In October 1999, the former chief executive of USA Gymnastics told the U.S. Olympic Committee it had a problem. Other Olympic sport governing bodies lacked basic sex abuse prevention measures that were commonplace at the time, former USA Gymnastics CEO Bob Colarossi wrote in a letter, and child athletes were at risk as a result.
Colarossi’s letter, part of court documents and testimony unsealed Friday, is evidence that sex abuse of child athletes in Olympic sports was a well-known issue long before the USOC first required all Olympic sport organizations to implement preventive measures such as criminal background checks, abuse education programs, and policies for how to handle sexual misconduct allegations in 2014.
“This is not an issue that can be wished away,” Colarossi wrote more than 14 years earlier to three USOC executives, including current CEO Scott Blackmun. “The USOC can either position itself as a leader in the protection of young athletes or it can wait until it is forced to deal with the problem under much more difficult circumstances.”
Olympic governing bodies collectively credential local coaches who work with millions of children across the country. Until the USOC’s 2014 mandate, many lagged behind other youth-serving organizations in imposing safety standards.
Colarossi’s letter, and associated testimony about a dispute in which USOC officials objected to USA Gymnastics immediately banning coaches convicted of sex crimes, also shows how enduring confusion over the federal law that governs Olympic sports organizations has hampered child protection efforts.
“This is mind-boggling,” Donna Lopiano, former CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation, said. “What this says about the USOC … is that they are thinking about themselves before children. These guys have been usurping their responsibilities to protect children from the very beginning.”
In a phone interview Sunday, Blackmun said he did not recall if the letter — which Colarossi sent along with a copy of a 1999 Sports Illustrated article about coaches molesting children in youth sports — prompted a discussion among USOC executives about sex abuse prevention in Olympic sports. In 1999, Blackmun was deputy executive director and general counsel, not yet the CEO, he noted. He left the USOC in 2001 and returned in 2010 as CEO.
“I can’t fix what happened before I arrived here. I can only address what’s happened since 2010 … I actually think the USOC has been incredibly proactive in the last seven years,” said Blackmun, who pointed to the creation of the U.S. Center for SafeSport as evidence. The Center, which will take over investigating allegations of abuse in Olympic sports, opened Friday after more than a year of delays.
The 1999 letter from Colarossi was released Friday among more than 5,600 pages of internal USA Gymnastics files, depositions and other evidence produced in a Georgia lawsuit against USA Gymnastics over how it handled allegations made against a coach later convicted of sexual exploitation of children. The records were released by a judge as a result of a lengthy court battle waged by the Indianapolis Star.
Colarossi’s letter and testimony depict the USOC taking issue with child protection measures that were commonplace outside the world of Olympic sports. In 1999, USA Gymnastics was banning coaches convicted of sex crimes. A volunteer USOC committee said it couldn’t do so without first offering hearings to the convicted coaches and threatened to revoke USA Gymnastics’ status as a national governing body.
The Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, the law that governs Olympic sports organizations, guarantees all athletes, officials, and coaches a hearing before they can be banned for misconduct.
In the letter to USOC president William Hybl, executive director Dick Schultz, and Blackmun, Colarossi assailed the USOC committee for its “apparent indifference to the welfare of young children.”
In a deposition, Colarossi said that not long after he sent the letter, Hybl urged Colarossi to give in to the committee’s demands.
“I turned to Bill Hybl and I said, if you want to get into a conversation about sexual misconduct in a sport in front of God, country and the media with the national governing body that is the most voracious defender of its athletes, bring it on. But it ain’t going to be pretty and you’re not going to want to pick the newspaper up the next day,” Colarossi said.
In a phone interview, Hybl, who is no longer with the USOC, said he didn’t recognize the depth of the problem at the time.
“I’m glad the USOC is doing it now,” Hybl said. “ … We probably should have recognized it.”
In the years that followed Colarossi’s letter, three Olympic governing bodies — USA Swimming, USA Judo and U.S. Speedskating — have come under scrutiny for allegations of mishandled complaints of sex abuse. In lawsuits and media reports, athletes in those sports and others alleged coaches and officials coercing child athletes into sex was a well-known problem ignored by governing bodies with substandard abuse prevention policies.
More than 150 coaches and officials associated with Olympic governing bodies have been convicted of sex crimes since the early 1980s, according to a review of news clips, coach banned lists and court records.
In 2014, an independent review of USA Swimming’s policies by a sex abuse prevention expert found many Olympic governing bodies “were historically slow in recognizing and responding to abuse.”
While basic policies such as criminal background checks and abuse education programs first became common in the early 1990s, the Gundersen National Child Protection Center noted, USA Swimming was one of the first Olympic governing bodies to require background checks of all coaches when it did so in 2006.
USA Gymnastics officials cited this dispute with the USOC in the Georgia lawsuit as evidence of their organization’s aggressiveness on child protection efforts. Citing the litigation, USA Gymnastics officials declined an interview request for this story and released a statement that said, in part, that the organization ultimately acceded to the USOC’s demands in 1999.
“As a result, the ability of USA Gymnastics to take swift action was hampered,” the statement read. Former CEO Colarossi complained of logistical difficulties that ensued as USA Gymnastics sought to provide incarcerated coaches with the opportunity for hearings.
In 2006, USA Gymnastics wrote, the USOC allowed it to implement a compromised policy in which it could immediately ban a member convicted of a sex crime while offering the opportunity for a phone hearing.
The Georgia lawsuit that produced this letter and testimony focuses on Bill McCabe, a Savannah-area coach who pleaded guilty in 2006 to a number of sex crimes including secretly videotaping girls undressing in the locker room of his gym. The lawsuit was filed anonymously by a former female student whom McCabe videotaped and sent sexually suggestive messages online when she was 11.
In 1998 and 1999, records show, USA Gymnastics received complaint letters from the owners of two gyms in Florida that alleged McCabe had made sexually suggestive comments about children.
But USA Gymnastics didn’t investigate because of a policy that required a written complaint from either a victim or a victim’s parent.
“So if a professional member owned a gym and wrote you a letter and said I have got a professional coach here and I caught him molesting one of our athlete members, you couldn’t do a thing about it,” asked Jeffrey Lasky, a lawyer for the plaintiff.
“I would tell him to get me a letter from the parent,” said Kathy Kelly, a former USA Gymnastics vice president who received the McCabe complaint. “We just simply did not have the information we needed.”
In depositions, three USA Gymnastics officials, including the past two CEOs, repeatedly cited the Ted Stevens Act in explaining why they didn’t investigate complaints unless they came directly from a victim or a victim’s parent.
“When you have the umbrella of the Amateur Sports Act and the U.S. Olympic Committee … the burden of proof kind of weighs on your ability to move forward … because the coach is as much a member as the athlete,” USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny testified.
“It made sense,” Colarossi said of the policy. “Because the Amateur Sports Act protects many things, athletes but also protects coaches, administrators and officials.”
Nothing in the Ted Stevens Act prohibits investigations of second hand allegations of abuse, but the law does require Olympic governing bodies give fair notice, due process and a hearing to anyone it wants to ban — requirements that some youth-serving organizations do not need to adhere to before expelling an adult suspected of abuse.
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a three-time gold medalist Olympic swimmer, civil rights attorney and women’s rights advocate, has called for changes to the Ted Stevens Act including an imposition on Olympic governing bodies to protect children in their ranks from sexual abuse and harassment, similar to Title IX’s requirements for schools that receive federal funding.
“This is infused in the Olympic Movement, this idea that [child protection] wasn’t the national governing body or the USOC’s responsibility,” Hogshead-Makar said.
Blackmun said any interpretations of the Ted Stevens Act to impede investigations are incorrect, and he rejected criticism by victim’s advocates that the law needs changing.
“There is not a problem with the Act. If anybody is suggesting that they can’t conduct an investigation because of the Act, that’s just flat-out wrong,” Blackmun said. The new U.S. Center for SafeSport, Blackmun said, should prevent similar misinterpretations from impeding cases.
The depositions were released along with thousands of pages of complaint files USA Gymnastics kept on 54 coaches accused of misconduct between 1996 and 2006. It is difficult to determine precisely how USA Gymnastics handled each case, as many of the files contain significant redactions, sometimes of hundreds of pages. Many of the files appear to show the organization banning coaches after they had been arrested or convicted of sex crimes and do not show evidence of ignored warnings.
There are a handful of cases in which lenient punishments from USA Gymnastics or the appeal process mandated by the USOC may have left children at risk. In 1997, USA Gymnastics put local coach James Bell on probation after an investigation found a pattern of “inappropriate touching of students” by Bell. Between 2001 and 2003, Bell molested three of his gymnastics students at a Rhode Island YMCA, according to prosecutors there. Bell was arrested in August 2003 and later fled the state. USA Gymnastics didn’t ban Bell until January 2007, after sending him a letter offering him the chance to a request a hearing. The FBI located Bell in 2015, and he pleaded guilty to the charges.
In another case, USA Gymnastics found “credible” evidence 32-year-old coach Steven Elliott improperly touched and sexually harassed a 15-year-old and 16-year-old — charges Elliott denied. USA Gymnastics opted to put Elliott on probation for three years rather than ban him.
In 2002, Elliott pleaded guilty to a “peeping Tom” charge related to tampering with the peephole to a hotel room for two of his athletes while at a travel meet. USA Gymnastics sought to ban Elliott, but the process took a year as Elliott requested a hearing and appealed USA Gymnastics’ initial decision to terminate his membership. Elliott was ultimately banned in 2003.
In a statement, USA Gymnastics noted it has been auditing its files with the assistance of a former prosecutor who specialized in child sex abuse cases to determine “what, if any, additional actions are necessary.”
“USA Gymnastics believes one instance of child abuse is one too many, and we are angered when any child has been harmed during his or her athletic career,” the statement read. “We work every day to help young people fulfill their potential in a safe environment.”