It takes a village of incompetence and downright depravity to facilitate the biggest sex abuse scandal in American sports history. A new report issued this weeks details the myriad ways that USA Gymnastics misstepped over the past few decades and ultimately failed to protect its athletes from sex abuse.
Last December, the Indianapolis Star reported that over the span of 20 years, 368 gymnastics alleged sexual abuse or exploitation by coaches and other authority figures, many of whom were alleged to have been associated with USA Gymnastics as members. A significant amount of those allegations had not been investigated or reported by USA Gymnastics.
Most of the coverage of this scandal has centered around Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics coach who has been accused of sexual abuse by more than 80 people and who is currently on trial in Michigan.
But the Daniels Report, which was commissioned by USA Gymnastics in late 2016 and authored by former federal prosecutor Deborah J. Daniels, makes it clear that this not the work of a lone wolf. Rather, this scandal is the result of a system that failed, on almost every conceivable level, to protect its athletes — predominantly young, impressionable girls in a sport that is built on trust.
The report offers 70 recommendations in 10 primary areas to help USA Gymnastics move forward. But the takeaway from the horrifying 146-page report is just how preventable — and familiar — this scandal is.
“If you like the way the Catholic hierarchy handles sex abuse you’ll love USA Gymnastics, I guess,” John Manly, an attorney for several of Nassar’s victims, told the Orange County Register after the report came out.
The problems within USA Gymnastics stem from a top-heavy administration that prioritized winning medals among all else, and a decentralized membership program for coaches, instructors, athletes, and clubs that had little-to-no accountability to the sport’s governing body. There are currently over 3,500 private clubs around the country that are affiliated with USA Gymnastics, some which train among 5,000 athletes.
Here are some of USA Gymnastics’ most striking oversights — accidental and otherwise — that propagated the culture of abuse.
Abuse allegations were not taken seriously by the Board of Directors for USA Gymnastics.
There is an “Ethics, Grievance and Safe Sport” committee on the USA Gymnastics Board of Directors. However, even though the history of allegations against gymnastics coaches goes back decades, and the spotlight on sex abuse in the sport has been getting larger and larger in recent years, the Daniels Report found “no existence” of talk about sexual abuse in the minutes of either this committee or the Board at large. Rather, the “Ethics, Grievance and Safe Sport” committee spent most of its time reviewing “compensation arrangements” of Board members and figuring out if they were official conflicts of interest.
At a testimony in front of a U.S. Senate committee in March 2017, one former board member, a former three-time national champion rhythmic gymnast who has alleged sexual abuse by the team physician at the National Team Training Center, said that Board discussions were usually about “money and medals,” and that any talk about abuse allegations centered around the accused coach’s reputation.
The president of USA Gymnastics had far too much control over what happened with official complaints.
Article 10 of the Bylaws required that all reports of sexual abuse or misconduct had to be filed in writing with the president. Then, the president had the power to select the employee who would conduct an investigation. Then, the president had the power to determine the outcome of a complaint.
This was a recipe for disaster. As Daniels wrote, “a president who was not inclined to take reports of misconduct seriously, or who was concerned about tarnishing the reputation of the organization, or who was a friend of the respondent in the matter, would have the authority to dismiss the complaint, or choose not to pursue it, without the involvement of others.”
There was shockingly poor training on and enforcement of the organization’s existing child abuse prevention policies.
According to the Daniels Report, “it appears that little, if any, formal training of staff has been provided relating to child abuse prevention and the dynamics of child abuse, including the developmental and other factors that hinder reporting of abuse by victims.”
While USA Gymnastics did establish Safe Sport guidelines focused on child abuse prevention and athlete safety, it believed that since member clubs were private, it could only encourage its member clubs to enforce those policies, and couldn’t make it a requirement.
USA Gymnastics established a Permanently Ineligible Membership List for coaches in 1990, but it was horrifically ineffective.
According to The Indianapolis Star, in some cases coaches were convicted criminally of child sex abuse but not banned by USA Gymnastics. For example, Ray Adams coached at at least 12 clubs in four states despite being fired multiple times and even charged with criminal offenses for sexual abuse four times. The Daniels Report says that Adams “left a trail of anguish in his path, in the form of over 15 abused girls who lives were damaged — but clubs continued to hire him, either because they were unaware of the abuse, or, in the case of at least one club, reportedly knew but promised to ‘watch’ him.”
The Permanently Ineligible list was not routinely published or easily accessible, so many USA Gymnastics clubs would be unaware they were employing coaches who were banned.
Those on the Permanently Ineligible list were also still permitted to work at USA Gymnastics-affiliated clubs, as long as they weren’t working directly with athletes training for USA Gymnastics-sanctioned competitions. For example, in one case someone on the Permanently Ineligible list found work at a USA Gymnastics-affiliated club coaching cheerleading, which is not an Olympic sport and therefore not subjected to USA Gym rules.
“In addition, such a person would theoretically be permitted to coach recreational gymnastics, available to young children who do not expect to compete but simply wish to learn tumbling or other aspects of gymnastics,” notes the Daniels Report. “In that sense, the coach could become even more dangerous, permitted to coach even younger children while operating outside the jurisdiction of USA Gymnastics.”
The system for reporting abuse seemed designed to discourage and downright ignore complaints.
Prior to 2013, a written complaint from either the alleged victim, or if the alleged victim was a minor, their parent, was required in order to even initiate the grievance process for sexual abuse. Even when that rule was changed four years ago, it was not properly communicated to USA Gymnastics members.
Of course, even when written complaints were made, they often went nowhere. Why? Well, because “USA Gymnastics has not historically required member clubs, or any other members of USA Gymnastics, to report any type of abuse, including sexual misconduct, to USA Gymnastics or law enforcement authorities.” Yeah.
The Daniels Report is filled with many more rage-inducing details about the corrupt culture of USA Gymnastics, including a scathing indictment about the lack of oversight at the Karolyi Ranch, the home of coaching legends Bela and Martha Karolyi, which served as the central training location for National Team Members and Elite gymnastics and where much of Nassar’s alleged abuse took place.
The recommendations that Daniels makes in the report for the future of USA Gymnastics are practical and positive steps that would no doubt make the sport a much safer place. The fact that the Board unanimously decided to implement those recommendations on Tuesday is another good sign — although they notably offered no timeline or accountability process for that implementation.
But a culture this broken isn’t fixed in 146 pages, and it’s certainly not fixed without a drastic change in leadership. While former USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny finally resigned in March — with a $1 million severance in hand — Paul Parilla, the chairman of the USA Gymnastics Board of Directors, unfathomably still has a job.
Parilla has been with the Board of Directors since 1999 and served as chairman since December 2015, and has overseen USA Gymnastics’ inept, often even cruel, handling of the scandal — including waiting five weeks to inform FBI officials about allegations against Nassar. On a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Parilla said that he intended to remain his position as chairman. (He also said that the media attention was the only reason the Daniels Report was commissioned.)
“This is the height of institutional arrogance,” John Manly, an attorney for some of Nassar’s victims, said. “If he had any sense of propriety or decency then Mr. Parilla would resign.”
Now, with Nassar on trial and more victims coming forward — Daniels says in the report that the number of victims is already underreported — this scandal is only going to get worse. There is no reason to believe that the people who oversaw a program that turned a blind eye to victims for decades are the people who are capable of taking the proper steps to fix it.