A major overhaul is needed at USA Gymnastics because nothing else has worked. USA TODAY Sports’ Nancy Armour explains how they got here.
The United States Olympic Committee has taken first steps to strip USA Gymnastics of its recognition as the national governing body for the sport.
In a letter to gymnasts Monday, USOC CEO Sarah Hirshland acknowledged USA Gymnastics has struggled “to change its culture, to rebuild its leadership and to effectively serve its membership.”
In explaining why the USOC is acting now, Hirshland wrote, “The short answer is that we believe the challenges facing the organization are simply more than it is capable of overcoming in its current form. We have worked closely with the new USAG board over recent months to support them, but despite diligent effort, the NGB continues to struggle. And that’s not fair to gymnasts around the country. Even weeks ago, I hoped there was a different way forward. But we now believe that is no longer possible.”
The news comes three weeks after Mary Bono stepped down abruptly as USA Gymnastics’ interim CEO under pressure from the USOC. In the last week, despite the turmoil within its governing body, the women’s national team took the gold medal at the world championships in Qatar, and Simone Biles won six medals, including a record fourth all-around gold.
The Bono debacle was the latest leadership change in an organization that has continued to struggle in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal. Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics team doctor and a physician at Michigan State University, is serving an effective life sentence after pleading guilty to federal child pornography charges and state charges of sexual abuse.
Among the more than 350 women who said Nassar abused them are Olympic gold medalists Biles, Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney, Gabby Douglas, Jordyn Wieber, Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian.
USA Gymnastics released a statement Monday noting its board was seated in June and “inherited an organization in crisis.” The board has taken steps to change the leadership and is conducting a search for a CEO “who can rebuild the organization and, most importantly, regain the trust of the gymnastics community,” the statement read.
The USOC’s action Monday triggers a process that includes a hearing before a three-person panel. The USOC will select the panel, which will be chaired by a USOC board member and include a representative from the NGB council and athlete advisory council. USA Gymnastics will have the opportunity to “present factual evidence and legal argument regarding the allegations of the complaint” at the hearing, according to the USOC bylaws.
Afterward, the hearing panel will issue a report to the USOC board with a recommendation on what action should be taken. Hirshland can also submit a report to the board. After considering the reports and recommendations it receives, the USOC board will issue a final decision.
The USOC’s bylaws do not outline any sort of timeline for the process.
The USOC is known to have revoked the recognition or cut off the funding of an NGB only three times — with taekwondo, team handball and modern pentathlon.
In January, the USOC wrote to USA Gymnastics to set forth requirements for changes it would need to make or risk losing its recognition as the NGB for the sport.
Among them was removal of the entire USA Gymnastics board, which the organization complied with, as well as cooperation with an investigation by Ropes & Gray. The Boston-based law firm is looking into whether anyone at USA Gymnastics knew about athlete complaints of Nassar’s abuse and didn’t report them, as well as systemic failures that might have contributed to him going unchecked for so long.
Despite those guidelines from the USOC, USA Gymnastics has had repeated missteps since.
In August, USA Gymnastics hired Mary Lee Tracy as its elite development coordinator even though she publicly defended Nassar after more than 50 women had come forward to allege being abused by him. Three days after that announcement, the organization asked Tracy to resign after she contacted Raisman.
Days later, Kerry Perry was forced out as CEO after Hirshland issued a statement saying it was “time to consider making adjustments in the leadership.”
During Perry’s tenure with the organization, USA Gymnastics lost all of its key sponsors, and its national championships in August were held without a title sponsor, almost unheard of for one of the marquee Olympic sports in the United States.
Last month, USA Gymnastics announced the hiring of Bono, a former Congresswoman, as its interim CEO. But Bono resigned five days later in the wake of heavy criticism in tweets from Biles and other gymnasts questioning whether Bono was fit to lead and what message her hiring sent to the women abused by Nassar.
Biles, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, was critical of a tweet from Bono that included a photo of Bono blacking out the Nike logo on her golf shoes, which appeared to be a criticism of Nike’s endorsement deal with Colin Kaepernick.
Bono previously worked at the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels. The Indianapolis Star reported that the firm worked with USA Gymnastics officials to provide “false excuses” for Nassar’s absence from major gymnastics events in 2015 rather than disclose to parents and gymnasts that he was under investigation for child sexual abuse.
Bono was not affiliated with the Faegre Baker Daniels office that worked with USA Gymnastics or the law practice. She had worked on legislative strategies and policies for Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting.
The USOC previously pushed for the ouster of former CEO Steve Penny, who left the organization in March 2017 in the wake of the Nassar scandal.
Penny was indicted in Walker County, Texas, in September on a count of tampering with evidence, a third-degree felony, and arrested in Tennessee last month. He has plead not guilty.
In Congressional testimony, Rhonda Faehn, the former head of the women’s program, said Penny ordered the removal of documents from the Karolyi Ranch.
Despite the changes to its leadership, USA Gymnastics continues to employ Ron Galimore as its chief operating officer.
Galimore is the only person left at USA Gymnastics of six who received an email from Penny on July 21, 2015, “because you are among those that are aware of the current issue concerning USA Gymnastics and one of our medical staff.”
In May, IndyStar, part of the USA TODAY Network, reported that Galimore was involved in coordinated efforts by Nassar and USA Gymnastics to conceal his dismissal by the federation. In the emails obtained by IndyStar, Faegre Baker Daniels attorney Scott D. Himsel told Nassar that Galimore would explain Nassar’s absences for the U.S. Classic and national championships to the medical staff, using their agreed-upon stories.