On Wednesday, the House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee will hold a hearing to examine the Olympic community’s ability to protect athletes from sexual abuse.
The heads of USA Swimming, USA Taekwondo, USA Gymnastics, USA Volleyball, and the U.S. Center for SafeSport, will all be on hand to testify about the prevalence of sexual abuse and the institutional mismanagement within their sports as well as — in the case of the Center for SafeSport — the Olympic movement at large. All of these organizations have seen sexual abuse and cover-ups run rampant in their organizations, and now it falls to Congress to provide the necessary oversight and accountability.
But the person on whom Congress should be prepared to focus on is Susanne Lyons, who became the acting CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee after her predecessor, former CEO Scott Blackmun, resigned at the end of February. At the time, the USOC suggested that Blackmun was stepping down due to health problems, though the more likely basis for the decision stemmed from the increased scrutiny the USOC had earned for itself in the wake of the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal.
According to documents first reported by the Washington Post back in 2017, Lyons had knowledge of the sexual abuse in the USA Taekwondo program (USAT) — abuse that included allegations of sex trafficking — and failed to take any concrete action to protect the athletes involved. Unless, of course, you consider the forwarding of an e-mail to be a heroic act.
On March 10, 2014, a former USAT board member e-mailed Lyons with detailed information about a complaint against USAT coach Mark Gitelman by USA Taekwondo athlete Yasmin Brown. The e-mail included a detailed timeline of Brown’s complaint and the police report Brown filed against Gitelman, along with supporting documents from other women that Gitelman has abused.
Lyons forwarded the information to Gary Johansen, the Associate General Counsel for the USOC.
“Here we go again, this sounds like the same old BS,” Lyons said. “Allowing a potential sexual predator to continue to coach without having an appropriate investigation and conclusion is unacceptable.”
While it might be tempting to give Lyons credit for alerting others in the USOC about this information, this is a pretty low bar to clear. This e-mail shows that Lyons is well aware of the fact that USAT had mishandled multiple allegations of sexual assault against coaches in the past — therefore putting taekwondo athletes in danger. It stands to reason that she would have knowledge of the matter, considering she worked directly with USAT for 18 months.
From February 27, 2012 through October 10, 2013, USAT was on probation because the USOC found that it was non-compliant with USOC membership obligations set forth by the Sports Act. During this time period, the USOC had jurisdiction over USAT, and Lyons was the chair of the Hearing Panel that monitored the organization’s path to compliance.
This means Lyons was overseeing USAT when Brown filed an official USAT Ethics Complaint against Gitelman in September of 2013, as well as when she and two other women reported Gitelman to police on October 2, 2013.
But on October 10, 2013, Lyons officially lifted USAT’s probationary status, and announced that USAT had “addressed outstanding grievances and ethics complaints,” and “revamped its grievance and ethics procedures to ensure that such grievances and ethics complaints are dealt with timely and fairly.”
Four months later, when Lyons was told that Gitelman’s hearing had been delayed in part due to USAT “not having a chair of the ethics committee and other administrative issues,” and that Gitelman was still permitted to coach at USAT events, she merely passed the complaint up the food chain because the “Hearing Panel no longer has any jurisdiction over this issue.”
Both Malia Arrington, the Senior Director of U.S. SafeSport, and Johansen were sent the details of Brown’s complaint by Lyons and by the former board member that had alerted Lyons. But neither of them took action, because they accepted the premise that the USOC didn’t have the power to do anything.
Johansen admitted this in a 2016 deposition about USAT’s handling of the Gitelman case.
In the time since the 256 women who were sexually abused by former USOC and USAG doctor Larry Nassar provided their harrowing victim impact statements at his sentencing hearings last January — which made sex abuse in Olympic sports national headline news — USOC leaders have only doubled-down on the narratives they’d been pushed for decades: They weren’t aware of the extent of the abuse, and they didn’t have the power to do anything about it.
But as these documents demonstrate, the USOC did know what was going on, long before 2014. Dating back to at least 1990, there are dozens upon dozens of examples of the USOC being fully aware of rampant sexual abuse in U.S. Speedskating, USA Taekwondo, USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming, and multiple other sports, about which they did absolutely nothing.
The USOC has repeatedly insisted that the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act prevents them from intervening into the governance of National Governing Bodies (NGBs). If that sounds ridiculous, well, that’s because it is. In fact, the Ted Stevens Act provides the USOC with broad authority to ensure that NGBs are following the USOC’s own bylaws. But when it comes to sexual abuse, the USOC has deliberately chosen not to use that power, out of a fear that coaches banned from the sport might sue the USOC. The Ted Stevens Act guarantees everyone equal access to the Olympic movement; the USOC interprets that to mean that alleged sexual abusers have just as much right to be involved in Olympic sports as their victims.
Even when the USOC tries to ensure the public that it is taking sex abuse seriously, its actions undercut this notion.
In 2010, it formed a Working Group to figure out how the USOC could better deal with sexual abuse after a scandal hit USA Swimming. After that group issued their report of recommendations, the USOC hired Arrington to be the Director of SafeSport to aid in their implementation.
However, in a 2016 deposition, Arrington admitted under oath that she didn’t even discuss the Working Group’s recommendations with Blackmun during the interview process.
In the same deposition, Arrington said that she had no prior experience working with victims of sexual abuse before she was hired to run SafeSport, while further noting that she didn’t even learn about grooming — the process in which a coach or authority figure works to establish an emotional bond and trust with a child and parent so that it is easier to sexually abuse the child — until 2011, when she researched the topic on the internet after getting the job.
In short, the USOC cared more about having a lawyer running SafeSport than an expert on sexual abuse, and so it’s no wonder that Arrington emailed Blackmun in 2011 to tell him that NGBs were hesitant to publish a manual about sex abuse prevention, out of the fear that such a manual might actually make them liable for taking steps to prevent sex abuse.
In the 2016 deposition, when questioned about whether the USOC’s number one priority was the safety of its athletes, Johansen said “no,” and would only go so far as to say that “it’s a concern to the USOC.”
The main reason for that? Well, the USOC’s top priority is for its athletes to earn Olympic medals so that the USOC executives can earn more money.
There are going to be many egregious things for congress to focus on at the hearing on Wednesday. This week, another lawsuit was brought against USA Swimming, alleging that the organization covered up sexual abuse by a coach by isolating him from the background check process and refusing to report him to authorities, among other things. And USA Gymnastics still has plenty of questions to answer about its handling of the investigation into Nassar — the organization’s CEO, Kerry Perry, will need to address questions about her conflicting statements regarding the organization’s use of nondisclosure agreements and settlements.
And, of course, USA Taekwondo is facing a reckoning over its sex trafficking allegations, as well as the organization’s decision to suspend a SafeSport investigation into two of its biggest stars — brothers Steven and Jean Lopez — so that they could participate in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Nevertheless, the common factor in all of this is the USOC which knew about these sexual abuse problems, but chose to look the other way. That Arrington and Johansen, along with so many of their cohorts, have perpetuated this systemic rot for so many years, yet remain in power, is nigh upon despicable. And the fact that Lyons — who has defended her predecessor Blackmun’s inaction, and who had direct knowledge that USAT athletes were in harm’s way and could only muster up the energy to send an email — is now the person in charge of the USOC demonstrates that the USOC still doesn’t get it.
Unless congress forces the the USOC to change, there’s no reason to believe the future will be anything except more of the same, squalid business.
In 2017, after the USOC board decided it did have power over NGBs after all, and lobbied for the ouster of then-CEO Steve Penny, Lyons said that she and her fellow USOC board members didn’t believe that Penny had done anything wrong, but that, “at the end of the day … it happened on his watch.”
It’s time for the USOC to take responsibility for what happened on its watch. If Congress does its job on Wednesday, that process might finally be able to begin.