IN RIO DE JANEIRO, U.S. Olympic gymnasts are going for the gold. But the reputation of the organization that trains them has been deservedly tarnished: An investigation by the Indianapolis Star this week revealed USA Gymnastics has for years ignored allegations of widespread sexual abuse of athletes as young as 10. The report is a sorry reflection on the country’s athletic apparatus and a sickening testament to a threat that extends far beyond the gymnastics floor.
According to the Star, when USA Gymnastics — the national governing body for gymnastics — is informed of an instance of sexual abuse by anyone other than the abused athlete or her parents, the organization compiles complaint dossiers and files them away in a drawer in Indianapolis. This approach, the Star found, has allowed coaches to molest minors for years, moving from city to city and athlete to athlete, before they finally face punishment.
There is no national civil rights protection for club or Olympic sports, so USA Gymnastics’ obligation to report abuse comes from local laws. All 50 states have statutes that require abuse to be reported, but who is legally responsible for making the report varies. The ethical responsibility to report, however, does not. Children often do not or cannot admit to having been abused. Waving off reports that come from elsewhere is just an excuse to enable abusers.
This is not the first time Olympic aspirants have been abused, only for authorities to turn a blind eye. When USA Swimming came under fire for a sex abuse coverup in 2013, Congress requested an FBI investigation. That didn’t happen.
It would be well worth looking into practices across the athletic board to ensure that employees are properly trained to report abuse — and that they face consequences when they do not. The U.S. Olympic Committee launched its SafeSport initiative for independent investigations of abuse allegations in 2014, but advocates say the program has yet to provide substantive services. Releasing the names of coaches once they are banned, as some organizations have done, is not enough.
USA Gymnastics claimed it kept reports quiet for fear of jeopardizing the reputation of its coaches. The reputation of a coach who brags about getting a 15-year-old girl in her underwear and smugly says he will soon be able to have sex with her does not need looking after. What does need looking after is the safety of countless young women who cannot compete without fearing exploitation and abuse.
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