Report calls for change at USA Gymnastics after sexual abuse allegations

Report calls for changes at USA Gymnastics
Report calls for change at USA Gymnastics
USA Gymnastics report
USA Gymnastics report 6pm

MILWAUKEE (WTHR) — An independent report of how USA Gymnastics handles accusations of sexual abuse against athletes calls for a "complete cultural change" at the organization. The six-month long review released today details 70 recommendations to help protect gymnasts and to transform how USA Gymnastics handles complaints of misconduct.

Eyewitness News anchor Anne Marie Tiernon was the only local journalist in the country to obtain the report, written by former federal prosecutor Deborah Daniels, and to interview the key members of USA Gymnastics and Daniels about her findings.

The investigation was triggered after several hundred gymnasts across the country reported they were victims of sexual misconduct by coaches, doctors, trainers and other gym staff.

Daniels presented her report, with 70 recommendations, Monday, to the Board of Directors during its meeting in Milwaukee. She called for immediate and required reporting of sexual abuse allegations to proper legal authorities saying, "any time that the information that you receive, if true could constitute child abuse, that's reportable. So, you don't go investigate, try to find out it's true. If a child reports or a coach, another coach sees something that appears to be abuse, you report. You report directly to law enforcement as well as in the cases of abuse the US Center For Safe Sports and to USA gymnastics. It's more or less, you know, don't pass go. Immediately report."

Daniels also said the report has the potential to set new personal safety standards in not only gymnastics, but other sports as well, "I do believe that it is precedent-setting. I believe that if USA gymnastics adopts these recommendations, which they have pledged to do, they'll really be in the forefront of protection of young athletes in the Olympic movement."

The report also calls for enforcing serious consequences to member gyms, coaches and staff for failure to report abuse and more vigilance and accountability from the USA Gymnastics Board, leadership and 90 member staff. The federation must ensure its top priority is the safety of its athletes, not just their success in competition, asserts Daniels in the 146 page report which was created after conducting more than 160 interviews.

The recommendations cover 10 key areas: administration management; board structure and duties; culture; education; training and athlete support; member requirements and enforcement; reporting of suspected violations; screening and selection of coaches, volunteers and other adults with access to athletes, the process for filing misconduct reports, the National Team Training Center and national team selection process.

The board vote unanimously accepted the recommendations. "An athlete's well-being is our primary focus" said Paul Parilla, chairman of the USA Gymnastics Board of Directors. "Even one instance of child abuse is one too many. USA Gymnastics is very sorry that anyone has been harmed during his or her gymnastics career, and we offer our deepest regrets to any athlete who suffered abuse or mistreatment while participating in the sport."

The report focuses on the culture change needed in the organization which is the core of the report’s recommendations. Daniels says trust is no longer enough, "Sadly, I think you have to have a policy that inherently suggests that no one is above suspicion. Trust alone doesn't work," Daniels said, "We've learned that in respect to some of the people who have been accused of abusing athletes. They were trusted by adults and by the athletes. So trust isn't enough."

Hundreds of Accusations of Sexual Misconduct

USA Gymnastics commissioned the independent review in November in response to hundreds of current and former gymnasts reporting they were abused by coaches. Many of the athletes came forward after an investigation by the Indianapolis Star found that many accusations against USA Gymnastics members were not investigated or not reported to law enforcement by the organization.

Dr. Larry Nassar, center, and his attorneys listen to Judge Donald Allen Jr. rule that Nassar should stand trial on sexual assault charges during a hearing, Friday, Feb. 17, 2017. (Robert Killips/Lansing State Journal via AP)
Dr. Larry Nassar, center, and his attorneys listen to Judge Donald Allen Jr. rule that Nassar should stand trial on sexual assault charges during a hearing, Friday, Feb. 17, 2017. (Robert Killips/Lansing State Journal via AP)

Some of those accusations involve former USA Gymnastics National Team physician, Dr. Larry Nassar. USA Gymnastics dismissed Nassar in 2015, and he moved on to work treating gymnasts at Michigan State University. He was fired from there in September.

MORE: Complete coverage on the allegations against Dr. Larry Nassar

Prosecutors in Michigan filed criminal charges against Nassar, accusing him of sexually assaulting several young women. He also faces federal charges related to child pornography. Nassar has pleaded not guilty in all criminal cases.

USA Gymnastics cites reports that at least 41 women are involved in civil lawsuits that claim sexual abuse by Nassar.

At least 41 women claim they were abused by former USA Gymnastics National Team physician, Dr. Larry Nassar. After he left USA Gymnastics in 2015, Nassar worked as the doctor for gymnasts at Michigan State University until he was fired in September.

"The report itself will say a delay is impermissible"

The report also notes that USA Gymnastics waited five weeks to report the accusations against Nassar to the FBI.

A key part of the recommended changes involves how any accusations of sexual misconduct are handled – to whom they are reported and how quickly.

In Daniels' report, she emphasizes the need for immediate reporting of suspected abuse. "The report itself will say a delay is impermissible," Daniels said. When asked to elaborate on whether "immediate" reporting meant days or week, Daniels responded, "No. It means not even hours."

"It is very difficult for a child to report abuse and very often difficult for someone else to identify, so we just know that that cannot be the entire number. There would be other cases that never were reported," Daniels said.

Daniels says she was granted unrestricted access to USA Gymnastics documents during her review and yet declined to answer if those documents revealed how many athletes had claimed abuse through their affiliation with USA Gymnastics.

“We are committed to strengthen our policies to make safe sport the top priority”

Parilla added, "We now have over 200,000 members, and we have no way of estimating the number of those over a period of time that are claiming they've been harmed. As I've stated previously, at the beginning, one athlete is one too many, and we are committed to strengthen our policies to make safe sport the top priority and to ensure, to the best of our ability, that no one is ever harmed."

FINDING: Competitive Gymnastics Culture Tends to Suppress Reporting

The report details a culture where athletes at the highest levels of gymnastics may be just 11 years old and practice many hours a day. The intense training schedule for the most elite gymnasts can isolate them from the rest of society, and limit the athletes' understanding of a normal boundary with an adult, making them ripe for abuse. " You have the factor that in gymnastics, it's a sport in which injury is going to occur and so you have to learn to be tough. You have to learn not to complain. There are just a number of factors of that nature that more or less as I said inadvertently suppress reporting," Daniels explained.

Daniels found the athletes are instructed to be obedient, tough and fight through physical injuries making them vulnerable for physical and emotional abuse. Parents are also encouraged to trust the coaches and their level of expertise. Additionally the report found, that when athletes reported alleged abuse, they were ostracized by coaches, fellow athletes and parents. The report concludes the culture needs to change where the focus is protecting athletes from harm, physically, emotionally and sexual abuse.

RECOMMENDATION: USA Gymnastics to Exercise More Controls & Oversight Over Member Clubs

There are nearly 3,500 gyms affiliated with USA Gymnastics supporting close to 200,000 athletes. The clubs gain status and prestige based on how well their athletes perform at USA Gymnastics sanctioned events. However the report found a "belief by USA Gymnastics that it lacks ability to exert influence and control over clubs." The report found that led to a lack of oversight and enforcement of policies aimed at keeping athletes safe and no uniform system to track people in member clubs accused of sexual abuse.

Daniels says that adjustment in philosophy and action is probably the biggest change the organization can make, "They have 3,500 member clubs alone and maybe a couple hundred thousand members. The clubs are independent, they're businesses. They (USA Gymnastics) have no control over those businesses, but what they do have is the privilege of membership. So what they can do now that they have not done before that will make a huge difference is requiring those clubs and all those members to follow certain behaviors and sanctioning them if they don't."

Key Findings

"USA Gymnastics has not historically required member clubs, or any other members of USA Gymnastics to report any type of abuse, including sexual misconduct to USA Gymnastics or law enforcement authorities."

"USA Gymnastics has not routinely published the fact that a person's membership has been suspended; so clubs have not necessarily been aware that a member has done something serious enough to be suspended by USA Gymnastics."

"Clubs are not required to report physical or sexual abuse to USA Gymnastics or to Law Enforcement Authorities."

"Volunteers in clubs are not screened or held accountable for athlete protection."

Additionally, Daniels found USA Gymnastics has "no system for tracking the movements of members." And "reports of abuse or inappropriate activities on the part of a dismissed coach are often not forward to USA Gymnastics or shared with potential employers."

As a result, key recommendations include expanding the universe of those subjected to background check and to ensure suspended and banned members are banned from all member clubs.

The report recommends USA Gymnastics flex its muscles with the clubs and require everyone working with youth at the gym, even volunteers, be a member of USA Gymnastics and subject to uniform policies to protect athletes which include:

  • Any adult member prohibited from being alone with any minor athlete at all times
  • Unrelated adults are prohibited from sharing or being alone in a sleeping room with gymnasts
  • Any use of recording equipment in any restroom is prohibited so too any still or video photography except in strictly controlled conditions, including no one‐on‐one photography (photographer alone with the athlete) and no suggestive poses
  • Any gift‐giving to athletes from any adults who are not a parent or guardian
  • Adult members prohibited from having out of program contact with gymnasts via email, text or social media, including "friending"

Some of the new social oversight recommendations may be difficult for gymnasts, coaches and parents to adjust to, admits Parilla, but he says it will benefit all in the long run.

Parilla said, "Texting, for example, we're not going to allow coaches to text an athlete. Maybe we have something like you can't text an athlete unless you copy the parent. So that they can see what is going on in real time. We're going to be studying all those things"

The report indicates these restrictions should be applied to everyone associated with the sport as professional boundaries that are not, under any circumstances, to be crossed.

FINDINGS: Current Handling of Abuse Allegations Insufficient

The report found if there was a concern, filing a complaint was a "cumbersome process for victims of abuse," Daniels calls for a streamlined protocol and board oversight. Daniels found when a grievance was filed there was an "apparent lack of reviewer expertise" both at the gym and federation level. The recommendation is to "Err on the side of protecting the athletes in all situations." The report also permits third-party reporting of policy violations to USA Gymnastics.

FINDING: Member Gyms, Parents and Athletes Have Lack of Education

The report found that USA Gymnastics had fallen behind, compared to other national governing bodies by relying heavily on safety education materials for clubs and coaches posted online rather than widely advertised to or shared with the membership. Daniels found there is a "significant information deficit on the part of athletes and their parents and even club owners and coach in terms of what to do, if they see, experience or learn of misconduct." The report recommends implementation of a strategic, comprehensive abuse prevention training program for members, parents and athletes.

FINDING: Excessive and/or Inappropriate Power in Role of President; Insufficient Staff Expertise

The report is critical of the USA Gymnastics organizational structure and staff training, stating the Indianapolis based office has a "lack of focus on clear job descriptions…excessive and/or inappropriate power in the role of the president and insufficient staff expertise to protect athletes from abuse."

Additionally the report found the USA Gymnastics staff of employed and contracted employees who have not been required to have training on how to keep athletes safe. Daniels writes a "cultural change will require staff to understand that protection of athletes is critical to their job." The report recommends hiring a new Director of Safe Sport and changing the culture of entire staff to athlete safety first among other administrative changes.

The Future of Karoyli Ranch – National Gymnastics Training Center

Karolyi camp (WTHR file photo)

Since 2010, the nation's elite female gymnasts travel monthly to the National Training Center north of Houston, Texas.

The report raises questions about supervision of the athletes as travel to the ranch from their homes and the airport, supervision in the girl's dorms, and the accessibility of reliable phone service to contact their families.

USA Gymnastics is currently searching for a new facility to host the team's national training center, will tighten and enforce athlete safety measure and will "create a formal monitoring plan for all athlete lodging."

USA Gymnastics was advised to review its National Team Selection Process with experts.

“It is critical that the focus of USA Gymnastics be first and foremost on the safety of the athletes"

In conclusion, "It is critical that the focus of USA Gymnastics be first and foremost on the safety of the athletes" Daniels said.

Under direction of the board of directors, USA Gymnastics staff will immediately start implementing policy changes per Daniels' recommendations.

"Going forward we will continue to examine our culture and governance, listen to the community, and refine and improve to make our sport as safe as we can," said Parilla.

"This was a forward-looking report and not a rear-view mirror report," Daniels said, "My intention, and I believe that of the board, is to prevent further abuse, to the fullest extent possible."

Changes in Leadership

USA Gymnastics is in the final stages of selecting people for two key positions – CEO and the newly created Director of SafeSport.

According to Parilla, the chairman of the Board of Directors, the organization hopes to name the CEO in August and have that person in place by September 1. He said the Board received a detailed report from the search committee during the meeting Monday in Milwaukee.

Former CEO Steve Penny resigned in March as criticism grew about how USA Gymnastics handled sexual misconduct accusations. He joined the organization in 1999 and had served as CEO since 2005.

When he stepped down, Penny released a statement saying in part, "We all care deeply about the safety of our athletes, which is fundamental to a rewarding experience at any level of gymnastics. It has been heartbreaking to learn of instances of abuse and it sickens me that young athletes would be exploited in such a manner."

Parilla said he hopes to name a Director for the US Center for SafeSport in the next 30 days. USA Gymnastics officials said that person would be key in implementing a number of the recommendations that came from Daniels' review.

She emphasized the need for a top-down shift in how the group keeps athletes safe. "The words and deeds of the USA Gymnastics Board of Directors (Board) and the administrative leadership must embody this culture of protection," she wrote in the report.

Conducting the Review

Daniels and her team conducted the review over six months – from late 2016 through May 2017.

She hired a company that bills itself as the largest comprehensive sexual abuse risk management firm in the world. Praesidium provides a variety of services including training, risk assessment, model policies, investigation services and litigation support.

Over its 25 year history, the company has worked with thousands of schools, youth services groups, religious organizations and camps. Notably, USA Swimming hired Praesidium after that sports organization was rocked by reports of coaches abusing young swimmers.

Daniels and Praesidium conducted more than 160 interviews and visited more than 30 locations, including member clubs and the National Team Training Center at the Karolyi Ranch.

Daniels noted that USA Gymnastics cooperated fully with her review. The list of people interviewed by her team includes members of the USA Gymnastics Board, past gymnasts (including some who said they had been abused, parents of athletes, National Team staff and coaches, members of law enforcement and US Olympic Committee officials.