As a three-time Olympic gold medalist who has devoted her legal career to advocating for women’s sports, Nancy Hogshead-Makar in 2013 drafted the blueprint for an independent agency that would investigate prospective Olympians’ reports of sexual abuse and advise the U.S. Olympic Committee on how to respond.
So when the Indianapolis Star on Thursday published a lengthy investigation into sexual abuse at the grassroots level of women’s gymnastics, it served as a gutting reminder of a results-driven power structure in elite sports that makes it extremely difficult for the youngest and most vulnerable Olympic hopefuls to report abusive behavior by coaches, get protection from them and prevent their abusers from perpetuating abuse on others.
Drawing on lawsuits, depositions and interviews with victimized gymnasts and their families, the newspaper detailed numerous instances in which USA Gymnastics failed to report criminal behavior by four member coaches — three are now in jail; the other committed suicide in jail — and instead filed the complaints away as “hearsay” unless they were reported directly by the victim or victim’s parent.
Hogshead-Makar said Thursday she could point to no evidence that the USOC’s SafeSport initiative, which grew out of her blueprint and was launched amid great fanfare in 2014, has made meaningful headway in protecting young athletes.
“Two years is an absurd amount of time; we do not give businesses and schools two years to put systems in place for addressing sexual abuse,” said Hogshead-Makar, Georgetown Law graduate and former senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation, in an email exchange.
The USOC has yet to name an executive director of the program, nor has it broken ground on the SafeSport Center it intends to build in Denver. Malia Arrington, the senior director of SafeSport and Ethics for the USOC, issued a statement Thursday outlining the USOC’s efforts to protect athletes, including $10 million in funding for the center. The statement concludes: “This year, the U.S. Center for SafeSport named its board of directors and is now preparing to launch its services in 2017. USA Gymnastics has been one of our most active, supportive, and concerned partners in this endeavor.”
But Hogshead-Makaralso rejected USA Gymnastics’ policy — and that of any governing body — to not report allegations of abuse to authorities unless filed by the victim or parent.
In a deposition cited by the Star, USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny said: “To the best of my knowledge, there’s no duty to report if you are — if you are a third-party to some allegation. You know, that lies with the person who has firsthand knowledge.”
Hogshead-Makar called that “a sure-fire way to ignore credible evidence of abuse and to shirk the organization’s responsibility towards their members.”
“Most abusers are masters at getting victims — particularly children — to be quiet about the abuse,” Hogshead-Makar said. “It’s how one molester can abuse so many kids. In my experience, victims do not usually come forward until the victim is around 40 years old. That means oftentimes the best reporters [of abuse] are those that see their colleagues interacting with athletes on a daily basis. Other coaches see more than parents or teammates. To ignore signed complaints made by people who witnessed sexual abuse puts athletes at serious risk.”
None of the cases detailed in the newspaper’s investigation, which occurred over the last two decades, involves current or former U.S. Olympic gymnasts or members of an Olympic coaching staff.
In response to the Star’s report, USA Gymnastics issued a five-paragraph statement on behalf of Penny, its president, in which he stressed the organization’s commitment to promoting a safe environment for its athletes.
“We find it appalling that anyone would exploit a young athlete or child in this manner, and recognize the effect this behavior can have on a person’s life,” Penny said, adding that USA Gymnastics had been “proactive” in educating its members about abuse and vowing to take punitive action as appropriate and cooperative with law enforcement.
“USA Gymnastics believes it has a duty to report to law enforcement whenever circumstances warrant,” Penny continued, citing an example in which he filed a report on Marvin Sharp, the coach who later killed himself in jail. According to the Star, USA Gymnastics’ report to police came four years after a 2011 complaint that described inappropriate touching and warned he posed a danger to children. In the later complaint that led USA Gymnastics to contact police, Sharp was accused of touching a gymnast’s vagina, trimming her pubic hair and taking sexually explicit photos, the Star reported.
Penny’s statement continued: “USA Gymnastics seeks first-hand knowledge whenever allegations of abuse arise as the most reliable source to take action and as outlined in its bylaws and policies. The organization has continually reviewed its best practices on how it addresses these issues and has been among the first to initiate new policies and procedures including publishing a list of banned coaches and instituting national background checks.”
Ju’Riese Colon, executive director of outreach and prevention, for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said in a telephone interview that she was familiar with the Star’s report and was highly disturbed by the governing body’s response.
“Regardless of who the report came from, when it came in, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recommends that any information of alleged abuse be reported to law enforcement — regardless of who it came from, first-, second- or third-hand. All those reports should be taken seriously and handled immediately.”
Katherine Starr, a former Olympic swimmer who represented Britain under her former name, Annabelle Cripps, was among seven named to an advisory council for the SafeSport initiative.
Starr, who competed for Texas, was 14 when she achieved her first national ranking. That was the same year she was raped by her coach.
It was three decades later, after she’d competed at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, that she confronted the sexual abuse she’d suffered as a child and formed a non-profit, Safe4Athletes, to advocate for athletes’ right to train and compete without abuse, bullying or harassment.
Reached by telephone Thursday, Starr voiced concern about the manner in which USA Gymnastics had handled the reports of sexual abuse.
“You have to eliminate every barrier, every constraint — get it out of the way — for an athlete to be able to come forward, especially the Olympic athletes,” Starr said in a telephone interview from Amsterdam.
As executive director of Safe4 Athletes, Starr said she often receives calls from would-be Olympian and well-known Olympians alike, seeking advice on how to handle instances of sexual abuse. Her organization maintains a list of banned coaches and disseminates information about counseling, therapy and best practices for clubs sports. But Starr said she has been reluctant to refer cases to the USOC or Olympic sport’s governing bodies, not convinced their concerns will be addressed in earnest.
“I have tried to be a voice and have been unsuccessful,” Starr said. “I haven’t seen any changes that are significant.”