WASHINGTON, D.C. — In his opening remarks at the start of the hearing on preventing abuse in Olympic and amateur athletics, Sen. Richard Blumenthal described the sexual abuse scandals still roiling Olympic sports as an “ongoing chapter in American athletics that needs to be fully explored and exposed.”
It is true that the crisis of sexual abuse in Olympic sports is bigger than Larry Nassar. But the Senate subcommittee hearing held Tuesday was narrowly focused on that one case, with senators grilling executives from USA Gymnastics and Michigan State about what they did and didn’t know and what they did or didn’t do when it came to the former doctor’s abuse of athletes.
The hearing room at the Dirksen Senate Office Building was filled to capacity. The hearing previously had been scheduled for a smaller space in a different building and was moved to accommodate having more people in the room to watch. One reason for the interest was the much anticipated testimonies of Steve Penny, the former president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, and Lou Anna K. Simon, the recently ousted president of Michigan State. The hearing was set to be the first time that Penny spoke publicly since being forced to resign in March of last year under pressure from the U.S. Olympic Committee. Penny initially refused to his invitation to appear; his presence, as one senator reminded those listening, was obtained only through subpoena.
Rhonda Faehn, the former senior vice president of the USA Gymnastics’ women’s program, also was also there. She appeared voluntarily.
Not in attendance were Scott Blackmun, the former head of the USOC, and Martha Karolyi, the former national team coordinator who retired after the 2016 Olympics. Both cited poor health as the reason. (Blackmun has been undergoing treatment for prostate cancer.) Jeanette Antolin, a former U.S. national team member, spoke at a press conference before the hearing. She said of Karolyi’s absence: “When I was sick as an athlete, I was still expected to practice, compete, and see Larry Nassar for treatment.”
Of the three witnesses who came, Penny was the only one who didn’t prepare any opening remarks. And when it came for him to answer questions, Penny invoked the Fifth Amendment every time. From one such exchange:
Mr. Chairman, with respect to you and your question and the committee, I have been instructed by my attorney to assert my rights under the Fifth Amendment to the constitution. Which, according to the United States Supreme Court in Ohio v, Reiner, protects innocent men who might otherwise be ensnared by ambiguous circumstances, where truthful responses of an innocent witness may provide the government with evidence from the speaker’s own mouth which it would somehow use against him. For that reason, and based upon the advice of my attorney, I must respectfully decline to answer your question.
Penny left the hearing early. As he limped down the aisle, Amy Compton shouted “Shame!”
Since Penny wasn’t going to say anything, it fell to the senators to fill in the silence by reading from his own emails. In an email from 2013, Penny wrote to Allen Ashley of the USOC, “If Larry Nassar is the gatekeeper, then we have a real issue.” This was the biggest surprise of the hearing. Afterward, survivors, including former U.S. rhythmic gymnast Jessica Howard, said this was the first time that they heard about this particular piece of correspondence.
With Penny gone, it fell to Faehn to answer questions on behalf of USA Gymnastics.
What Did USA Gymnastics Know?
Faehn, who was fired suddenly last month, read from a prepared statement that did not spare Penny or USA Gymnastics. Before taking the job at USA Gymnastics, Faehn, a 1988 Olympic team alternate, had been the head coach of the women’s gymnastics team at the University of Florida for 13 years. She noted in the very first sentence that she had only been on the job for 37 days when she heard from a coach, who said that her gymnast had “uncomfortable encounters of therapy” with Nassar.
Faehn said that she pressed for a bit more information and learned that two other gymnasts also had signaled their discomfort with Nassar’s treatment. Faehn said she immediately notified her boss, Penny, who told her that he would contact the coach, the parents, and the authorities. Faehn said that, since that first call, she received two additional calls about Nassar. Again, she did the same thing—she notified Penny.
“I was told by Penny not to say anything to anyone for fear of possibly impeding the investigation of Nassar. I was not aware of any delay in contacting the authorities or any efforts to misinform anyone of the reasons for Nassar’s departure from USAG,” she said, at times becoming audibly choked up while reading aloud from her prepared statement.
Faehn also provided notes and emails she exchanged with Penny and other people, including Lynn Raisman, mother of Aly Raisman. She also included some text message exchanges with Gina Nichols, mother of Maggie Nichols. Nichols was the first athlete to report her concerns with Nassar’s treatments to USA Gymnastics. (Faehn also included letters of support she received from coaches, athletes, and parents.)
In this email, Penny tries to arrange interviews with the athletes while not involving their parents.
Faehn provided her handwritten notes in response to this email.
Under questioning—and it seemed that Faehn fielded more questions than the other witnesses—she said, “I was just told to not discuss anything since it was under an active investigation.” Sen. Jerry Moran asked if Penny was the only person to whom she reported the concerns about Nassar. “Yes,” she replied, “he was my boss.”
When asked who was Penny’s boss, Faehn answered, “I guess that would be the board of directors.” At the time that USA Gymnastics first learned about Nassar, 1984 Olympic gold medalist Peter Vidmar was the chair of the board. Faehn she hasn’t had contact or interaction with the board, but he board has been criticized for failing to oversee the behavior of USAG’s office. All of the board members were forced to resign in January by the USOC or risk decertification.
Faehn noted that she hasn’t been interviewed by the FBI. In fact, Faehn said she was only contacted about three or four weeks ago by the Texas Rangers, who are investigating abuse that took place at the Karolyi Ranch.
At one point, Faehn was grilled about her responsibilities as a mandatory reporter. It has been widely reported that all adults in the state of Indiana—where USA Gymnastics is based—are considered mandatory reporters. As such, Faehn would’ve had to make an independent report to authorities. Faehn responded that it was her belief that, per Indiana law, she had to report to her superiors, which she did.
“It is my belief that under Indiana law, it is my duty to report it to my superior ... I was under the belief that my superior was reporting it to the authorities,” she said. Faehn then started reading directly from Indiana state law, which her attorney provided to her during this part of the testimony.
Faehn, having been an elite athlete, a college coach, and the senior vice president of the women’s program, was uniquely positioned to answer questions about the much discussed gymnastics culture. She spoke in broad strokes about her experience as an elite athlete. She pointed out that, though she trained with the Karolyis, she didn’t go to training camps at their ranch. (Regular training camps at the Karolyi Ranch were instituted in 1999, well after Faehn’s elite career had ended.) Though Faehn claimed she was not aware of any abuse that had taken place there, she did concede that stories about a negative culture in gymnastics were accurate.
“I would absolutely say, throughout gymnastics, that for each and every quad, every time period, I believe there was very, very difficult situations.”