As Olympians compete for gold in Tokyo, USA Gymnastics may never recover from Larry Nassar
Five years ago, USA Gymnastics was on top of the sports world.
The Indianapolis-based national governing body was regarded as one of the crown jewels of the US Olympic movement. It was flush with cash from sponsors such as AT&T, Procter & Gamble and Hershey’s. And its competitive showpiece, the women’s artistic team, featured some of America's best-ever gymnasts.
With a marketing-savvy leadership team and diverse core of likable stars — including Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez and Gabby Douglass — Team USA was poised to shine like never before on the world stage at the Rio Olympics.
And if USAG needed any more reason for an adoring public to engage, the 2016 games would be the last hurrah for coach Marta Karolyi. Old-school taskmasters, Marta and her husband, Bela, helped transform the sport in the US after defecting from Romania in the 1980s.
But behind the scenes, the organization's top officials were sitting on a scandal of unimaginable proportions — one that, once revealed, would bring to light hundreds if not thousands of untold horror stories of young girls who had become victims of a culture that enabled sexual abuse.
A year before Team USA landed in Rio, USAG's longtime team doctor had been accused of sexually assaulting some of the team's top athletes. Officials reported Larry Nassar to the FBI in July 2015, but the allegations remained a secret that threatened to destroy the organization's carefully crafted image.
As the Rio Olympics drew near, leaders knew their secret could be in jeopardy. Earlier in 2016, reporters at IndyStar began looking into how the organization responded to sexual abuse allegations. They didn't know about Nassar yet. But they'd informed USAG the investigation revealed other damning evidence of systemic problems.
It all came to a head on Aug. 4, 2016, when IndyStar published the first installment of the series “Out of Balance.” The investigation found USAG had an executive policy of not reporting all allegations of sexual abuse to police or child welfare authorities as required by law in Indiana and most other states.
That first story, published on the eve of the Rio Games opening ceremony, detailed the cases of four coaches who went on to molest young women after USAG failed to act on prior complaints about the coaches' earlier sexual misconduct.
The fallout rocked USAG.
Now, on the eve of the Tokyo Games, pushed back a year because of the pandemic, Team USA looks ready to shine again on the world stage. But one big question remains about the organization behind the accomplished athletes: Has USAG really turned a corner in its responsibility to young gymnasts?
Officials at USAG did not respond to interview requests for this story. Meanwhile, Nassar survivors and other critics continue calling for USAG to be blown up and replaced as the sport’s governing body. A sports marketing expert at Butler University told IndyStar USAG may never fully recover.
“They dug themselves such a deep hole," said Daniel McQuiston, professor emeritus at Butler. "It’s going to be very difficult to dig out of."
One tip leads to another
The IndyStar investigation had started with a tip in early 2016: A lawsuit in Georgia had uncovered troubling details about USAG's failure to properly respond to abuse reports — including a policy of not reporting sexual abuse allegations without a signed complaint from the victim or their parent or guardian.
But it was another tip that came the day the first story was published that propelled the gymnastics scandal to international attention.
A young mother in Louisville, Kentucky, read the IndyStar report online. It dredged up a flood of memories and emotions. When she finished reading, she sat down and wrote an email to the reporters.
"I recently read the article titled 'Out of Balance' published by the IndyStar. My experience may not be relevant to your investigation, but I am emailing to report an incident ...," Rachael Denhollander’s message started.
Denhollander described her abuse by Nassar more than 10 years earlier when she was a club-level gymnast in Michigan.
More tips about troubling situations involving USAG came in, including two more gymnasts claiming Nassar abused them. Denhollander and some of the others survivors contacted police at Michigan State University, where Nassar taught and worked at a sports medicine clinic. A detective there opened a criminal investigation.
Initially, Nassar declared his innocence. In emails and a face-to-face interview with IndyStar, he expressed dismay that some women must have misinterpreted his treatments. His attorney denied Nassar had ever sexually violated any patient.
It wasn’t until Sept. 12, 2016, when IndyStar published its first story about Denhollander and former Olympian Jamie Dantzscher claiming they were sexually abused by Nassar, that USAG finally revealed it had received reports about him a year earlier. That was the first public acknowledgment that officials had known about Nassar and kept it quiet, letting him spin his departure from Team USA as a retirement while continuing to molest more girls and young women.
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As time passed the count of Nassar survivors climbed to more than 500. It was now the largest sexual abuse scandal in American sports.
Giving survivors a voice
While IndyStar had publicly exposed the scandal, it was a prosecutor in Michigan who devised a strategy for justice.
Angela Povilaitis started working with the Michigan Department of the Attorney General in 2012. She soon found herself immersed in a project involving more than 11,000 untested rape kits found in an abandoned evidence warehouse. The cases were often complex, with multiple victims.
In the summer of 2016 she had just finished prosecuting James Rapp, a former Jackson Lumen Christi High School priest, teacher and coach, who was sentenced up to 40 years in prison for sexually abusing students more than 30 years before.
Povilaitis and her team took a unique step at Rapp’s sentencing. They brought victims in from all over the country to tell their stories.
“I think it’s evident that the only way to heal, move forward and to protect others from this same thing is to bring it out into the open,” Povilaitis said in court. “Shed light on it and expose the truth. And they’ve done that. They are true heroes in a horrible situation.”
Little did she know then that just months later a new case would surface. She would meet more heroes and this time they would stand in a courtroom and expose what a trusted doctor had done to them.
When Nassar first came on her radar, Povilaitis said her office had no idea of the scope of what they were getting into.
“We didn’t have an idea of where it would turn or the breadth of the case,” she said. “And, quite frankly, it wasn’t a slam dunk.”
The first question was determining if what Nassar had done was a legitimate medical treatment.
Larry Nassar scandal:Read the full report on the FBI's handling of gymnastics abuse
But her concerns about getting a conviction were diminished after police serving a warrant at Nassar’s home found more than 37,000 images of child pornography. He ultimately pleaded guilty to federal child pornography charges and the state sex abuse charges filed by Povilaitis.
When it came time for Nassar’s sentencing on the first state charges, Povilaitis crafted the plea agreement. The inspiration came from the trial of the priest. There were then 204 known Nassar survivors. She wanted as many of them who could to give statements in court.
The night before the trial, her team met with the women. She thought 70 or so might speak, which was huge. She tried to empower them, to encourage them. She told them if they didn’t want to be publicly identified they didn’t have to be.
'I poured my heart into that case.'
When the victim impact statements began the next day, Kyle Stephens was first to address Nassar and the judge. She was the only Nassar survivor to speak who had not been a medical patient. She was a little girl; he was a family friend. When he visited her parents’ house he would ask her to go down to the basement to play hide and seek and sexually abuse her.
Donna Markham spoke about how her daughter, Chelsea, molested by Nassar at 12, had eventually quit gymnastics. After that, the grieving mother said her daughter went on a downward spiral before taking her life at 23.
“It all started with him,” Markham told the judge as Nassar listened. “It has destroyed our family.”
Survivor after survivor stepped forward in the packed courtroom. “The first morning of testimony was so gut wrenching and moving and impactful,” Povilaitis recalled, “that as the days went on ..."
Survivors started changing their minds. They found the courage to speak. They didn’t want to be anonymous. It wasn’t their shame. Nassar was the one who did something wrong.
Taking down Nassar was a proud moment for Povilaitis. But the plea agreement she wrote that gave those survivors a chance to speak out, to tell him what he had done to them, is what she’s most proud of.
“We saw that horrific impact over the course of two weeks and the empowerment of the survivors,” she said. “We saw it happen in front of us. They went from victims to survivors to advocates, this amazing metamorphosis.”
Povilaitis said she poured her heart and soul into bringing Nassar to justice. And when it was over, she needed to step back.
“I threw everything into that case, everything, my whole being,” she said. “I really had no reserves left. I did some reflection on what to do next.”
Six months after Nassar’s sentencing, Povilaitis left her post as assistant attorney general of Michigan. Today, she is a staff policy attorney at the Michigan division of victim services. It was a change of pace that allowed her to continue to pursue her passion: Protecting the unprotected, stopping the violence, and doing everything in her power to end sexual abuse.
Nassar case rocked sports world
Fallout from the Nassar scandal started inside USAG but extended far beyond.It coincided with and gave further fuel to the emerging #MeToo movement that heightened public attention around the widespread issue of sexual abuse.
Steve Penny, USAG’s CEO, was forced out in 2017 along with the entire board of directors. Sponsors jumped ship. Gymnastics clubs cut ties. The USOC threatened to decertify USAG as the sport's governing body.
Penny was charged in Texas in 2018 with tampering with evidence in a criminal case still pending. He has pleaded not guilty. In quick succession, USAG hired then parted ways with two new CEOs and other key leaders. The bungles strung out the drama.
Faced with massive liability from survivor lawsuits, USAG retreated into bankruptcy in 2018. The move stopped action on the decertification and limited the group's financial exposure in the lawsuits. While millions of dollars have been spent on legal fees in the bankruptcy case, which is still winding through federal court, survivors continue to wait for settlements. They also have demanded a full accounting of USAG's actions and an apology.
It wasn’t just USAG that became entangled in the Nassar scandal.
The head of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee stepped down for what was described as medical reasons as the scandal evolved.
At Michigan State University, where Nassar worked at a sports medicine clinic treating athletes, the university president, the dean of the medical school that employed Nassar and the women’s gymnastics coach were forced to resign. The dean and coach were both convicted of criminal charges in the case. The university also reached a $500 million settlement with some of the survivors.
Reaction extended all the way to the halls of Congress and the White House. In 2020, then-President Trump signed bipartisan legislation — the Empowering Olympic, Paralympic and Amateur Athletes Act — that added funding for the U.S. Center for SafeSport. The law put more athletes on the boards of the USOPC and Olympic governing bodies such as USAG. It also strengthened reporting requirements, and penalties, for sports officials.
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And just last week, the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing rebuke of the FBI’s response to the initial report USAG made about Nassar to agents in Indianapolis in the summer of 2015. The report found FBI agents failed to respond for months, made false statements, and exhibited "extremely poor judgment" in the handling of the initial report.
While the investigation languished, Nassar continued to sexually abuse young patients. The justice department report said at least 70 were molested during the nearly year-long delay. An attorney for 250 Nassar survivors said the number is more than 120.
Ultimately, it wasn't the FBI that put a stop to Nassar's reign of sexual abuse. It was police at Michigan State University who arrested him after reading that September 2016 IndyStar investigation.
‘What if I’m wrong? What if I’m right?’
To understand just how it happened — how it was, in effect, allowed to happen — is to understand this nation's embrace of a youth sports culture.It is a culture, experts say, where winning is everything and coaches and others in authority roles aren’t to be questioned. It is a setting that presents one of the biggest challenges when it comes to child sexual abuse prevention
“It’s a very deep-seated culture where nobody is necessarily to blame; it’s just how youth sports has really come to evolve,” said Toby Stark, who in 2017 was named USAG’s first director of safe sport. The department's focus was to strengthen the organization's attention to athlete protection.
Stark and a former Marion County child abuse and sex crimes prosecutor were hired in the wake of a report by former federal prosecutor Deborah Daniels. She found USAG needed a top-to-bottom culture change to put the safety of athletes ahead of winning medals.
Stark did not address specifics of her work or experiences at USAG. She left the organization, but continues to work as a child advocate and child sexual abuse prevention expert as owner of Stark Consulting Group.
With most amateur youth sports organizations, historically, there has been a single focus, she said.
“When you think back 10, 20, 30, 40 years, there is really no other conversation around sports except winning,” Stark explained. “The ability of the players? They are not humans, they are not children, they are athletes.”
In a similar way, coaches and doctors like Nassar hold a sacred place in society, especially winning coaches and elite doctors.
“Very early, what do we teach our kids? ‘Listen to coach. Don’t argue with your coach.' We call them coach with a capital C,” Stark said. “There is a very unique power dynamic especially as the young athlete rises up in their ability. There is a tendency by the parent to put blind trust in a coach.”
With that trust comes little questioning or challenging from parents, athletes and, in many instances, even administrators. That was the case with USAG, and it is, Stark said, a teaching moment for all.
For some, there has been a disconnect as they look at what happened in gymnastics as a large national story of abuse. But the risks are the same across the board. One in 10 children are sexually abused by their 18th birthday and 90% of those children, Stark said, are abused by someone they know, love and trust.
“Many are seeing (USAG) as an extreme example,” she said. “The reality is child sexual abuse is child sexual abuse. Those statistics don’t just apply to elite large national organizations. They are for all our kids.”
What is to be learned is simple and twofold. First, administrators and coaches need to have a willingness to acknowledge their organization has the exact same risk as USA Gymnastics and they need to put safety protocols and checks in place.
Secondly, parents have to take back their power. Parents must know it’s OK to be the watchful eye over their child’s training. They must know they are allowed to speak up if something doesn’t feel right.
That doesn’t mean reporting the suspected abuse to the organization, but instead to report to the law enforcement agency where the abuse is alleged to have happened — and also to the state’s department of child services. It is not just a good idea, it is the law.
“When you call and make a report, it’s so scary. I won’t lie. It’s a really scary phone call,” Stark said. “I can’t imagine anybody doesn’t think ‘What if I’m wrong?’ The very next thing they should think is ‘What if I’m right?’”
'How do you ever recover from that?’
What the future, beyond competition in Tokyo, holds for USAG remains an open question. The organization is still reeling to recover from an organizational crisis like no other in sports.
It was a horrendous, years-long abusive attack on the vulnerable. Heads turned to look the other way. Officials kept mum. Trust, the key to any business, was shattered.
“This was such an egregious situation where young girls were abused sexually, abused by people who should have been there to protect them and they weren’t,” said McQuiston, the Butler sports marketing professor.
“How do you recover from that?" he added. "In the minds of many, many people, it’s unforgivable.”
There is no road map for a tragedy like this inside an organization. What happened, McQuiston said, is something that’s never been publicly seen to this magnitude in sports history.
The people affected by the abuse and their advocates are not going to stop talking about it, so it continues to be re-exposed month by month, year by year.
"The victims, they are not going to let this go,” McQuiston said. “You look at the Simone Bileses and Aly Raismans and ones you know and, justifiably, they are not going to let this go.”
He said USAG had a chance six years ago, upon that first allegation, to change the course of everything. "The first law of public relations is when something is going wrong in your organization, you own up to it, apologize and show how you plan to change it," he said. "USA Gymnastics did the opposite."
McQuiston points to other examples, such as Tylenol’s crisis when three people died in September 1982 in the Chicago area after taking cyanide-laced Tylenol. It was a poisoning spree that by Oct. 1 had taken seven lives.
The case has never been solved, but Tylenol has been lauded for decades for how it handled the crisis. It pulled every product off the shelf. It went public repeatedly with updates and it became the instigator of safety seals that are now used industrywide for medication.
While the Tylenol situation is very different from what took place at USAG, the resulting actions should have been similar.
“People who could have done something about it should admit there was a mistake and then do something about it,” McQuiston said. “They didn’t. How do you ever recover from that?”
McQuiston doesn’t have the answer — but he does have a hunch.
“Quite frankly," he said, "I don’t think they are ever going to dig out of it entirely.”
Contact Dana Benbow at firstname.lastname@example.org.