Silencing the media won’t change USA Gymnastics’ culture of abuse – Orange County Register



SAN JOSE  — Potter Stewart served on the U.S. Supreme Court for 23 years, a constant presence through nearly a quarter-century of landmark in one of this country’s eras.

But Stewart will be best remembered for a brief statement he made regarding the Court’s decision on a 1964 obscenity case. Hard-core pornography, Stewart said, was hard to define but added, “I know it when I see it.”

The phrase, widely repeated at the time and in the years since, would haunt Stewart for the rest of his life.

“In a way, I regret having said what I said about obscenity — that’s going to be on my tombstone. When I remember all of the other solid words I’ve written,” Stewart said in 1981, four years before his death. “I regret a little bit that if I’ll be remembered at all I’ll be remembered for that particular phrase.”

Among those thousands of solid words from Stewart was this: “Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself.”

The latter Stewart quote came to mind Sunday afternoon as I sat in the seat I purchased in Section 107, Row 23, Seat 16 at the SAP Center for the USA Gymnastics Championships.

Normally I would be sitting on press row, just I have through the last seven Olympic Games gymnastics competitions, World Championships, U.S. championships in parts of three decades and NCAA Championships dating back to the early 1990s.

But earlier this month USA Gymnastics unexpectedly denied my credential request to cover Simone Biles record-setting  eighth U.S. all-around title.

When I reached out to USA Gymnastics, assuming the rejection was some kind of mistake, I was told by Jill Geer, USA Gymnastics’ chief marketing and communications officer, “We are over-run with media requests and having to make some tough decisions on credentialing. We can’t accommodate you this year.”

Geer’s explanation didn’t ring true since a number of major American newspapers with long histories of covering the sport chose not to join the media stampede to San Jose. From Section 107, directly behind the media section, there were plenty of empty seats on press row. This isn’t the first time Geer’s attempt at spin hasn’t held up and I’m certain it won’t be the last either.

In fact, the Southern California News Group and our readers are being punished, censored by USA Gymnastics for nearly 20 years of relentless reporting that has repeatedly exposed an organization that continues to place money, branding, and marketing over the safety and well being of the young athletes it has been entrusted to protect.

This reporting predated the Larry Nassar scandal by a dozen years and has continued since USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee reached a $380 million settlement with the survivors of Nassar and other predatory coaches and officials.

Indeed, since the Nassar settlement, SCNG has revealed a series of U.S. Center for SafeSport investigations of two of the sport’s most famous coaches for years of alleged abuse, and we’ve reported USA Gymnastics’ response to them and other probes, reporting that has embarrassed the national governing body’s CEO Li Li Leung and undercut the organization’s claim that it has changed the culture of abuse within American gymnastics that allowed Nassar, former Olympic coaches Don Peters and John Geddert to sexually abuse young girls.

Leung, Geer and USA Gymnastics know they haven’t taken the steps to create real culture change in the sport and don’t want someone in San Jose pointing out their failures and wrecking NBC’s fairytale.

Leung’s idea of change is changing the organization’s logo, which USA Gymnastics did last year, a move, Leung said was, “symbolizing the organizational and cultural transformation we have pursued since 2019.”

In reality, all Leung and Geer did was create a new seal of approval for American gymnastics continued culture of abuse.

“Since that time,” Leung told reporters in San Jose, referring to the logo change, “almost every bit of good news related to the sport of gymnastics – from legend athletes returning to the sport to new corporate partnerships to a new feeling of fun and celebration – is a direct reflection of the work that the entire gymnastics community has done to define and cultivate a new culture that prioritises athletes and their safety, health and wellness.”

The problem is that Leung and USA Gymnastics don’t want to do that heavy lifting that creates true cultural transformation. They just want potential corporate sponsors to think they have. Leung revealed as much in her state-of-the-sport comments last week.

Corporate sponsors like Kellogg’s and Proctor and Gamble dropped USA Gymnastics like it was radioactive in the wake of the Nassar scandal. USA Gymnastics hired Leung, the NBA’s former vice president for global partnerships, to get Corporate America back on board.

Leung’s hiring “was cooked up by a bunch of people from Madison Avenue,” John Manly, an attorney for more than 100 Nassar survivors, said at the time.

“For the business of USA Gymnastics and our mission of supporting athletes, it has manifested itself in a series of new partners joining us,” Leung gushed to reporters in San Jose. “We were so fortunate in the last few years to have long-time partners renew, and since January, USAG has welcomed five brand new partners, including, most recently, Core Hydration, Comcast, and Nike.”

Leung has had a series of tone-deaf moments during her tenure and this was another one.

Nike?

So you’re so serious about changing the culture of a sport that has abused young women for decades that you partner with a company whose track record for treating women is only slightly better than USA Gymnastics?

Nike, the company that offered Olympic champion sprinter Allyson Felix, long one of the most recognizable female athletes sponsored by the Oregon company, detailed in a New York Times piece, a 70 percent pay cut during December 2017 contract negotiations? Felix, who was pregnant at the time, also said Nike failed to put clear guarantees in the contract for maternity protections she had requested.

Nike, the brand that then asked Felix to participate in a female empowerment ad for the company, during the maternity protections negotiations?

The Nike that withheld a quarter of distance runner Kara Goucher’s $325,000 salary because she was pregnant and unable to compete even as the company built widely popular marketing campaign around the future mom?

“I had worked my butt off for the entirety of my pregnancy while they marketed me as a mother-athlete to consumers, yet they were effectively telling me that none of that work had any value,” Goucher wrote in her recent memoir “The Longest Race.”

The Nike that reportedly for a time paid the legal fees for the Goucher’s former coach, who the U.S. Center for SafeSport later ruled had sexually assaulted her?

That Nike?

“I don’t think it rings true at all,” Reshma Block, the Orange County mother of a young gymnast who was repeatedly abused by her coach, said of Leung’s comments in San Jose. “If there’s been change it’s not because of USA Gymnastics. Simone Biles has raised awareness about mental health, but as far USA Gymnastics changing anything, no.”

Instead, Leung’s tenure has been marked by a series of missteps. Only weeks after being hired, Leung, who competed for the U.S. at the 1988 Jr. Pan American Games, was widely criticized for comments she made related to the Nassar scandal during an interview with NBC’s “Today” show.

“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,” Leung said. “I was seen by him in a public setting and so I understand what the setting needs to be like in order to ensure safety for our athletes.”

Leung later apologized for the comments, acknowledging that they were “insensitive.”

Leung also drew criticism from former U.S. national team members and their supporters when Olympic champion Mary Lou Retton said in a television interview that Leung was consulting with her. Retton was on the USA Gymnastics board of directors during the Nassar scandal and, according to published reports, was an early defender of the former U.S. Olympic and U.S. national team director.

Leung’s first big move at USA Gymnastics was to hire Edward Nyman Jr. as the organization’s first ever sports medicine and science director in the spring of 2019.

“The director of sports medicine and science position is integral in addressing our top priorities of athlete health, well-being and safety,” Leung said at the time of Nyman’s hiring. “Making this hire early on in my tenure was important because it is critical for our becoming more athlete-centric. Ed’s collective professional experiences make him uniquely suited for this role.”

But Nyman was fired after just one day on the job. USA Gymnastics told SCNG that Nyman was fired for failing to reveal that his wife was under investigation by the U.S. Center for SafeSport for emotional and verbal abuse. USA Gymnastics documents obtained by SCNG, however, revealed that top USA Gymnastics officials had been aware of the investigation of Nyman’s wife and her Ohio gym since at least the summer of 2017 and had in fact referred complaints it had received to the center.

One of Leung’s other big hires was Geer, a move that raised more than a few eyebrows given that she was brought on board while the organization was still in federal bankruptcy proceedings.

As USA Track & Field’s chief marketing and communications officer, Geer spent more than a decade as the organization’s chief spin doctor, defending naming a previously banned doper to Team USA’s coaching staff, the NGB board’s decision to override an overwhelming vote of its membership, and the $1.2 million salary and lavish travel of the group’s CEO while many American Olympic track hopefuls struggled to make ends meet.

Geer was paid $208,862 by USA Track & Field and received an additional $29,092 in compensation from a related organization, according to Interal Revenue Service filings. In other words Geer was making annually nearly ten times the $25,000 bonus USATF at the time gave to Olympic gold medal winners.

Another person Leung has given a leading role in creating culture change is Kim Kranz, USA Gymnastics’ chief of athlete wellness.

USA Gymnastics in November 2020 found dozens of allegations of physical, verbal and emotional abuse against three Orange County gymnastics coaches “disturbing” and “credible and substantiated.” The USA Gymnastics investigation and ruling were prompted by a SCNG report that revealed that Vanessa Gonzalez and other coaches at Azarian U.S. Gymnastics Training Center allegedly routinely physically, emotionally and verbally abused, bullied and belittled, and pressured young female gymnasts to continue training and/or competing while injured.

One of the gymnasts abused was Block’s daughter.

Gonzalez and other Azarian coaches allegedly slapped gymnasts, hit them with objects leaving marks, threw shoes at them during training, and pulled them by their hair, according to formal complaints with USA Gymnastics and interviews.

Another Azarian girls head coach Perry Davies on a regular basis tickled young female gymnasts after pinning them down and sitting on them.

Instead of suspending or permanently banning the coaches, Gonzalez and Davies were given provisional suspensions and Gonzalez was back in the gym just two days later after doing online SafeSport training as part of a settlement agreement signed off on by Kranz.

Leung and USA Gymnastics were on the verge of hiring Valeri Liukin as the women’s national team high-performance director last year, despite being under investigation by the U.S. Center for SafeSport for multiple allegations of verbal and psychological abuse of young gymnasts, according to three people familiar with the investigation.

Leung and USA Gymnastics officials were aware of the allegations but only chose go another direction after an SCNG report made the U.S. Center SafeSport investigations public. Since then a former U.S. national team member has filed complaints alleging she was verbally abused by Liukin, according to two people familiar with the complaint.

Yet there was Liukin standing there on the SAP Center competition floor Sunday, hands on his hips, shaking his head in exasperation when one of his gymnasts misstepped.

From my seat, I could see Al Fong, one of the most successful and controversial coaches in American gymnastics for parts of five decades. Fong has coached two Olympic silver medalists and six World champions at the Great American Gymnastics Express in Blue Springs, Missouri, 20 miles east of Kansas City.

Two gymnasts coached by Fong have also died.

Julissa Gomez, a gymnast coached by Fong, broke her neck and was instantly paralyzed while attempting a difficult vault skill at an international competition in Tokyo in May 1988. Fong had pressured Gomez to attempt the skill, according to multiple published reports.

Gomez died in August 1991 from an infection related to her paralysis.

Christy Henrich, another gymnast coached by Fong at GAGE, was fourth at the 1989 World Championships on the uneven bars. A year earlier she missed making the U.S. Olympic team by a hundredth of a point.

Fong allegedly pressured Henrich to train and compete while injured and encouraged her to lose weight, according to multiple published reports.

“He was absolutely insane,” Jack Rockwell, an athletic trainer, said of Fong’s coaching of Henrich in the 1995 book “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters.”

Henrich developed anorexia nervosa and died in July 1994 from multiple organ failure related to starvation. She weighed less than 60 pounds at the time of her death.

Her family blamed Fong in the media and barred him from the funeral.

Fong is currently being investigated by the U.S. Center for SafeSport for physical, verbal and emotional abuse, according to confidential SafeSport documents obtained by SCNG.

The investigation of Fong, which was first reported by SCNG in February, has been ongoing since at least June 2020 and is in response to approximately 40 allegations of abuse, according to four people familiar with the investigation and U.S. Center for SafeSport documents.

Still Fong was credentialed by USA Gymnastics to coach in San Jose this weekend.

A few yards away, directly across the arena floor from where Leung sat, coaches walked by Liukin and patted him on the back and high-fived him. Fong received a similar reception, like Liukin still firmly in the embrace of the sport, the culture.Whether from press row or Section 107, Row 23, Seat 16 the scene was obscene.

“I’m not sure what has exactly changed,” Block said Sunday.

At the time of USA Gymnastics 2020 ruling in the Azarian case the organization’s “Safe Sport Investigations and Procedures” stated that “USA Gymnastics will give notice to, and consult with each person reportedly harmed by the misconduct if USA Gymnastics enters into the agreed-upon resolution.”

USA Gymnastics’ decision on the extent and nature of the coaches’ suspensions and to allow them to return to coaching was made without alleged victims and parents like Block (as many as 30 of whom complained) being formally interviewed by USA Gymnastics officials or the organization holding formal hearings where victims and family members could testify.

Thirty survivors and their parents censored by USA Gymnastics and a society afraid of the truth.



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