Breaking nearly six months of silence on the topic Wednesday, Kerry Perry, the president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, told a Congressional subcommittee investigating sexual abuse of Olympic athletes that she was “appalled and sickened by the despicable crimes of Larry Nassar.” And for the first time, Perry apologized to the hundreds of victims of the former Olympic doctor and vowed, “Those days are over.”
Perry’s remarks came at the outset of a three-hour hearing in which she, the acting CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee and the CEOs of USA Swimming, USA Taekwondo and USA Volleyball in turn voiced remorse for episodes of abuse in their sports and offered a litany of action plans, to-do lists, and pledges of culture changes designed to safeguard athletes going forward.
But lawmakers made clear they were skeptical about Olympic officials’ resolve and ability to deliver on those promises.
“Honestly, I’m not reassured by your testimony because I don’t hear a sense of urgency,” U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) told Susanne Lyons, the USOC’s acting CEO, late in the proceedings, after Lyons attempted to explain the organization’s seven-year delay in launching the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which opened in March 2017 to field and investigate reports of sexual abuse. “The time to talk is over. You need to walk your talk.”
Greg Walden (R-Ore.) was blunt in explaining what troubled him: a perception that “the USOC is more concerned about its own reputation and about medals and money than it is about athlete safety.”
Rep. Mimi Walter (R-Calif.) pressed Lyons on the fact that not all Olympic sports make public their list of coaches who have been banned or suspended for past incidents of abusive behavior.
Following an aggressive line of questioning of Perry that a fellow panel member objected to as “badgering,” U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.) turned his sights on Lyons and barked: “You should resign the position now! You are not fit to serve in this job!”
With that, the chairman of the panel, Gregg Harper (R-Miss), twice banged his gavel and said to his peers, “Let’s stay on track.”
The purpose of the hearing, held by a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was to examine the extent of sexual misconduct in the Olympic community and to explore whether current policies adequately protect amateur athletes at all levels from abuse. The panel, which has investigated issues as disparate as the Opioid health crisis, mental health and nuclear waste, had spent several months gathering information about Nassar’s abuse and that of coaches in other sports. And its members arrived armed with questions about how predatory coaches get access to athletes, how they avoid sanction, how, in at least one case, a coach that was banned for life was permitted to return to the sport and whether Olympics officials were simply dragging their feet.
Asked why it took the USOC seven years to launch its SafeSport initiative after an internal study group urged doing so in 2010, Lyons said that funding and “insurance issues” were barriers, as was the task of getting the 48 national governing bodies of the various Olympics sports to sign on.
“Frankly, it took too long,” Lyons said. “We regret it did not open sooner.”
The watchdog organization has been swamped since it opened.
Shellie Pfohl, president and CEO of the Center for SafeSport, testified that it has fielded more than 800 reports in its 14-month tenure, noting that reports of abuse have skyrocketed since the Nassar trial and the #MeToo Movement began. Pfohl acknowledges that its annual funding, roughly $4.6 million, isn’t sufficient to keep up with the complaints.
The questions for Lyons and Perry, who was named CEO of USA Gymnastics on Dec. 1, were particularly pointed. On several matters, Perry failed to deliver, alluding to a pending investigation that she promised would supply answers in the future and noting repeatedly that she’d been on the job less than six months and couldn’t explain the decision-making that preceded her.
After lauding the 156 gymnastic victims who came forward to tell their stories in court, which resulted in Nassar’s 40- to 175-year jail sentence, Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) asked Perry if it was true that Nassar had been asked to “step away” from his volunteer job as Team USA’s physician in 2015 following a complaint of abuse.
“It’s my understanding that he did,” Perry replied.
Countered Walberg, who knew the answer was incorrect: “I encourage you to check those facts out. It appears there was still involvement that went on.”
Perry sped away from reporters the moment the hearing ended and was not available for further questions. She has not fielded a reporter’s question about Nassar or any topic, since being named USA Gymnastics CEO.
Among those looking on in the hearing room was Jessica Howard, a former USA gymnastics national champion, who wrote in a victim-impact statement for the Nassar proceedings that the doctor began assaulting her when she was 15, leading to years of crippling anxiety.
Howard said she was heartened by the attention the issue was getting from Congress, calling it “a massive accomplishment for everyone who came forward. Especially the athletes who didn’t know where this was going to go.”
But Howard said she felt those Olympic officials who resigned before these public hearings, such as former USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun and former USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny, still needed to be held accountable.
“They have been able to shrug it off and say, ‘It wasn’t us!’ And they’ve gotten huge severance packages,” Howard said. “And now, the new people [Perry] basically got off the entire hearing by saying, ‘Well, I’ve only been here since December.’”