nike for supporting Colin Kaepernick. Then, it was revealed that she used to work for a law firm that helped USAG cover up Nassar’s sexual abuse. Bono defiantly resigned just four days later.
With all of that in mind, it is easy to understand why these events, all of which occurred over the past few weeks, inspired the USOC to feel a sense of urgency. USAG is an absolute dumpster fire of dysfunction, and decertification was the only option.
Now, however, it’s up to the public — and especially Congress, from which the USOC obtains its authority — to hold the organization accountable to its promises, as well. The organization has an abysmal track record on this front, and the new CEO, Hirshland — like many others before her — got off to a rough start with the Nassar survivors.
In July, a few weeks before Hirshland officially took the job with the USOC, she attended a Senate subcommittee hearing about sexual abuse in the Olympic and amateur sport movement to listen to interim USOC CEO Susanne Lyons testify.
After that hearing, Aly Raisman — an Olympic champion gymnast, activist, and Nassar survivor — approached Hirshland to introduce herself. But Hirshland brushed off Raisman at the time, protesting that she wasn’t allowed to talk with the gymnast, after which she abruptly left the hearing. The USOC said the incident was a miscommunication, and that Hirshland was reaching out to Raisman to apologize. But it left a bad first impression.
“How can you believe that they really care when the new CEO won’t even say hi?” Raisman told ThinkProgress.
Hirshland’s actions on Monday prove that maybe she does, in fact, care about the safety of these athletes. But the time for talk is over. Now, it’s time for some follow through.