Just when gymnastics started to seem right again, enter Li Li Leung and her unthinkable answer
Last weekend was a display of all that can be great in gymnastics. Maggie Nichols won the NCAA women's gymnastics all-around title for the second straight year on Friday night. The next day, UCLA's Katelyn Ohashi went mega-viral -- again -- with her addicting floor routine. Then Nichols and her Oklahoma teammates celebrated the NCAA national title in front of a record crowd at the Fort Worth Convention Center in Texas.
Nichols, of course, is a former national team gymnast who won a world championship with Team USA in 2015. She also is "Athlete A," the first woman to report Larry Nassar, in 2015, to USA Gymnastics. Now a junior in college, Nichols has emerged as one of the best ever at the NCAA level, and she has talked openly about the joy of competing at Oklahoma after such a difficult elite experience.
For a moment, it felt like gymnastics was turning a corner. After three years of turmoil, and hundreds of accusers detailing Nassar's sexual assaults, the sport and its amazing athletes were finally starting to be back in focus.
But then USAG's new president and CEO had to remind everyone just how much work there is left to do to save the sport in this country.
On Tuesday night, a preview clip from Wednesday's "Today" circulated on social media. In the video, Li Li Leung -- the organization's fourth in that role in less than two years -- talked about her own experience seeing Nassar as a teenage gymnast.
"I was seen by Larry Nassar myself," she told Sheinelle Jones. "I was not abused by him, and the reason I wasn't abused by him is because my coach was by my side when he saw me. I was seen by him in a public setting. And so I understand what the setting needs to be to ensure safety for our athletes."
TOMORROW on #3rdHourTODAY: New @USAGym President @Li_Li_Leung to @SheinelleJones on Larry Nassar: "I was seen by Larry Nassar myself...but I was not abused by him, and the reason why I wasn't abused by him is because my coach was by my side when he saw me." pic.twitter.com/e9XLLj61cc- NBC News PR (@NBCNewsPR) April 23, 2019
Oh no. No. NO.
While it's a relief Leung didn't have to experience the horror and trauma, it's astonishing how tone-deaf she sounds. So many of the survivors had parents or coaches in the room with them while their abuse happened, so to say that's all that's needed to prevent this is frankly insulting to all those who have come forward. Did she not take the time to watch any of the victim statements? So many of them talked about that very detail at great lengths.
It could have been such a big moment for Leung, who officially started in the role six weeks ago. It was one of her first interviews, and she had to know how widely it would be watched. And then, again, she must have realized that discussing her encounter with Nassar would be the most talked-about part of the segment. There are so many other things -- better things -- she could have said:
"I was seen by Larry Nassar myself, and that makes me feel all the more committed to ensuring nothing like this ever happens again."
"I was seen by Larry Nassar myself, and I understand how horrifying abuse in that setting would have been."
"I was seen by Larry Nassar myself, so I recognize how despicable this was better than most. I will do anything and everything to make sure this doesn't happen again."
See how easy that was? But Leung said none of those things.
She did issue an apology on Twitter on Wednesday morning, before the full interview aired.
I understand how my comment seems insensitive to the survivors and their families, and I apologize. My intent was not to diminish what they've been through. I should have clarified that my experience was completely different from theirs (1/2) https://t.co/OEROvUsWOt- Li Li Leung (@Li_Li_Leung) April 24, 2019
(2/2) and it is wrong to suggest I could have a solution based on my experience alone. I cannot know all necessary steps to take until I hear their stories, and hope they will have a dialogue with us regarding athlete safety and well-being going forward.- Li Li Leung (@Li_Li_Leung) April 24, 2019
Considering the ineptness of USAG's previous leaders, her apology actually feels like a positive step, but it's not enough. She's right -- she can't come up with a solution based on her own singular experience. But it's troubling she thought that was OK until yesterday. A true leader knows her voice can't be the only one worth listening to.
As Leung acknowledged during the interview, there is pending litigation and she has been instructed to not reach out to survivors directly. I get that, but it's time to make things happen. Get lawyers involved, do whatever it takes, and talk to as many survivors who are willing to talk. Their voices matter -- they have to matter -- and their insights are so valuable. There are so many smart and thoughtful women (See: Biles, Simone or Raisman, Aly) who are doing what they can to help create societal change. Why not let them?
Leung said she hadn't yet spoken to Biles or Raisman but would like to. While again, the litigation makes for a convenient excuse, Biles is a current member of the national team and, you know, the best gymnast in the world. Shouldn't finding a moment to speak to the organization's top athlete be a priority of the new president?
"In her first media interview, the first thing Leung should have said is 'We own this, we failed you, and I am going to fix it,' said Nassar survivor and attorney Sarah Klein. "Instead, she said that because an adult was in the room while she was being treated by Larry, she didn't get abused. Not only is her statement hurtful to every survivor who had a coach or a parent in the room with them when Nassar masterfully manipulated his body to hide the fact that he was penetrating children, but it demonstrates utter ignorance and a total misunderstanding of the problem at USAG.
"This is a cultural problem, period. There must be a fundamental change in culture at USAG. Hiring yet another tone-deaf sports marketing CEO who insults survivors and their parents right out of the gate doesn't instill much confidence that a cultural change is forthcoming. In fact, it demonstrates the opposite."
Several survivors initially expressed disappointment about Leung's hire, and it's starting to seem like Leung is more of the same. You'll recall that Leung's predecessor, Mary Bono, lasted less than a week as interim president and CEO after troubling tweets emerged, along with her previous work for a law firm that had helped USAG when the Nassar allegations first emerged. Kerry Perry, the woman in the role prior to that, resigned after nine months following a widely criticized tenure. And Steve Penny, who ran USAG from 2005 until his dismissal in 2017, has since been arrested for tampering with evidence during the Nassar investigation.
It really shouldn't be hard to at least be better than these three. Do better, Li Li Leung.