The U.S. Olympic Committee would like to be seen as forceful and proactive for moving to disband USA Gymnastics and start over. Not so fast, please. Another body with a United States in front of it, the U.S. Congress, deserves the congratulations for dragging the USOC, heels digging in the dirt, to this point.
In the midst of so much discord and dysfunction, take a moment, post-midterm elections, to recognize lawmakers who have fought for Olympic champions when no one in the USOC cared about those ephemeral creatures apart from their appearances every four years on medal podiums. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are slowly but surely cracking down on the culture of complicit silence that enabled so many beautiful kids to be used and violated. Curse the tedium and venality of your public servants if you want, but congressional hearings literally led to an arrest in an alleged criminal coverup. You don’t often see those kinds of results from Capitol Hill.
When new USOC chief executive Sarah Hirshland announced the “decertifying” of USA Gymnastics on Monday, it was a tacit admission that her predecessors lied and dissembled when they said they had no power to hold anyone accountable for failing to protect athletes from sexual crimes. It’s no great act of conscience at this point to finally kick out the crested blazers and entrenched interests who profited from the sweat and stress fractures of young women while ignoring their cries of abuse and covering up for pedophile team doctor Larry Nassar. It should have been the very first thing done, not the last.
Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.), take a bow, sir. It was your pointed questioning during a Senate subcommittee hearing that revealed that former USA Gymnastics president and CEO Steve Penny ordered Nassar’s files removed from the Karolyi Ranch training center, and they have since disappeared.
Now, if you’re a right-thinking person, when you know your national team doctor is accused of sexually assaulting multiple underage gymnasts, you don’t mess with any evidence. You let the police do that. Instead, Penny directed a national team manager to scoop up Nassar’s records, possibly in response to an attempt by law enforcement to search the place. In follow-up questioning, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) discovered that Nassar’s files, with God knows what in them, were jammed in “a large suitcase and 2 large boxes” and sent to USA Gymnastics headquarters in Indianapolis. For which Penny has been charged with evidence tampering.
We never would have learned any of this without congressional hearings. Penny pleaded not guilty last week, and his attorney, Rusty Hardin, said his client merely “participated” in a decision to move the records for “safekeeping.” Turns out they weren’t so safe, because no one has seen them since. Maybe someone at the USOC, while it’s going through the red tape of decertification, could ask what happened to them.
Forget “decertification.” Not until we have a thorough and transparent examination of whether the entire USOC can it be trusted to rebuild anything in a trustworthy way. We will know the USOC is serious about cleaning up the scourge of sexual abuse when it voluntarily shares its internal communications about the Nassar matter and other abuse cases with the public.
As gymnast Aly Raisman has said time and again, “There is no new USA Gymnastics until we understand every single thing that has happened.”
All we understand has come thanks to independent investigations and congressional testimony, much of it compelled. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), take a bow, too. You were the first ones to call for Congress to intervene with subpoenas.
It should not take congressional hearings to get the truth from Olympic officials. But it did, and they got it done. It should not take a new law championed by Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to force Olympic officials to report allegations of sexual abuse to police. But it did, and she got it done. It should not take a Senate bill to taxpayer-fund the athlete-protection arm SafeSport because the USOC couldn’t find adequate money for it. But it did, and Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) got it done. Thune called the mishandled abuse cases “inexcusable and a stain on a source of great national pride for our country.”
There is a lot more reform needed: The USOC badly needs to be financially audited and restructured to redirect the bulk of its funds to athletes rather than into suit pockets. The board of directors should be replaced for failing in its oversight duties and allowing the Olympic movement in this country to be so morally bankrupted. Again, the USOC won’t do anything voluntarily.
But the success of members of Congress in forcing accountability up to this point provides hope and a relief from weary cynicism. It shows that, at least temporarily, lawmakers can act conscientiously and swiftly in a good cause — instead of squabbling and accusing and pursuing self-interest — to get something done.