“It’s Penn State All Over Again”: An Update on the Abuse in USA Gymnastics

I wrote about the sexual abuse allegations against USA Gymnastics, their former National Team Doctor, and numerous coaches here.I wanted to update my previous post as more survivors have come forward and the extent of the abuse is just starting to be understood.

Brian McKeen, a Detroit attorney representing one of the survivors, stated:

“It’s Penn State all over again. You have the same kind of institutional failures, involving multiple victims violated by a trusted staffer.”

Larry Nassar 

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The former National Team Doctor for USA Gymnastics was arrested after child pornography (many filmed by the doctor himself) was found in his home. Now over 60 women have filed charges against Nassar, 40 of whom have filed lawsuits as well. He is still being held without bail.

While USA Gymnastics claimed they reported Nassar to the FBI upon first hearing about the allegations against him, a Wall Street Journal investigation found that USAG did not report to the FBI until ten days after receiving the complaint. The charges stated that a coach overheard two athletes discussing Nassar’s treatment while at the Karolyi Ranch (National Team Training Center) in 2015: “’He put his fingers in there again,’ one teammate said to the other, the gymnast’s mother and her lawyer told the Journal. ‘What’s with that?'”

The fact that many of these women told someone–a parent, a coach, a friend–that Nassar’s procedures felt wrong is indicative of institutional failure. Former Michigan State athletes (gymnasts and non-gymnasts) continuously complained about Nassar to coaching staff and trainers, but their issues were not brought forward to proper authorities. Kathie Klages, the women’s head coach, was recently suspended after one athlete filed a lawsuit stating that the three time Big 10 Coach of Year dismissed her allegations and “told the teen that ‘a formal complaint could lead to serious consequences for the girl and for Nassar.'”

One survivor, who testified in court that the abuse began at the age of six, explained that her family was close with the Nassars and her parents were reluctant to believe their friend was abusing their daughter, even insisting that she was making up the stories. Prior to leaving for college, she explained the years of abuse to her parents; her father committed suicide last year. Another father noted:

“It’s not okay,” the father of the alleged victim said. “It’s not OK they let him keep doing this, knowing because so many people have been affected…little girls…my little girl is still a little girl. He’s the worst kind of predator there is and they let him do it.”

60 Minutes

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Jeannette Antolin, Jessica Howard, Jamie Dantzscher

This past week 60 Minutes aired a segment on the USAG abuse scandal; the episode featured interviews with former national team member Jeanette Antolin, 2000 Olympian Jamie Dantzscher, and US National Champion (rhythmic) Jessica Howard. Dantzscher stated that she is the original Jane Doe who filed a civil lawsuit against Nassar last year.

Howard, a rhythmic gymnast who did not normally train at the (artistic) National Training Center, was directed to the ranch after suffering an injury. She notes:

“He started massaging me. And — he had asked me not to wear any underwear. And then he just continued to go into more and more intimate places … I remember thinking something was off but I didn’t feel like I was able to say anything because he was, you know, this very high-profile doctor. And I was very lucky to be at the ranch working with him.”

All three women were underage at the time and described how Nassar was able to gain their trust at the Karolyi Ranch. In a stressful environment–there are many allegations of emotional and mental abuse at the hands of the Karolyis–he earned athlete trust by being “on their side” as noted by Dantzscher; he brought extra food and listened to their issues. The girls felt the procedure was normal because of how respected he was in the sport. He even conducted his “procedures” in the bedrooms of the athletes, again without gloves or with a guardian present. Antolin also explains, “I remember being uncomfortable because of the area. But– in my mind, I was like, ‘If this helps, I’ll do anything.'” Antolin, who was coached by 1984 Olympic team coach who is now banned from coaching because of sexual abuse, not only suffered at the hands of her coach and Nassar, but Karolyi as well: “Bela Karolyi grabbed my butt and told me to lose it.”

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It’s also important to note how World Championship and Olympic teams are chosen in artistic gymnastics. The 5-7 athletes are chosen by a committee (up until 2016 at the ranch). The team choices were/are made subjectively; Bela was the coordinator in 2000 and his wife from 2001-2016.

John Manly, the attorney representing these athletes and nearly 40 others (some as young as nine years old) stated:

“Because this is somebody who is a serial predator. But the story here is that no one was watching to protect these girls. And they put medals and money first. I believe what– at the end of the day there are members of every single Olympic team since 1996 he did this to. That’s what we’re gonna end up with. Because this is somebody who is a serial predator. But the story here is that no one was watching to protect these girls. And they [USA Gymnastics, the Karolyis] put medals and money first.”

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Response by USA Gymnastics

Prior to the 60 Minutes segment, USA Gymnastics posted the following on Twitter:

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In addition to these posts, they also added the following:

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Wrong, wrong, wrong on so many levels. First, Nassar abused women for years at their national training center, many Olympic and World team coaches (Don Peters, Marvin Sharp) along with club trainers continued coaching even with allegations against them, and USAG did not notify MSU that Nassar “retired” because of the abuse, allowing him to perpetuate abuse against athletes. Finally, just because Tasha Schwikert–a 2000 Olympian along with Dantzscher–had a positive experience with USAG does not discount the claims by the other women coming forward.

Vitaly Marinitch

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An interview released by Gymcastic yesterday reveals the sexual assault allegations against former men’s head coach Vitaly Marinitch. Their interview with former trampoline gymnast Alaina Legendre and her husband Steven, a former national men’s team member, discloses how Marinitch harassed Alaina after a competition in 2014. She states that he drunkenly put his hand down the back of her pants, which he then joked about to her husband when he approached the coach about the harassment. When officers arrived, Alainia opted not to press charges out of fear for her husband; at the time Steven was still a national gymnast (a professional athlete whose income they depended on) and she worried the incident might be held against him when they chose the world team that year.

The Legendres heard similar stories about Marinitch’s harassment from multiple athletes. He was quietly removed as the Head Coach for the 2014 team and later “resigned” from his position, although USAG stated: “this decision was not related to anything that has been in the recent coverage of the Indianapolis Star”. In 2016, President of USAG called the couple twice in one day insisting he knew nothing about the extent of the assault against Alainia. Marinitch is currently a staff member at a club within the Colorado Training Center (the official training center for men’s gymnastics).

Congressional Legislation

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As USA Gymnastics continues to claim they did everything in their power to protect athletes from abuse and dodging responsibility, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has started legislation that, if passed, would create guidelines requiring amateur sporting associations (this includes national governing bodies of sport) to report abuse allegations.

“Our bill would apply to all amateur athletics governing bodies, the organizations responsible for overseeing amateur sports nationwide,” Feinstein said in a statement. “They have a special obligation to protect young athletes and must immediately put an end to any abuse they become aware of.”

Feinstein is currently working with other members of Congress, as well as meeting with athlete survivors of Nassar.

These new allegations, coupled with already established stories of abuse, show the absolute mishandling of abuse by USA Gymnastics. Survivors were/are afraid to come forward. In many instances they did, only to be told that their concerns weren’t valid. When an atmosphere of stress, submission, and power is created, even instituted, you create a culture that allows abuse. Clearly, individual and institutional changes need to happen moving forward. These changes should include consent and bystander awareness training for athletes and coaches, an overhaul at the institutional level of procedures for reporting abuse, and greater transparency of practices, along with the creation of an environment that encourages athletes to speak out. Otherwise, we have yet another Penn State. Another Catholic Church scandal. Another USAG legacy of abuse.

 

 

 

Sources not linked in text:

Armour, Nancy and Rachel Axon. 2017. “Couple Unhappy with USA Gymnastics Handling of Groping Complaint.” USA Today Online. Available here.

Chastain, Mary. 2017. “New Sports Sex Abuse Scandal? Allegations Against U.S. Doctor Aired.” Legal Insurrection Online. Available here.

Illitch, Alexandra. 2017. “Father of Alleged Nassar Victim: ‘He’s the Worst Kind of Predator There is, and They let him do it.” WLNS Online. Available here.

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