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Athlete abuse watchdog starts series of hearings on Larry Nassar case and beyond

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The Game Over commission, a group founded by child-abuse prevention think tank CHILD USA, is taking its first major step in an independent investigation of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse case and related institutional issues with a public hearing Monday in Philadelphia.

The daylong hearing is being live-streamed.

After a series of hearings and other investigative work, Game Over plans to come up with a list of recommendations to reform U.S. sports. Once the work is complete, its data will be available to the public.

The hearing opens this morning with testimony from abuse survivors. This afternoon at 1:15 p.m. ET, the session will move into a discussion of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the evolution of SafeSport efforts. At 2:30 p.m. ET, a panel of journalists will describe how they investigated reports of abuse, including the Nassar case.

Nassar has been sentenced to multiple lengthy prison sentences in the wake of sexual abuse accusations by hundreds of gymnasts. Michigan State University, which employed Nassar, reached a $500 million settlement in 2018 with the 332 survivors who had come forward at that time.

Prominent sexual abuse complaints have also been raised in other Olympic sports, including swimming, diving, taekwondo, figure skating and speedskating.

Concurrently, Olympic sports federations launched various internal watchdog efforts and in 2017 established the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a body akin to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

The cases have been investigated multiple times so far. In July, U.S. senators Jerry Moran and Richard Blumenthal released a report summing up their investigation and wrote the Empowering Olympic and Amateur Athletes Act of 2019, which would give Congress direct oversight over U.S. sports federations. The bill has not advanced out of committee. Neither have overlapping bills by Rep. Diana DeGette and Sen. Cory Gardner.

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Coach Maggie Haney investigated by USA Gymnastics, report says

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Gymnastics coach Maggie Haney is being investigated by USA Gymnastics over allegations of verbal and emotional abuse of gymnasts, according to the Orange County (Calif.) Register.

Haney did not respond to phone and email messages Tuesday morning. USA Gymnastics would not confirm or deny the report.

“Athlete safety and well-being are top priorities for USA Gymnastics, and all misconduct reports and concerns are taken very seriously and handled proactively,” USA Gymnastics responded via statement Tuesday morning. “Thoroughly reviewing, evaluating and investigating a safe-sport report is vital, which means it is not necessarily a quick process.  While it may appear to the outside that a report or matter is on hold or ignored, the truth is that the report/matter is being dealt with confidentially in accordance with the established process and procedures, which fully comply with federal law and United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee requirements. USA Gymnastics only comments on a safe-sport matter if and when the resolution involves a public-facing result, such as being added to the list of individuals on the suspension/restrictions or permanently ineligible for membership lists, or if a panel’s decision yields a public-facing result.”

Haney formerly coached Laurie Hernandez, who earned team gold and balance beam silver at the Rio Olympics. Haney now coaches gymnasts including Riley McCusker, a 2018 World Championships gold-medal team member who has finished runner-up to Simone Biles at three competitions in the last 13 months.

Hernandez moved to California after Rio and is now training at a different gym for a comeback ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

MORE: Laurie Hernandez eyes camp return this fall

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New USA Gymnastics president supports Simone Biles speaking out

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Li Li Leung wants Simone Biles to speak up whenever, however and wherever the Olympic gymnastics champion sees fit.

It’s a freedom that Leung, USA Gymnastics president and chief executive officer, stressed isn’t reserved for the sport’s biggest star. If the embattled organization truly is going to make a cultural shift in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal, Leung believes giving agency to all involved — from athletes to coaches to parents to club owners — isn’t just encouraged but required.

“Historically, our organization has silenced our gymnasts and I am 100% supportive of giving our athletes a voice,” Leung said Thursday in her first extended public remarks since taking over in March. “Our athletes should be able to say what they feel and be comfortable doing so. I understand that we have let down many athletes, we have let down Simone, and she needs time to heal from that. If voicing her concerns and her feelings is one way to do that, I am completely supportive of that.”

Biles took USA Gymnastics, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the FBI to task on Wednesday, angry over the findings in a congressional report that revealed a series of mistakes that allowed Nassar — a former team doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University — to abuse athletes even after victims began to come forward.

“You literally had one job and you couldn’t protect us,” said Biles, who is among the hundreds of women abused by Nassar under the guise of medical treatment.

Leung understands Biles’ anger and her importance as a leading advocate for change. Leung said the two hugged and chatted briefly about setting up a time to talk in depth after the national championships wrap up.

In a way, Leung’s relationship with Biles mirrors the challenges she faces as the organization’s fourth president and CEO since March 2017. Leung played no role in creating the environment that let Nassar’s behavior to run unchecked for so long, a path that led to Nassar spending the rest of his life in prison and pushed one of the U.S. Olympic movement’s marquee programs to the brink of dissolution.

MORE: U.S. Gymnastics Championships TV Schedule

Yet Leung, a former collegiate gymnast, came forward anyway in an attempt to steer USA Gymnastics forward. The organization filed for bankruptcy last November to consolidate the dozens of civil lawsuits filed against it by Nassar victims, a move that also stayed the USOPC’s attempt to strip USA Gymnastics of its role as the sport’s national governing body.

The lawsuits are now in mediation in federal court in Indiana, something Leung hopes can be resolved in a “relatively efficient and short amount of time.” Leung said the organization remains in contact with the USOPC about the steps it is taking to re-create itself.

“We need to take steps to demonstrate why we should remain the NGB of gymnastics,” she said, citing leadership stability, financial stability, athlete safety and rebuilding trust within the community.

Leung said she has spoken with more than 400 members of the gymnastics community — including Nassar victims — in an attempt to create an open dialogue about what USA Gymnastics needs to become if it wants to survive.

USA Gymnastics is beefing up its staff to deal with the long road ahead.

Current job openings include a chief programming officer, a vice president for Safe Sport and a vice president of athlete health and wellness, a position Leung drew upon her own personal experiences to help create. Leung spent so much of her childhood in the gym that she believes she had the maturity of a 13-year-old when she went off to college. Finding the proper balance between training and personal lives remains a struggle to the current generation of athletes.

“I believe that we have as an organization a responsibility and an obligation to holistically develop our gymnasts and our athletes,” Leung said. “So it’s not just about developing a technically superior gymnast who performs well in the gym but it is about developing a holistic athlete who is best set up for life even beyond the sport.”

It’s part of Leung’s long-term vision for the sport but one only attainable if USA Gymnastics can find a way to restore faith in its mission. Transparency is a key part of the process, and Leung pointed to several changes made in recent months.

USA Gymnastics overhauled its selection procedures for all world championship and Olympic teams, mandating that an independent observer “from outside the gymnastics community” will sit in during the final selection meeting.

It is also making an effort to revamp its vetting process for job candidates after several hires — including Dr. Edward Nyman, who was removed as the first full-time director of sports medicine and science after just one day in April due to an unspecified conflict of interest — flamed out. Leung took responsibility for the mishandling of Nyman’s appointment, saying while the process of hiring Nyman was mostly complete by the time she took over, she still signed off on it.

″(Vetting) historically is not as robust as it needs to be,” she said. “And we are putting measures in place to ensure that every stone has been turned over.”

USA Gymnastics revealed a new Safe Sport policy in June designed to clear up “gray areas” over what constitutes improper contact. The policy is part of what she described as a “robust” plan to help educate the organization’s 200,000-plus members.

Leung said financial support for the elite programs remains stable, though she has made it a point not to court corporate sponsors “until we get our house in order.” USA Gymnastics did reach an agreement with Nike to outfit the athletes at competitions and Leung said there has been outreach from potential corporate partners.

All of those things, combined with what Leung called record ticket sales for this week’s U.S. Championships, point to forward momentum.

“I believe we are on a positive trajectory,” she said. “We’ve made a lot of strides. We’ve put a lot of building blocks in place.”

Progress will be measured in slow increments and critics remain skeptical. While Biles said Wednesday that “all we can do at this point is have faith that they’ll have our backs, they’ll do the right thing,” she added: “It’s a waiting game.”

One Leung understands needs to be played. She is aware USA Gymnastics has spent a significant portion of the last three years talking about change. Now, she believes, it is finally coming.

“This is still the beginning,” she said. “These are just some proof points we have under our belt. But we need many, many more to win back the trust of our community. But we are putting those steps in place.”

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MORE: USA Gymnastics revamps Safe Sport policy amid abuse scandal