These events reminded Americans of the destruction wrought by Larry Nassar, the Michigan State University sports doctor convicted of sexually abusing gymnasts he treated, hundreds of whom said publicly that he molested them. Nassar volunteered at Twistars for years and abused athletes Geddert referred to his care. The Geddert charges show once again that the problems within gymnastics go far beyond Nassar.
Abuse revelations have rocked gymnastics before — and reform efforts fade once the spotlight moves on. My research suggests that this time may be different, because the athletes themselves are deeply involved in pushing for change.
Many athletes are deeply angry at gymnastics’ governing organization
USA Gymnastics CEO Li Li Leung released her response to Geddert’s suicide just before the organization’s Winter Cup. She acknowledged that many would feel “complex emotions” that Geddert had escaped criminal accountability — and then urged people to “celebrate so many incredible, talented athletes competing on the national stage for the first time in a year.” That outraged many athletes, including 1986 national champion Jennifer Sey and 2012 and 2016 Olympic medalist Alexandra Raisman. They objected that, as Sey wrote on Twitter, Leung was failing to acknowledge USA Gymnastics’ “complicity in creating a culture that celebrated his methods.”
Such criticisms included anger over how the organization has handled the fallout from the Nassar investigation and trials. USA Gymnastics filed for Chapter 11 reorganization two years ago, but continues to fight Nassar survivors in court as they press for more transparency and an independent investigation. The athletes and their allies want the FBI, USA Gymnastics, Michigan State and other entities to release information that will enable a full accounting and analysis of what went wrong and who was responsible.
That’s in part because Geddert and Nassar are far from unique. The Michigan attorney general’s charging document against Geddert alleged 24 counts of wrongdoing, including 20 counts of human trafficking based on allegations of wrongs taking place through his gymnastics training, two counts of criminal sexual misconduct, and a racketeering charge about the profits he extracted from his abuses. Even Geddert’s suicide to evade accountability isn’t new. In 2015, elite gymnastics coach Marvin Sharp died by suicide in jail after his arrest for child molestation. Two award-winning gymnasts who competed at this February’s Winter Cup, Laurie Hernandez and Riley McCusker, both had new coaches — after previously competing under MG Elite Gymnastics club coach Maggie Haney, whom USA Gymnastics suspended in summer 2020 for abusive coaching.
Coaches abusing gymnasts is an international problem
In the summer of 2020, Netflix released “Athlete A,” a documentary examining how Indianapolis Star reporters exposed Nassar’s abuses. British gymnasts responded by detailing how they too had been abused, organizing with the hashtag #gymnastalliance to criticize British Gymnastics’ negligence in responding. The gymnasts’ outrage and calls for reform had pushed national gymnastics federations into launching investigations in Britain, Australia, the Netherlands and Belgium.
In the Netherlands, a prominent national coach was suspended and the national sports legal body received complaints against 25 coaches. The Swiss Gymnastics Federation’s independent report revealed widespread abuse in the nation’s rhythmic gymnastics programs, as an investigation into artistic gymnastics continues. After an independent review uncovered evidence of physical and psychological abuse, Gymnastics New Zealand apologized formally in February.
But as in the United States, athletes are demanding more. Seventeen former British gymnasts filed a lawsuit on Feb. 24, alleging that their governing body allowed abusive coaching.
The gymnastics culture has been challenged before. Is this moment different?
USA Gymnastics has tackled criticisms before, catalyzed by tragedy. Elite gymnast Julissa Gomez died in 1991 after a catastrophic accident in 1988. In 1994, gymnast Christy Henrich died from anorexia nervosa. In 1995, sports reporter Joan Ryan published “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes,” an expose of how the gymnastics and figure skating establishments mistreated athletes. As my research has examined, the USA Gymnastics Federation responded by creating a process to identify and sanction abusive coaches. This internal system, which allowed the organization to suspend and ban coaches, now works alongside the larger independent initiative covering all Olympic and Paralympic sports called SafeSport, which handles serious allegations of wrongdoing.
But the earlier criticisms involved outsiders looking in, pitying the abused children, and then moving on. Meanwhile, many athletes finished their elite careers before starting college. They moved on with their lives — leaving the gymnastics establishment essentially intact.
This time, the athletes themselves are leading the movement, including both former and current gymnasts, both internationally renowned and not well-known. They are tackling what they argue is an entrenched culture of abuse as leaders, not as victims. As my research finds, empowering athletes and listening to their voices may better prevent future abuse than relying exclusively on internal reporting and investigative systems. As the athletes demand transparency and accountability, they are also pressing for changes in the way the sport itself operates to create new and healthier models for training and competition.
Journalists have helped amplify these athletes’ voices by pursuing these issues relentlessly. Those include the O.C. Register’s Scott Reid, the Indianapolis Star’s investigative team, USA Today sports journalist Nancy Armour, blogger Lauren Hopkins, independent gymnastics journalist Dvora Meyers and the weekly gymnastics podcast GymCastic.
The feedback loop of vocal athletes, attentive journalists and active law enforcement efforts may enable gymnastics fans to celebrate #BlackExcellence in a floor routine or enjoy audacious athleticism and grace without worrying that these accomplishments grew from pain, humiliation, and abuse.
Julie Novkov (@NovkovJulie) is a professor of political science and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University at Albany, SUNY, where she teaches courses on constitutional law and civil liberties.