On Tuesday afternoon, the Senate Commerce Committee will hold its second hearing on Preventing Abuse in Olympic and Amateur Athletics. While the first meeting in April featured interviews with victims of sex abuse in Olympic sports, this hearing will focus on the people in charge — and, in particular, the people in charge of the institutions responsible for enabling and employing former doctor Larry Nassar.
Steve Penny, the former President of USA Gymnastics, and Lou Anna K. Simon, the former President of Michigan State University, will be two of the witnesses testifying under oath in front of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance, and Data Security. Joining them will be Rhonda Faehn, the former Women’s Program Director of USA Gymnastics.
Penny and Simon were in charge of the two organizations that granted Nassar the authority and free reign to abuse patients for decades under the guise of medical treatment. While both Penny and Simon resigned from their powerful positions in in the face of public pressure, neither have taken any accountability, showed any contrition, or faced anything resembling real consequences.
Penny resigned from his position as USAG CEO over a year ago, but he received a $1 million severance package, according to reporting from the Wall Street Journal. Before he resigned, he publicly called the Indianapolis Star investigation into sex abuse in USAG a “witch hunt,” and repeatedly defended USAG’s handling of sex abuse reports to the media.
Simon, meanwhile, didn’t step down until January, amidst Nassar’s sentencing hearings, when more than 200 Nassar survivors gave victim-impact statements in court and the media scrutiny over the case reached a fever pitch. “As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable. As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger,” Simon said at the time. She currently enjoys a luxurious office in a newly-renovated building on MSU’s campus, and is earning a $750,000 salary while taking a research year.
This hearing was originally supposed to be held two weeks ago, but the Associated Press reported it was postponed in part because Penny didn’t initially agree to appear. Simon had agreed to appear at the hearing two weeks ago, but she was harder to convince this time around. The New York Times reported she had to be served with a subpoena by U.S. Marshals, and complained about what an “inconvenience” this hearing is because it comes in the middle of a vacation.
Stalling tactics aside, both Simon and Penny are expected to be present on Tuesday. Two weeks ago, the House of Representatives held a similar hearing about sexual abuse in Olympic sports, which featured current leaders of USAG, USA Taekwondo, USA Swimming, and the U.S. Olympic Committee, among others. That hearing frustrated survivors, primarily because many of the leaders in attendance were only recently hired or appointed, and therefore sought to distance themselves from the sins of the organizations’ past.
But Simon and Penny have no such luxury. They were the people in charge, and it’s finally time for them to answer for their many missteps along the way.
Lou Anna K. Simon: A culture of control and silence at MSU
The biggest things for which Simon will need to answer are the prevalent culture of silence that existed at MSU surrounding sexual abuse allegations; the botched Title IX investigation in 2014 against Nassar; and the lack of support shown for Nassar’s victims.
Simon is a Spartan lifer. She’s literally never worked anywhere else. She became provost at the University in 1993, interim president in 2003, and permanent president in 2005.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Simon was synonymous with life in East Lansing, and her “fund-raising prowess and deep knowledge of the campus burnished the university’s reputation and turned Michigan State’s iconic Spartan into a powerhouse brand.” Simon oversaw absolutely everything — even the police chief and the athletic director reported directly to her.
She defended the university at all costs, and while she apologized to Nassar’s victims in her resignation letter, she never once took responsibility, individually or institutionally. Quite the opposite, in fact. In an April 2017 letter to the MSU Board of Trustees, Simon infamously shirked any culpability, writing, “I have been told it is virtually impossible to stop a determined sexual predator and pedophile, that they will go to incomprehensible lengths to keep what they do in the shadows.”
Here are the most important questions that need to be addressed at Tuesday’s hearing:
- Why didn’t Simon heed warnings about the sexual misconduct allegations against Nassar’s boss, Dean William Strampel? Strampel was the dean of MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, which is where Nassar worked. He was directly involved in the botched 2014 Title IX investigation against Nassar. Thanks to reporting by the Detroit News, we know Strampel’s colleagues alerted MSU’s administration at least three times since 2004 about Strampel regularly making inappropriate sexual comments towards students. Simon first received a written memo about Strampel’s misconduct in 2004, when she was provost and interim president. But the Detroit Free Press reports that as recently as last month, in an interview with Michigan State Police, Simon said she believed that Strampel was “boorish,” but not a “sexual predator.” Strampel is currently facing four charges, including of groping and having pornographic images on his work computer — including nude images of MSU students, and a video of Nassar sexually abusing a patient under the guise of “treatment.”
According to the Free Press, the police asked Simon if she viewed herself as personally responsible for Strampel and Nassar’s ongoing abuse. Her answer left a lot to be desired.
“There is collective responsibility, not individual blame,” Simon said. “But you could not pick out a piece of what happens or a thing that you say, such as a boorish comment, that is now a signal. It would not be accurate in many cases, and so you can try and make that supposition but you try and make your judgment at the time on what you know. In a sense, that behavior had been corrected.”
- Why didn’t Simon follow up on a 2014 Title IX investigation against Nassar? The infamous 2014 Title IX investigation against Nassar was so thoroughly botched that the Michigan legislature concluded that this investigation “failed,” and “may have enabled the abuse of others which otherwise might have been prevented.” Simon was made aware that there was a Title IX investigation against an unnamed physician at the school during that time, but she never followed up on that information or requested to see the final report, according to the Detroit News.In 2014, MSU was already under federal investigation by the Office of Civil Rights for mishandling Title IX complaints.
- Why didn’t Simon offer more support to Nassar’s victims? It’s bad enough that more than a dozen women came forward to various officials at MSU with allegations of sexual abuse against Nassar between 1997 and 2016. But even after the Indianapolis Star reported on Nassar’s crimes and Nassar was arrested, Simon continued to ignore the needs of victims.
She was mostly absent during the reading of victim impact statements at Nassar’s sentencing hearing in January, and the one day she did show up (for a few hours), she could not recall the names of any of the victims who had spoken. It took MSU over a year to establish a healing assistance fund for Nassar survivors, and the rollout of the fund was sloppy at best. And she showed a keen lack of concern for victims by allowing all of Nassar’s key enablers on campus to resign or retire on their own terms rather than be fired for cause.
Steve Penny: Decades of intentionally ignoring abuse allegations at USAG
Penny started working with USAG in 1999 as Senior Vice President, and became the president and CEO of the organization in 2005. Before that, he was a stand-out in the sports marketing world, a resume that clearly prepared him to overlook the safety of thousands of young women.
USA Gymnastics already had a storied history of mishandling complaints of sexual abuse in the sport, particularly when coaches or trainers were involved. But Penny certainly did not improve things. Instead, he regularly took the most minimal steps possible when allegations came across his desk, and routinely defended his inaction. He previously said under oath that USAG usually didn’t forward allegations of child abuse to authorities because he didn’t believe USAG had a duty to report as a third party, and because the organization was concerned about hurting a coach’s reputation if the allegations turned out to be false. Additionally, USAG would treat complaints as hearsay unless they were directly signed by a victim or his/her parents.
Penny should, and hopefully will, be taken to task for all of USAG’s abhorrent policies throughout the years. When focused on the Nassar case though, here are the most pressing questions he needs to answer:
- In 2015, when USAG was directly notified about allegations against Nassar, why did Penny wait six weeks to report to the FBI? Nassar’s reckoning finally began in 2015, when Maggie Nichols’ coach overheard Nichols talking about Nassar’s abuse with Aly Raisman at a national team training camp, and reported it to Rhonda Faehn — the third witness at the hearing on Tuesday. Faehn then reported it directly to Penny. But Penny did not immediately report Nassar to the FBI. Instead, he hired a workplace harassment investigator to look into the matter, and didn’t report the allegations to law enforcement until five weeks later.USAG released a jaw-dropping statement about this decision in January, saying that after its private investigator talked to Raisman and Nichols, it didn’t have “reasonable suspicion” they had been molested by Nassar. USAG says it went to the FBI only after speaking with a third victim.
- Why did Penny make victims sign confidentiality agreements, stay silent during the FBI investigation, allow Nassar to lie about his departure from USAG, and fail to notify Michigan State about the allegations against Nassar? Okay, this is multiple questions, but it all goes back to an extensive cover-up that Penny tried to orchestrate after USAG parted ways with Nassar when it reported him to the FBI.
First of all, according to reports by ESPN, Penny called Nichols’ mother Gina a day after she first reported Nichols’ allegations to officials, and told her, “We need to keep this quiet. It’s very sensitive. We don’t want this to get out.” Nichols’ and Raisman’s families both say that Penny repeatedly insisted they needed to stay quiet about Nassar due to the FBI investigation, even though the FBI investigation didn’t begin in earnest until nearly a year after USAG reported Nassar to them, and even though the FBI never requested silence. In some cases, Penny and USAG even offered financial settlements — complete with confidentiality agreements — to Nassar survivors. The Wall Street Journal reported that USAG paid McKayla Maroney $1.25 million to keep quiet about years of sex abuse.
Penny and USAG also inexplicably allowed Nassar to portray his split from USAG as his own personal decision on his personal Facebook page, and the IndyStar reported last month that on two separate occasions, USAG attorneys helped Nassar come up with cover stories about why he was not attending USAG events — cover stories that failed to include the fact that he was being investigated for sexual abuse.Penny wasn’t forthcoming with the public, nor was he forthcoming with Michigan State University. USAG never MSU — Nassar’s other employer — about its investigation into his abuse.
Earlier this year, in a motion to dismiss a lawsuit against the organization, USAG says it had “no legal duty” to warn the other organizations about Nassar’s behavior. Nassar continued to work at Michigan State for over a year, and abused dozens of women and girls during that time.
- Why did USAG take steps to purchase the Karolyi Ranch even after he knew that Nassar abused gymnasts there? The complaint from Nichols that triggered the investigation into Nassar’s abuse stemmed from a national team training camp at the Karolyi Ranch, a secluded facility in Texas run by Bela and Martha Karolyi that served as a training site for USA Gymnastics. USAG’s own internal investigation into Nassar uncovered the fact that Raisman, Nichols, and Maroney were all abused by Nassar at the Karolyi Ranch.
A little more digging would have uncovered the fact that they were far from alone, and that the environment at the Karolyi Ranch was anything but safe.At Nassar’s sentencing hearing, 2012 Olympic champion Jordyn Wieber testified about the free rein that Nassar was given by USAG at the Karolyi Ranch, where he “treated” gymnasts despite not even having a valid medical license in Texas.
“He was the only male allowed to be present in the athlete dorm rooms [at the Karolyi Ranch] to do whatever treatments he wanted. He was allowed to treat us in hotel rooms alone without any supervision. He took photos of us during training and whenever else he wanted. Nobody was protecting us from being taken advantage of,” Wieber said.And yet, in July 2016, Penny announced that USAG was entering into an agreement to purchase the Karolyi Ranch.
“It has everything we could possibly ask for,” Penny told the AP. “Along with what it represents to our heart and soul, as a physical facility, we couldn’t go out and build it. It’s been custom-made what for what we want and need. You add up all the elements, and it’s like, ‘Dang, what an easy decision.'”
USAG did not end its contract with the Karolyi Ranch until earlier this year, in the midst of Nassar’s sentencing hearing.