USA Gymnastics, Simone Biles, and the Failure of Accountability

Ethan Bauer, a reporter for the Deseret News, recently interviewed me as part of a story on the unprecedented public criticism leveled at USA Gymnastics (USAG) and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) by US gymnast Simone Biles. She and other athletes spoke up frankly about the failure of accountable leadership in both organizations to respond effectively to the massive sexual abuse scandal that has grown for years now, like a malignant tumor, on the sport of gymnastics. I told Bauer that Biles was right to speak up and that in doing so she and others were taking a stand for accountability, a stand that leadership at USA Gymnastics has failed to take.

A little background: A piece last week in the Washington Post spotlighted USAG’s proposal for “settling hundreds of lawsuits over its failure to protect athletes from sexual predator and former team doctor Larry Nassar.” Nassar was sentenced 175 years in prison after pleading guilty to multiple counts of sexual assault on minors. The USAG proposal, the Post reported, would “release U.S. Olympic officials, former USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny, former coaches Martha and Bela Karolyi and others from liability. Moreover, it includes no provision for disclosing who at USA Gymnastics was aware of and hid Nassar’s abuse — details that survivors have demanded from the outset.”

The Post went on to detail Biles’s extraordinary public rebuke of USA Gymnastics on Twitter, which read: “Heading to team camp. Still want answers from USAG and USOPC. Wish they BOTH wanted an independent investigation as much as the survivors & I do. Anxiety high. Hard not to think about everything that I DON’T WANT TO THINK ABOUT!!! ….don’t THEY also want to know HOW everything was allowed to happen and WHO let it happen so it NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN?”

Biles is, as you read this, preparing for the 2020 Olympic Games. She is absolutely right. She should not have to think about this. The national leadership of her sport should never have put her in this position.

Sometimes, in the wake of a major problem, leadership takes on a strange mentality. I call it the “Turn the Page” mentality. It sounds like this: “Yes. Something bad happened. But that was in the past. It is done with, and now it is time to move on, so let’s just focus on what we are doing next. Let’s turn the page.”

In other words, let’s make the problem go away. The instinct to say “Let’s just turn the page” is the polar opposite of accountability. It is a failure to deal with the reality of the responsibilities that have been created as a result of the problem.

Accountability is not a reactive issue. It is a proactive issue. The accountability was initially lost years ago when the leaders did not keep their own commitments to the athletes–specifically the commitments to tell the truth and to provide a safe space for the athletes. The USAG’s Mission, Purpose, and Code of Ethics specifically forbids “knowingly subject(ing) a participant to unreasonable physical or emotional risk.” Leaders failed to live up to that standard.

Since leadership failed, it is up to leadership to restore accountability by getting to the bottom of what happened and making a public accounting of who knew what, when.

Here is the crux of the problem. This was not a safe space, and leaders knew it was not a safe space. They failed in their commitment to keep the athletes safe, and that means that there was no true leadership relationship between the leaders of USA Gymnastics and the athletes that they claimed to represent. There was an accountability gap–a big one.

Someone knew that that gap existed while this predator was assaulting athletes. Biles’s questions are who knew, and how does USAG make absolutely sure this never happens again moving forward? These questions must be answered. Period.

In trying to “turn the page,” in trying to continue to cover up their own failure with a legal settlement that provides zero answers to the most important questions, leadership at USAG and USOPC are ensuring that there remains a total lack of safe space right now. That is unacceptable.

Transparency is a key element of accountable leadership. Accountability and deception cannot coexist. Leadership at these organizations must now find a way to create a safe space, just as it must create a relationship based on the values of trust and transparency. If that means people need to move out of the organizations they have claimed to lead and find something else to do, so be it. Leadership has to acknowledge that it is time to determine exactly where the mistakes were made, who made them, and what the appropriate response is to those mistakes. This is what accountability is all about.

So: What choices enabled this catastrophe, who made them, and what action needs to be taken now? Credible answers must be offered, publicly and quickly. Then all the appropriate steps need to be taken that restore a commitment to a safe space and a commitment to the truth.

Until such time as those steps are taken, athletes will not be in a safe space, there will not be accountable leadership, and USAG and USOPC will not be accountable organizations.  

Let’s be frank. Leaders at these organizations were more worried about public perception and short-term financial results than they were about the safety of the athletes. That is shameful. If it were their daughters, would this be how they would be handling the settlement?

This story is far more serious than the other sports scandals to which it is being compared. This is a systemic coverup of a criminal human rights abuse on a massive scale. The only ones who are showing accountability in this situation are the gymnasts themselves. Theirs are the only voices saying, “We have to fix this, not just for us but for future generations of gymnasts, and by extension for athletes in all sports.”

Those are the voices we need to listen to now. Not the voices telling us to turn the page. Sometimes, turning the page is a failure of accountability–and a moral failure.

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