Off balance: USA Gymnastics needs a cultural change

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This column appears in the Aug. 21 Fighting Issue of ESPN The Magazine. Click here to subscribe.

On Aug. 9, 2016, the U.S. women's gymnastics team won gold at the Rio Olympics, its second straight team gold. Since late 2010, U.S. women's gymnastics has not lost an Olympic or world team competition, becoming the most dominant gymnastics program in the world. 

One year later, just ahead of the national P&G Gymnastics Championships in Anaheim, California, USA Gymnastics is mired in scandal. A former team doctor, Larry Nassar, pleaded guilty to federal child pornography charges, and he has been accused by 119 former patients-- the majority college-aged women -- of assault during treatment sessions. Some of these sessions took place at Michigan State University, where Nassar had an office. Others took place at USA Gymnastics-sanctioned events, and some women alleged they were assaulted at Karolyi Ranch in Texas, owned by national team coordinator Martha and husband Bela and used for training camps throughout the year. More than 80 women have pressed criminal charges against Nassar.

But gymnastics' problems run much deeper than Nassar. As The Indianapolis Star found, more than 360 gymnasts have reported incidents of sexual misconduct by coaches, gym owners and other adults over the past 20 years. That means a culture of predation exists in women's gymnastics beyond Nassar; that means there is something very wrong with women's gymnastics as a whole.

The sport is unusual in its demands and in the almost intentional loneliness those demands require. Athletes are generally extremely young -- the average age at which members of the 2016 Olympic team reached elite status was roughly 12½. Those athletes, more so than in many other sports, are dependent on their coaches. Learning to swim doesn't require hands-on contact; learning a complex release on bars or a new vault often does. And coaches are often trusted to take young athletes to practice, sit with them while they wait for physical therapy appointments, travel with them to meets that might be hundreds of miles away. Young athletes strive for that level of personalized attention. As one young woman who experienced continued sexual abuse by a gymnastics coach told espnW in 2016, sexual comments and inappropriate behavior coming from someone who should know better didn't bother her at the time because "from my perspective, it was just nice to be noticed." 

Gymnasts are not just trained to compete; they are trained to ignore. They are trained to ignore fear, beginning as children learning to move backward as easily as they move forward. Most of all, in a culture that already inculcates young women with a desire to sublimate their needs to satisfy others, they are trained to ignore warning signals, even at their own risk. They are told, in short, to shut up and do what they're told. 

Deborah Daniels, a former federal prosecutor, led an independent review of USA Gymnastics' handling of sexual abuse cases. In her June report, Daniels wrote that "everything about this environment, while understandable in the context of a highly competitive Olympic sport, tends to suppress reporting of inappropriate activity." The report included 70 recommendations, including requiring in-person training on abuse prevention and permitting third parties to report abuse, all of which USA Gymnastics accepted. "This signifies a comprehension of the implications of the report and a willingness to act decisively," Daniels told me, but she added that selecting a new leader (USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny stepped down in March) and conveying a message that protecting athletes is a priority will be the real challenges. USA Gymnastics never exerted control over member gyms or clubs, she says, never insisted they report abuse or punished those that didn't. That needs to change. Quickly. 

Jamie Dantzscher, a 2000 Olympian, filed a lawsuit against Nassar, USA Gymnastics and the past three presidents of the organization last year. In it, her attorney said Dantzscher had "sacrificed her youth, her normal childhood and quite literally, her body, to obtain her world-class status as a gymnast" and represent the U.S. The suit alleges she was sexually abused by Nassar at meets, events and gyms around the world. "I thought I was the only one," she told the Senate Judiciary Committee in March, adding that others in the gymnastics community had criticized her for speaking out.

The reforms USA Gymnastics has pledged are desperately needed, but so is a cultural change. Young athletes who have been taught to disregard physical and emotional trauma in the pursuit of world titles need to know that their safety is far more important than any medal.

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