Too Many Reports, Too Little Action

— A Note To Parents —

Part one of a two-part blog

There have been a couple of key developments in the past week in the USA Gymnastics (USAG) saga. In the first, the US Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Manufacturing, Trade and Consumer Protection report their findings after a year-and-a-half investigation. In the second, an article describing athlete mistreatment in a high-ranking USAG gym, demonstrates just how slowly the needle is moving in the the direction of reform in the gymnastics community. 

US Senators Jerry Moran and Richard Blumenthal released their “Senate Olympics Investigation” report on July 30, 2019. It details the negligence on the part of USAG, the USOC, MSU and the FBI to act in cases involving sexual abuse of gymnasts by Dr. Larry Nassar. The evidence is not new. Sadly, the findings are not surprising. Those of you following the despicable story in the news (Indianapolis Star) and through other investigative reports (Deborah Daniels, Ropes & Gray) already know the narrative. (If you have not read any of these stories or reports, you must get out of the dark and educate yourself as a gymnastics parent!)

Everything laid out in the articles and reports linked above was either illegal or against some rule or code. The “thou shalt nots” were in place. The lack of action is what was missing — not more laws.

Larry Nassar was a master manipulator. He spent decades grooming children and their families and coaches to trust him; he fooled everybody. Unfortunately, his was an evil that exceeded anyone and everyone’s worst nightmares. With hindsight being what it is, parents are now on the lookout for improper sexual conduct. More education, rules and reporting capabilities are in place to identify probable misconduct. Unfortunately, this is only part of the abuse tied to the Larry Nassar scandal.

People in the gymnastics community talk about the horrible sexual abuse scandal, but the action stops there. Larry Nassar is behind bars. Now it’s time to tackle the actual source of the problem — and it wasn’t Nassar.

Physical and emotional abuse in gymnastics is rampant and overlooked. This part of the story has not changed, and this is the integral part of the gymnastics culture that allowed Larry Nassar to be so successful at his insidious behavior.

Many gymnasts are taught, in order to be great, and in order to reach their goals, they must put up with mistreatment and abuse. You need discipline, they’re told. It’s a sacrifice, is the mantra. Do what your coach says, and your dreams will come true. Lose weight and you will get a scholarship. You’re having an off day? You are lazy. You came in to the gym overweight? Start running. You’re injured? You’re just trying to get out of practice. You’re scared after a hard fall? You are weak. You fell in a meet? Silence — coaches ignore you.

Imagine being an adolescent girl and you hear comments like these on a daily basis. You begin to believe that everything is your fault: that you are undisciplined, you’re fat, lazy, weak, and a bad gymnast. Your self-esteem suffers. You continue to listen to and believe your coach, striving, unsuccessfully, to be in her good graces.

Parents do not want their daughters fed a constant diet of oppressive and belittling comments. We don’t want her striving to meet impossible expectations. We don’t want the bar to be constantly changing for her, and we certainly don’t want her to feel so poorly about herself that her only refuge is the feigned kindness of a pathological serial child molester (as in the case of Larry Nassar). If you’re anything like me, you want your daughter to be strong, independent, and confident, and to recognize when she is being mistreated.

Parents, you have a right to ensure that your daughter is treated with respect in the gym. Many coaches claim that they want to teach their gymnasts “life lessons.” You should be sure that you know which life lessons those are, and if they are actually being taught. It is said that hindsight is 20/20. But what about the current situation? Listen to what your daughter is actually saying about practice. How is she being treated? Is she coming home crying every night? Are you barred from watching practice? Is she in constant pain, yet is afraid to tell her coach? Do you even feel uncomfortable talking to her coach about your concerns? If your answers are “yes,” then you need to think about whether your daughter’s current gym situation is what is in her best interest.

Martha Karolyi had submitted written testimony to the Senate’s investigation. Two things are suspect: 1. it was not included in the report — I had to search for it on my own, and 2. she acts completely innocent, as though she had absolutely no say in what went on at USAG: “Although a portion of my ranch was used for national team camps, this portion was exclusively leased by USA Gymnastics. USA Gymnastics set all policies for the camp that were outside of the gym and was responsible for running the camp.” She attempts to wash her hands of everything: nothing to see here; she had purview within four walls of the gym, nothing more. There are plenty of reports detailing how this was not the case.

Karolyi continues to say that she did not know how to recognize sexual abuse when it was happening, and that more education would have helped her to see it. Perhaps this education would have made her see that her abusive coaching tactics and the fear she instilled in her athletes and their coaches contributed to Nassar’s grooming opportunities.

In her statement, she also recommends “USA Gymnastics-assigned chaperones” for gymnasts at national training camps and competitions. I believe it was her sign on the gym door that stated, “No parents allowed.” Would she all of a sudden allow “outsiders” in to watch training sessions? It was her policy that parents were unable to stay in the same hotel as their daughters at competitions. Would she now all of a sudden be okay with the “distraction”?

Parents need to be parents: be advocates for your children’s well-being, and call coaches out on their abusive and questionable methods. You can no longer continue to grant coaches immunity when using abusive — physical or emotional — tactics with your kids. What are these methods accomplishing? What is your silence accomplishing? Do you stand by, no questions asked, when coaches tell you that crying every night is a necessary part of becoming a good gymnast? What keeps you from standing up, being confident, and protecting your kids?

Then ask yourself: Do you want every meet fee, every gym membership, every clinic tuition payment to support the same organization that not only fostered the environment for Larry Nassar to thrive, but actively worked to cover up his egregious actions? What life lessons are you teaching your daughter with your passive resignation when it comes to her health and well-being?

One argument is that parents don’t want to “stifle their kids’ dreams,” that it is a difficult decision to take one’s child out of a sport she loves, because it’s her dream. Would you rather her be abused instead? To learn to passively accept abuse? To actually sacrifice everything in order to win? It is noted in the Senate report that parents feared “retaliation from coaches” (p. 15). That is not acceptable. Some of you have accepted the status quo for far too long; you must tell your daughter’s coaches when their behavior is not acceptable, and in doing so, be willing to remove her from the gym if it does not change. You must insist on coaches who believe in parental rights, and you must insist that you do not give your rights up.

USAG is weathering this storm, and they are continually supported by top clubs and gym owners despite their long string of poor decisions. Your tacit adherence to questionable coaching practices provides USAG the sanction it needs to thrive. You must ask yourself why you continue to directly support and fund the organization that has been in the business of abusing children for decades. Read the reports: your silence is contributing to the problem.

We don’t need Congress to pass more laws. Parents need to wake up and realize that coaches do not always know what is best. Thinking that your daughter will be stronger for putting up with her coaches’ techniques may be in error. The truth is, only a few can withstand years of emotional and physical abuse and come out on top — that’s why there are so few who make it to the Olympics and elite gymnastics in general. I’m writing this to support the Everyday Gymnast, the regular kid who is not destined for Olympic stardom, but who loves gymnastics and spends her free time in the gym. These are the children who eventually break from the pressure, from the inside out. The problem is, many parents don’t realize it or do anything about it until it’s too late, after too much of the damage has already been done.

All this is bolstered by the recent article about Anna Li, the latest member appointed to the USAG athlete’s council, USAG’s most recent poor decision. She resigned yesterday because she is being investigated by SafeSport for abusing her gymnasts.

To be continued in the next Gym Rats Blog.

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