The heads of the U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming, USA Taekwondo, USA Volleyball, and the U.S. Center for SafeSport were grilled today by members of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee about their roles in protecting member athletes from sexual abuse.
It was the Larry Nassar scandal and USA Gymnastics’ mishandling of sexual abuse allegations against member coaches that has prompted the current interest in protecting athletes from sexual abuse, but very few questions were directed to Kerry Perry. Perry is the president of USA Gymnastics who took the helm of the troubled organization in December. (OK, “troubled” is a little bit of a euphemism. What I meant to say was “teetering on the brink of collapse” since the organization is facing several lawsuits and all of its major sponsors have abandoned it.) The majority of the questions seemed to be directed at Susanne Lyons, the acting head of the USOC. Lyons took over from Scott Blackmun, who, according to the organization, stepped down due to medical problems—about a month after the sentencing of Nassar to decades in prison drew international scrutiny.
Lyons was grilled about how the USOC views its responsibilities to athletes. Until very recently, the USOC has acted as though it had almost no power to intervene. It took the narrowest interpretation possible of the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act from 1978 so that it basically never felt compelled to intervene when abuse allegations came their way.
Last year, the Washington Post reported just how little the USOC did when it learned about sexual abuse of athletes. Yasmin Brown, a taekwondo athlete, appealed to the USOC for help in getting Marc Gitelman, a coach who she said sexually abused her and others, banned from the sport. USA Taekwondo believed her but didn’t ban out of fear of being sued. And when she asked the USOC to intervene, she found them unresponsive. The Post published emails from Lyons that said: “This sounds like the same old B.S. This is no longer in our purview.”
In response to questioning, Lyons admitted, “I think the act has given [USOC] a much broader authority than it has exercised in the past.”
Shellie Pfohl, the head of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, was also questioned extensively. Pfohl reported that since March 2017, when SafeSport opened its doors a full seven years after the first SafeSport working group was formed in 2010 in response to a USA Swimming sexual abuse scandal, they’ve received 800 reports of abuse. She said that in 2017, they were receiving between 20 to 30 per month but, since the start of 2018, the rate has increased to 20 to 3o per week. “Between the #MeToo movement and the Nassar trial, we’ve really seen an uptick,” Pfohl said. While an increase like that is certainly alarming, it also should be viewed as a good thing.
Back in 2017, I spoke with Daniel Rhind of the Brunel International Research Network for Athlete Welfare. Rhind told me, “What we’ve found with our safeguarding researched, we’ve worked with organizations that actually as soon as you put the safeguards in place, the number of cases you have goes right up. Straight away, people think, ‘Oh my goodness! The problem is getting worse. What are you doing?’ and you have to explain is that actually more cases is a good thing in the sense that people are coming forward, they have the confidence, they know who to report it to, they believe it will be dealt with properly.”
It remains to be seen whether or not SafeSport is up to the task of handling sexual abuse allegations, but at least athletes seem to be willing to give the organization a shot by reaching out and reporting their experiences.
But the sheer volume of claims that SafeSport and its 14 full-time employees are being tasked with handling made some committee members question whether or not the organization has the necessary resources to carry out its task. Pfohl was quick to answer that five full-time investigators (with seven more on contract) was not enough, especially since they expect to process double the number of claims this year. At the moment, Pfohl said SafeSport handles a claim, start to finish, in an average of 63 days.
Committee members expressed concerns about whether SafeSport was adequately funded in order to thoroughly investigate claims sent its way and inquired whether the USOC and the other national governing bodies would increase their contributions to its budget. Right now, SafeSport is funded through a combination of USOC and NGB contributions, government grants, and fundraising. The contributions from the USOC and the national governing bodies raises the question of whether SafeSport is truly independent from the organizations it oversees. Pfohl insisted that she and her staff are truly independent. “I don’t answer to anyone at the USOC or any of the national governing bodies nor does anyone on my team,” she said.
The committee members did eventually remember that Perry was in the room and asked her a few questions. Rep. Michael Burgess of Texas asked how Nassar had been able to treat athletes at the Karolyi Ranch despite only being licensed to practice medicine in Michigan. Perry said they’re reviewing all their processes to see how something like that could’ve happened. Perry and others referred to the independent investigation currently being conducted by the law firm Ropes & Gray.
Rep. Gregg Harper of Mississippi—while praising Perry for ending training camps at the Karolyi Ranch in January 2018 so athletes wouldn’t have to return to the site of their sexual abuse—asked how USA Gymnastics could have renewed its agreement with Karolyis after it learned about the abuse in 2015 when Maggie Nichols stepped forward. It took Simone Biles’ public distress over returning to the place where she was abused for USA Gymnastics to finally cancel camp at the ranch in January 2018.
I’ve often wondered why USA Gymnastics, after first learning about Nassar’s abuse in the summer of 2015, didn’t start looking for alternative training sites immediately. Perhaps it would’ve taken a while to find a suitable location for the camps but surely the process of finding a new site should’ve been well underway before the Indianapolis Star reported the first allegations against Nassar in September 2016. The fact that those in charge at USA Gymnastics didn’t recognize a change was needed until public outcry had reached a fever pitch tells you all you need to know about this organization. They really didn’t care about the athletes.
And they still don’t care about communicating with the public and their members about what exactly is going on inside the organization. According to Rachel Axon of USA Today, Perry left the hearing without taking questions from the media.
Since Perry started as president and CEO at the beginning of December, she hasn’t granted a single interview request. I’ve asked twice since she was announced as head of the organization in November, and Will Graves of the Associated Press has repeatedly taken to Twitter to express his frustration with not being able to speak to Perry. It’s been six months, and until today’s questioning, Perry has not spoken publicly. The only times we’ve heard her voice are in the canned videos that have been produced by USA Gymnastics that have played, ad nauseam, during airings of gymnastics competitions this year.
Check this out if you want a glimpse of her wooden public address style.
Perry has issued several press releases where she overuses the word “empower” and all its variants to the point where it has become something of a running joke in the gymnastics community. In this blog post from men’s gymnastics blogger “Uncle Tim” (full disclosure: I am friends with him), “empower” is one of the words in the drinking game he created for today’s hearing. Because Perry was so seldom heard from during the hearing, drinking to this word wouldn’t have resulted in death from alcohol poisoning.
One wonders why Perry is being shielded from the media at a time when USA Gymnastics desperately needs to show the members and the public that they are acting transparently. Why hasn’t she agreed to a single interview? Why hasn’t she been made available to reporters in a press call? Will the media have to wait until a settlement with the Nassar victims to hear from Perry outside of her congressional testimony?
For all of the claims USA Gymnastics is making about being committed to transparency, it has done precious little to back up that claim.