U.S. Olympic leaders failed gymnasts at every level and then worried about themselves — not Larry Nassar's victims
By Sally Jenkins
The Washington Post|
Dec 11, 2018 at 2:35 PM
Deleted emails. Disappeared documents. Outright lies. Attempts to use cozy relationships with cops to "kill the story" that serial child molester Larry Nassar had preyed on Olympic athletes for years. This is how the leaders of the United States Olympic movement acted, according to a new investigative report. They acted to protect their bloated salaries, rather than to protect young women. They acted like leeches and barnacles. They turned the USOC into a shell.
The USOC's now fired "chief of sport performance" Alan Ashley made nearly $500,000 and CEO Scott Blackmun $1 million in 2016, yet they spent that year sitting on the knowledge that gold-medalist American gymnasts Aly Raisman, Maggie Nichols and McKayla Maroney alleged they had been sexually assaulted by team doctor Larry Nassar. For 14 months, these men held that knowledge in perfect silence. They didn't tell child services. They didn't tell parents. They didn't even tell the USOC board of directors. Somewhere along the way both men even cleansed their email of references to Nassar. How many more girls were exposed to Nassar's creeping ungloved hands during that time?
At last, the USOC is beginning to self-confess. I'll admit, I had no confidence that the independent report it commissioned to the law firm Ropes & Gray would be substantive. But investigators Joan McPhee and James Dowden deserve credit for a thorough and unstinting 233-page document, and so does the USOC's new board chairwoman Susanne Lyons, without whose imprimatur the report presumably would not have been so frank, or action so swift, with Ashley's prompt firing as soon as it was released Monday.
On page after page, the report refuses to soften sentences or dull the shocking specificity of the failures. Its documentation of what can only be called a coverup by the USOC and foot-dragging by the FBI will be of intense interest to Congressional overseers. In the summer of 2015, USA Gymnastics chief Steve Penny "squarely presented" allegations of Nassar's sex abuses to the leaders of the USOC, yet they did not take a single preventative measure that would have saved other victims. Instead they pursued a strategy of "secrecy," the report declares. This "inaction and concealment had consequences: dozens of girls and young women were abused during the year-long period between the summer of 2015 and September 2016," the report declares.
The report makes clear just how culpable and cowardly these men really were. Penny's first act on hearing that his underaged gymnasts complained of being penetrated by Nassar was not to call police, but hire a private investigator to question their veracity and persuade them to keep it confidential. Only after five weeks did he contact the FBI, and then, he devoted an inordinate amount of time to cultivating an inappropriate friendship with investigating agent Jay Abbott, buying him beers and dangling the possibility of getting him a job as the USOC's new head of security. Strangely, the FBI declined to interview two of the three gymnasts. It spoke to a third only in a phone call. Months went by with no investigative action at all.
When the accusations against Nassar finally broke in the Indianapolis Star newspaper in 2016, Penny emailed Abbott, asking, "Am I in trouble?"
These actions fit a larger longtime pattern: On multiple occasions, USA Gymnastics "ignored credible reports of abuse, and essentially operated to block or delay any action on those reports." It "stifled" responses, repeatedly failed to follow up on complaints, demanded victims go through unreasonable procedures, and its "files contain inexplicable gaps in investigations." Worst of all, USAG provided legal counsel to victims, only for its lawyers to turn around and become adversaries to them in legal proceedings, using the information it had acquired about the strength of their cases.
The investigators tried to ask Jack Swarbrick, the longtime former counsel for USA Gymnastics, about this pattern, which looks suspiciously like a calculated strategy to undermine and discourage victims. But he refused to be interviewed. He remains in hiding behind his athletic director's desk at Notre Dame.
At the USOC, Blackmun failed to question, much less prevent, Nassar's continuing access to athletes at USOC-owned and -operated facilities, while knowing the doctor it sanctioned as a leading expert was under federal investigation for child sex abuse. Blackmun did not advise a single youth organization that there was an "ongoing risk of harm" from the Olympic doctor with the big reputation. But that was par for the course for Blackmun, whose most aggressive act was lunging for bonuses.
Blackmun later tried to insist to the Ropes and Gray investigators that he did take some actions to check Nassar. The problem is he lied. None of his colleagues would corroborate his account. "The USOC did not, in fact, take any steps after receiving notice of the allegation," the report states. Blackmun even actively misled Lyons in a direct exchange about Nassar in 2018, never telling her he'd known about the scandal for three years.
There was such a basic insensibility and lack of care for athlete safety that nobody at the USOC or USAG bothered to check on the conditions at the remote Karolyi Ranch in Texas, though it was sanctioned as a National Training Center by the USOC. The Karolyis could drive their gymnasts like Eastern Bloc state-owned chattel entirely free from oversight, and Nassar could abuse them in secret and at will with no one around to insist on proper medical protocols. There was usually only one USAG supervisor on site - charged with caring for equipment, fixing the plumbing and "removing snakes and insects."
The power of the report is its comprehensive grasp and vivid description of the whole rotten, febrile "ecosystem that facilitated criminal acts." Many people are tangentially responsible for this ecosystem that harbored Nassar and other abusers for so long. Including yours truly. Just like the Blackmuns, Pennys and Ashleys, I was not nearly interested enough in how, or at what cost the Karolyis collected their haul of 97 Olympic and world championship medals. I was too busy admiring the gold and making a living off the beauty of the performances that those young women turned in, despite unimaginable circumstances.
What I should have recognized is what the report makes painfully clear: The Olympics in this country became a deeply controlling culture "that eroded normal impediments to abuse," and made it almost impossible for young women to complain. They lost ownership of their bodies in multiple ways and had no advocate. The young women who have come forward and continue to campaign from courtrooms to Congress to reform that dark culture, deserved this illuminating, truthful report, and apology.