The focus of Wednesday’s emotional hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee was the FBI’s failures in its investigation of Larry Nassar, the former team doctor for USA Gymnastics. But Simone Biles and three of her fellow former Team USA gymnasts made clear to the assembled senators that what they really want is for Nassar’s enablers — all of them — to face real accountability.
The unfortunate reality is that after waiting five years, the reckoning that Nassar’s victims crave may still be years off. Nassar is in jail, serving out the equivalent of a life sentence on child pornography charges after spending almost two decades molesting and abusing the girls and young women under his care. The people and organizations who enabled him, though, are no closer to facing consequences — or changing the culture that let Nassar thrive.
The people and organizations who enabled him, though, are no closer to facing consequences — or changing the culture that let Nassar thrive.
Judiciary Chair Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Ranking Member Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, announced the hearing in July, soon after the Justice Department’s inspector general released the findings of his review of the FBI’s handling of the Nassar case. What Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz found were “fundamental errors” from the FBI’s field office in Indianapolis, where USA Gymnastics, the national governing body of the sport, is headquartered. When confronted with those errors, the officials under scrutiny tried to cover up their mistakes.
The outrage from the committee toward the FBI was bipartisan. But in each of their statements to the committee, the four gymnasts sitting before the dais reminded the attendees that it was USA Gymnastics and US Olympic and Paralympic Committee that gave Nassar the cover he needed to continue his predatory behavior.
“USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee knew that I was abused by their official team doctor long before I was ever made aware of their knowledge,” Biles said in her opening statement. Nobody informed her that she wasn’t the only athlete Nassar had abused until after the Rio Olympics concluded in 2016. How lonely that must have been. And while the FBI’s failings had been investigated, she said, “neither USAG nor USOPC, have ever been made the subject of the same level of scrutiny.”
Aly Raisman, who led the Olympic team in Rio in 2016 and is the second-most decorated American gymnast (behind Biles), told the committee it was clear in 2015 that Nassar had abused at least six gymnasts. But instead of taking action to cut off Nassar’s access, the FBI took over a year respond to Raisman’s requests to be interviewed, she said. And when the interview finally occurred, Steve Penny — then-CEO of USA Gymnastics — arranged for it to be held at the Olympic Training Center, where she was “under the control and observation of USAG and USOPC.”
Penny, Raisman also reminded the committee, went for beers with Steve Abbott, the lead agent in the investigation, who was trying to land a job with the U.S. Olympic Committee. Horowitz called out Abbott’s willingness to paint USA Gymnastics in a positive light in exchange for a good word from Penny in his testimony to the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. Abbott did not get the job, but he was allowed to resign from the FBI without consequence.
Meanwhile, McKayla Maroney recounted to the committee how the agent who interviewed her in 2015, Michael Langeman, who was fired from the FBI on Monday, didn’t write down her statement until over a year later. Horowitz later determined that statement to be “materially false."
The string of testimony highlights how few participants in the cover-up have faced serious repercussions. Bela and Martha Karolyi, the tyrannical former coaches of the women’s gymnastics team, are no longer training gold medalists and face dozens of civil lawsuits, but they are not facing criminal charges. Penny resigned from USA Gymnastics along with the rest of the 18-member board in 2017, but he reportedly received a severance package of about $1 million.
One of the major roadblocks to holding USA Gymnastics to task is the ongoing Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings it initiated in 2018. The judge handling its case issued a stay on all pending legal action against the organization, including a pause of “ongoing discovery and depositions of key figures,” NBC News reported at the time. Among the legal issues it's facing are “the USOPC’s decertification of the NGB and all actions related to hundreds of civil lawsuits and potential suits against USA Gymnastics and the USOPC related to alleged sexual abuse by Nassar, former Olympic and national team coaches Don Peters and Marvin Sharp,” the Orange County Register reported in January.
Those bankruptcy proceedings have also caused the organization to rack up at least $13.6 million in legal fees, according to documents reviewed by the OC Register and other members of the Southern California News Group. That works out to more than seven times more than the group has spent on SafeSport, the program founded in 2017 to handle issues of abuse in the sport.
Earlier this month, USA Gymnastics and a coalition of survivors of Nassar’s abuse moved slightly towards the reckoning that Biles and her teammates called for on Wednesday. The two sides submitted a proposal to the bankruptcy court that would allow the federation to emerge from bankruptcy and would include a $425 million settlement with those in the sport who were victims of abuse.”
There is a culture inside U.S. elite athletics that provided the birthing ground for Nasser’s depravity.
The amount is twice the previous offer from USA Gymnastics but still less than the $500 million that Michigan State University, which employed Nassar as a medic with the athletic department and professor, agreed to pay out to the nearly 500 gymnasts who had come forward against the doctor. But survivors demanded that one of the provisions of the proposed plan requires the federation to launch a truth and justice commission, finally providing the independent investigation of Nasser’s operation that has been lacking to date.
But as Raisman told the New Yorker in July, the problem extends beyond USA Gymnastics and across the entirety of U.S. Olympics sports:
When I think about USA Gymnastics, I think it’s just, like, rotten from the inside out. It’s not a good organization. Perhaps there are some people who have the intention of doing the right thing, but I think the leadership at the top needs to be completely redone.
The United States Olympic Committee is a disaster, too. It’s not just a problem in USA Gymnastics. I know that figure skaters and other athletes have spoken out about abuse. A lot of these organizations are corrupt, and the U.S. Olympic Committee is in charge of all of that. They need to hire people who actually care, who take this seriously, and they’re not.
Raisman and Biles understand that this about more than one man’s evil, more than one sport’s failings and more than the stumbles of federal law enforcement. There is a culture inside U.S. elite athletics that provided the birthing ground for Nasser’s depravity. It’s a culture where winning is everything, where silence is encouraged and being a team player is justification for complicity.
The conversations that Biles and her fellow athletes have sparked is one step in changing that for the better. But that’s not something that a dozen Senate hearings can make happen without probing much deeper into the machine that cranks out Olympic medals for Team USA. It’s a worthy focus — Durbin and his colleagues need to begin that process now, so that change can come before the Olympic torch is lit again in Paris in 2024.