If you watched the University of Michigan women’s gymnastics team compete this weekend, you might have seen Rhonda Faehn out there on the floor with them. Faehn was the former senior vice president of the women’s program at USA Gymnastics, a role she held with the organization from 2015 until she was canned in 2018 in the middle of a women’s national team training camp.
Faehn was an elite gymnast herself—she was the alternate to the 1988 Olympic team—before beginning a wildly successful college gymnastics coaching career. She spent 13 years as the head coach of the University of Florida women’s gymnastics team, where she led them to their first ever NCAA title, before she took up her post at USA Gymnastics. In all, Faehn coached Florida to three consecutive championships.
Faehn’s appearance on the mat was the first time she had been seen, at least in the media, since she testified in front of a senate subcommittee last June. There, Faehn spoke about receiving the first reports of abuse by former team doctor Larry Nassar from Sarah Jantzi, coach of national team member Maggie Nichols, now a star at the University of Oklahoma. Faehn then passed that information onto her boss, Steve Penny. As he did the other people who told him similar news, Penny told Faehn that he was reporting Nassar to the authorities. Instead, he waited nearly six weeks to report the doctor to the FBI while he conducted a private investigation. Faehn also revealed that Penny had asked Amy White, a USA Gymnastics employee, to remove files from the Ranch that were related to Nassar. Penny has since been arrested and indicted on charges of evidence tampering.
Faehn never made an independent report to the authorities herself. Indiana, where USA Gymnastics is based and where Faehn received the first call about Nassar, requires that all adults who suspect child abuse to report it to authorities.
Prominent Nassar survivors like Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman have cited Faehn’s failure in their criticisms of her to reporters and on social media. And parents like Gina Nichols and Lynn Raisman, former national champion Jennifer Sey, and Rachael Denhollander spoke out on Twitter against Michigan’s hiring of Faehn as “a consultant in a coaching capacity.”
Shortly after social media caught wind of Faehn’s presence at the meet, the University of Michigan decided it was time to formally announce her hiring and released a statement. In it, they said that they had considered Faehn’s past and had consulted with student-athletes before making this decision.
“After our exhaustive due diligence, we felt comfortable that coach Faehn reported all information available to her regarding Larry Nassar and that she cooperated fully, including voluntarily participating in all investigations and offering testimony before Congress. Neither an internal investigation by USA Gymnastics or a criminal investigation by the FBI have assigned culpability or resulted in any charges against her.”
Less than 48 hours later, the university announced that it was firing her.
“I have come to the conclusion that it is not in the best interest of the University of Michigan and our athletic program to continue the consulting contract with Rhonda Faehn,” Warde Manuel, the university’s athletics director, said in a press release issued at 9 p.m. Sunday.
Michigan gymnasts defended Faehn on social media, backing the decision to hire her and urging administrators to take their views into account.
Shchennikova, who is currently the student assistant coach for the Wolverines, is a former elite gymnast and national team member. (She competed for the Wolverines until the end of last season, when she retired due to injury.) Until yesterday, she hadn’t come forward publicly as a Nassar survivor. It appears that she felt it necessary to do so at this moment because she wished to defend the hiring of Faehn in the face of the outcry against the former senior vice president of the women’s program. Without a doubt, this was a terrible position for her to be put in.
It’s important to keep in mind that Nassar survivors are hardly a monolith. It could hardly be otherwise given that there are so many of them—over 400 at last count. As such, it’s only natural that they’re not going to share the same views on every subject related to what happened to them and what needs to be done going forward. They’re not going to speak in one voice at all times.
What we can agree on, however, is that Michigan handled this situation terribly. Their mishandling goes beyond the question of whether or not they should’ve hired Faehn in the first place. First, they only officially announced her hiring after Faehn had been seen with the team at a competition. Did they really think they could get her onto the coaching roster without anyone noticing?
The athletic department also had to be aware that Faehn’s past was going to be an issue. The announcement should’ve been carefully managed, not dumped on the internet over the weekend at a time when they hoped people weren’t really paying attention. The department also clearly seemed to have not anticipated the backlash, which at the very least suggests that they’d never heard of the gymternet.
Making the situation all the more fraught is the fact that Faehn was hired to replace Scott Vetere, the former assistant coach who had been arrested for having sex in public with a member of the team.
It appears that the rapid hiring and then firing of Faehn had less to do with genuine concern for athlete and student welfare and more to do with the university’s concern for its own reputation. They also didn’t appear to consult the athletes before making the decision to fire.
The reaction of some Michigan gymnasts was similar to what happened when Faehn was fired as senior vice president of the women’s program by USA Gymnastics. Many national team members posted on Instagram in support of Faehn, although they later deleted their posts.
As GymCastic podcast host Jessica O’Beirne pointed out on Twitter, Nassar survivors will be on college gymnastics teams for years to come. How best to listen and support them will be an ongoing discussion, and an important one. It’s not just an issue for the 2019 college gymnastics season. We have only just begun dealing with the fallout from Nassar’s decades of abuse.