Progress slow for USA Gymnastics in wake of Nassar scandal
BOSTON — Simone Biles is not here to save gymnastics. Or at least USA Gymnastics.
The reigning Olympic champion understands how bumpy of a ride it has been for her sport’s national governing body since she stepped off the podium in Rio de Janeiro two years ago, a fourth Olympic gold medal around her neck and the world at her feet.
Biles doesn’t really care.
The 21-year-old revealed in January she is among the hundreds of athletes who were abused by Larry Nassar under the guise of medical treatment. The longtime former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State team doctor Larry Nassar is serving an effective life sentence after being convicted of federal child pornography and state sexual abuse charges. The fallout, which began in the fall of 2016 when the first victims came out publicly, continues to consume one of the U.S. Olympic movement’s marquee programs nearly two years later.
It’s put athletes like Biles in a tough spot. There’s been so much chaos atop the organization they compete for — including a nearly complete overhaul among the leadership , numerous legal battles and murky details on how to implement the necessary changes in the wake of the Nassar scandal — that they’re not sure how to respond.
Asked Wednesday if thinks USA Gymnastics is headed down the right path, Biles offered an answer that spoke volumes about the iffy confidence in the new president Kerry Perry and a recently reappointed board.
“That’s a good question,” Biles said as she prepared for the U.S. championships that begin Friday at the new Boston Garden. “I’m not so sure yet. Hopefully, it’s going in the right direction but nobody can know until Kerry Perry speaks up. It’s kind of hard.”
Asked if she thinks it’s time for Perry to take on a more public persona, Biles responded simply “yes, it’s her job.”
Maybe, but it’s one that Perry has largely sidestepped since being hired last fall to replace Steve Penny, who resigned under pressure in March 2017.
“My focus is going to be creating an environment of empowerment where all have a strong voice and we are dedicated every single day on athlete safety,” Perry said on the day she was hired last November.
Yet in the eight-plus months since taking over, one of the voices that seems to be missing is Perry’s. Though she has made a concerted effort to visit as many of the 3,546 member gyms across the country since taking over, she’s only put a small dent in that number. When it comes to becoming the public face of the organization, she’s stayed in the shadows.
Outside of a couple of appearances in front of lawmakers on Capitol Hill and brief remarks on a teleconferences with reporters, Perry has yet to articulate a way forward outside of generic and carefully crafted open letters. There is a growing sense of frustration not just among athletes at the elite level but also among the gym owners and operators that serve as the organization’s lifeblood.
“The communication from the top down has been really reactive and disjointed,” said Kim Ransom, who runs Pittsburgh Gymnastics Club in the eastern exurb of Braddock. “We get mass emails kind of bombed to us when there’s a catastrophe in the news and it’s sort of just feels very forced and contrived … It feels like nobody is being real with us.”
Ransom’s gym is like many of the 3,546 across the country that count themselves as USA Gymnastics member clubs. The odds of the next Biles or six-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman walking through the door are slim. The business is a passion project where Ransom and her small staff coach about 200 or so kids. She wants to do things the right way, but feels she’s spent most of the last two years in the dark even as USA Gymnastics has tried to implement the more than 70 recommendations made by former federal prosecutor Deborah Daniels in an independent report released in June of 2017.
“I would like to know when they’re rolling out new policies and things member are supposed to abide but it needs to be black and white,” Ransom said. “Things need to be much more clear.”
Ransom is hardly the only one either confused, angry or both.
Mark Williams, who has guided the Oklahoma men’s program to nine NCAA championships and served as the coach of the U.S. Olympic team in 2016, believes the organization is too busy “choosing what they can and can’t say by the advice of lawyers rather than necessarily doing the right thing, saying the right thing, coming out and changing things because that’s what needs to happen.”
That includes assuring the parents and guardians of the more than 169,000 athletes in the organization that they’re taking the necessary steps to make sure the circumstances that allowed Nassar to run unchecked for so long never happens again — at any gym, at any level.
“Putting out a statement that says nothing really doesn’t help the club programs that are looking for direction on this whole issue,” Williams said. “We want to bring comfort back to parents that their kids are going to be safe doing gymnastics.”
Maybe, but enrollment numbers seem to highlight a separation of what happened with Nassar at the sport’s highest levels and what is happening locally. USA Gymnastics membership numbers climbed by nearly 4 percent between 2017 and 2018.
“It’s really not affecting the everyday,” said Haney, who now coaches 40 athletes at the gym she works out of in Monmouth, New Jersey.
Still, Haney called the Nassar fallout a “black cloud” that won’t go away. USA Gymnastics ran a more limited international schedule this year and there has been so much uncertainty that Haney has been forced to reassure Riley McCusker — who finished second to Biles at the US Classic last month and is expected to contend for the podium this weekend — that there will be a U.S. entry at the 2018 world championships.
“It’s unfortunate that we have to have that conversation with them,” Haney said. “It’s sad that we have to reassure them that we’re going to send a team out. I think throughout this year I was probably not the only coach telling their athlete that.”
The athletes aren’t the only ones who are uncertain.
Sponsors that used to flock to align themselves with a program that has been the dominant force in its sport over the last decade have fled. Though there is a feeling inside USA Gymnastics that they will return when the legal battles end, for now they are sitting out. The proof is on the ribbon boards around TD Garden.
At the high-profile where Visa and Proctor & Gamble once served as the title sponsors, the only corporate sponsorship visible inside the arena is a couple of small black-and-white signs that read “Team USA Summer Champions Series Presented by Xfinity,” part of a deal between the cable company and the U.S. Olympic Committee, not USA Gymnastics.
Having advertisers lined up isn’t an issue for Biles, who parlayed her success in Rio and cheerful charisma into lucrative deals that have helped make her a household name.
She’s got enough on her plate at the moment as she tries to become the first woman in more than 50 years to repeat as Olympic champion. The problems surrounding USA Gymnastics are not her problems. She understands there’s an urge to portray her as the hero. That’s not the case. She understands what her return means to fans. That she’s fine with.
The rest? Not so much.
“No, it’s not fair to me because I can’t carry the whole gymnastics world on me,” Biles said. “But I guess it’s kind of exciting I can bring some happiness back to the sport.”