Advice for USA Gymnastics (applies to any org accused of ignoring sexual abuse)

By Gina Scaramella, BARCC Executive Director

This op-ed originally appeared in the Huffington Post on September 1, 2017.

[Image: Aly Raisman competing at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Image courtesy Agência Brasil, https://flickr.com/photos/129729681@N06/28264943553.]

Over and over again we see that the first (and worst) impulse of many organizations facing allegations of sexual abuse is to cover them up and then, when word inevitably leaks out, minimize them.

The latest offender? USA Gymnastics.

It’s been 11 months since the Indianapolis Star broke the news that executives at the organization, which is the governing body for the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, had a policy of ignoring allegations of sexual abuse unless they were made directly by a victim or the victim’s parents. Such a policy violates laws in all 50 states requiring that suspected incidences of child abuse be reported to authorities. All told, at least 368 athletes have alleged that they were sexually abused by coaches affiliated with USA Gymnastics over the past 20 years. That works out to about one new athlete being abused every 20 days. The team doctor for USA Gymnastics was sentenced to prison last month after he pleaded guilty for possession of child pornography that was discovered during an investigation of sexual abuse against him. As of this writing, more than 125 athletes have filed civil lawsuits accusing the doctor of sexual abuse.

But USA Gymnastics was back in the news again recently when Aly Raisman became the latest in a string of high-profile gymnasts to call out the organization for its failure to take the sexual abuse of athletes seriously.

Raisman, who was captain of the women’s gymnastics teams at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and holds six medals, including three gold medals, told The Guardian that USA Gymnastics had yet to own up to its failure to protect its athletes and had not done enough to assist the athletes who were abused or put reforms in place to prevent abuse from happening in the future.

She’s right.

USA Gymnastics has followed a pattern of denial and minimization employed by other organizations as varied as Fox News, the Catholic Church, and elite private schools when faced with allegations of sexual harassment and assault.

USA Gymnastics has followed a pattern of denial and minimization employed by other organizations as varied as Fox News, the Catholic Church, and elite private schools when faced with allegations of sexual harassment and assault.

From USA Gymnastics’ flouting of state laws requiring that abuse allegations be reported, to the fact that — as of last month — it still had not implemented a written policy for how to handle allegations of abuse, the organization has not taken responsibility for its failure to create a safe environment for its athletes.

It is not possible for an organization to move on from incidences of sexual abuse until and unless its leaders understand that they bear responsibility for having created a culture that permitted abuse to flourish and that it is their responsibility to change that culture. Sexual abuse does not occur in a vacuum. It takes root in organizations that are willing to sacrifice safety for reputation and deflect responsibility onto victims.

Here are five things that USA Gymnastics, and any organization dealing with this problem, should do immediately.

  1. Apologize to the athletes it failed to protect.
  2. Assess the risks associated with new and current coaches and others affiliated with USA Gymnastics who work with athletes. Ask them what they will do to ensure that no boundaries are ever crossed with athletes. Clearly state concerns about athlete vulnerabilities and make it clear that USA Gymnastics expects that athletes will never be violated. Assessing how seriously a coach takes these issues and learning whether or not they have thought them through is just as important as a coach’s skill in training athletes.
  3. Put a written plan in place that defines appropriate boundaries for both coaches and athletes. The plan must be explicit and provide examples for athletes about what they should do if they overhear another athlete speaking about sexual harassment or sexual contact with a coach. Knowledge of the policy should be included in annual training for coaches, athletes, parents, and staff. Clear expectations create cultures in which the norms are easier to maintain and harder to violate.
  4. Spell out the consequences, which must include reporting allegations to proper authorities, when the policy is violated.
  5. A coach who has been fired for inappropriate sexual contact with an athlete, even if it has not resulted in a criminal charge or conviction, should never be hired in another gym.

Like all other youth-serving schools and organizations, USA Gymnastics needs to take full responsibility for preventing a culture of sexual abuse.