SALT LAKE CITY — The coronavirus shrouds the 2020 Olympics, calling into question the games’ importance when faced with a threat to public health. Meanwhile, a different shadow lurks around USA Gymnastics, as it has since allegations of sexual abuse against team doctor Larry Nassar surfaced in 2016. It raises a concern of equal relevance: Should American gymnastics — one of the country’s most popular summer games sports — be celebrated when its governing bodies remain averse to accountability?
The question is should they — not will they. Because odds are, fans of American gymnastics will have plenty to celebrate should the Olympics be held. Led by four-time gold medalist and 19-time world champion Simone Biles, the American squad is poised for gold. USA Gymnastics would love if the story started and ended there: With gold medals, smiles and teary renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The Olympics are about national pride and athletic excellence, after all, and U.S. gymnasts inspire and embody both.
But should that be the beginning and end of the story? Biles herself thinks not.
In a tweet responding to USA Gymnastics’ recent $215 million settlement offer to Nassar’s victims, she lamented that she still has to “think about everything that I DON’T WANT TO THINK ABOUT!!!” She said the organization simply wants the scandal to go away, rather than dealing with the underlying issues that led to Nassar’s predatory behavior and the factors that enabled it.
“... don’t THEY also want to know HOW everything was allowed to happen and WHO let it happen so it NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN?” she wondered. “Shouldn’t people be held accountable?”
Biles’ anger stems from the settlement’s insistence that in exchange for financial compensation, Nassar’s victims would release former USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny and former coaches Martha and Bela Karolyi, among others, from legal liability.
“It shows they don’t care,” former Olympian and Nassar survivor Aly Raisman told the “Today” show on Monday. “They’re just trying to push it under the rug and hoping people will forget about it when they watch the Olympics this summer.”
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former Olympic gold medalist swimmer turned civil rights attorney, echoed Raisman: The settlement offer doesn’t address the real problem.
“What athletes keep saying is we need these major reforms here so it doesn’t happen again,” she said, “and all you’re putting on the table is money?”
Until USA Gymnastics understands that, it’s unlikely to move past the scandal. Nor do the gymnasts want it to. Not without teaching the institutions that failed them — and the rest of us — the meaning of accountability.
What does accountability look like?
There’s perhaps no one better equipped to answer that question than Sam Silverstein, an accountability writer, speaker and consultant. He’s spent 28 years pondering accountability. But before addressing how USA Gymnastics lacks accountability, he thought it important to dissect the word and why it’s often misunderstood.
“The reason we struggle with it,” he said, “is because we don’t know what it is.”
The definition he’s refined is surprisingly simple: Accountability is keeping your commitments to people. He distinguishes between two kinds of commitments: the tactical and the relational. Most job descriptions involve a list of tactical commitments — meeting deadlines, attending certain events, etc. Violating such commitments isn’t a good thing, but it has little to do with accountability.
Relational commitments prioritize relationships. A commitment to the truth, for example, or safety. Not physical safety, necessarily, but emotional safety. Nurturing accountability, he said, starts with creating an environment where people — leaders and non-leaders alike — actually care about each others’ well-being and want to be accountable to each other.
In the case of the USA Gymnastics settlement offer, he said it’s clear that accountability is not the motivating factor, nor has it ever been. He said it’s a common tactic, among leaders who don’t understand accountability, to take the route of admitting mistakes and moving on.
“Well, no,” he said, “you can’t move past it because you as a leader have not stood up and said, ‘This should have never happened. It happened on my watch. It was my fault.’”
He compared the situation to the recent debacle of an apology by Houston Astros owner Jim Crane. His team was caught cheating during its run to the 2017 World Series, and although he had no knowledge of the scheme, Crane, as the team’s owner, needed to answer for it. His response? It happened, let’s get past it and move on.
The accountable response, Silverstein said, would go beyond admitting guilt and asking people to forget. Instead, Crane should have returned the World Series title and promised the people of Houston that his club would double its efforts toward winning a championship the right way in 2020. That’s accountability to a principle of fairness, to the team’s relationship with fans who expect to watch a level competition, and to the covenant with opposing teams that makes sports competitive in the purest sense.
But Crane’s response, Silverstein said, remains common because most organizations just aren’t interested in accountability — including USA Gymnastics.
“If I truly care about the members of my organization, if I truly care about the athletes and the gymnasts, then their safety, their health, their wellness comes first,” Silverstein said. “And nothing less will be tolerated, no matter how much revenue it brings in, or no matter how much disgrace it causes by uncovering it and dealing with it.”
Ironically, if the goal is to move past the scandal before the Olympics, accountability could do more than a monetary settlement.
“They’re letting this thing stay alive because they’re not dealing with it,” Silverstein said.
The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) has introduced some reforms, like adding additional athletes to its board and improved compliance standards. But Hogshead-Makar said such reforms are not enough.
Unlike most countries, American Olympic organizations are not federally funded, so money flows via sponsorships with little oversight. This creates, according to Hogshead-Makar, an environment ripe for exploitation. One example, via Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, explores how Penny, the former USA Gymnastics president, tried to act as agent for gymnasts like Biles and Jordyn Wieber.
This is one example, Hogshead-Makar said, of a skewed power dynamic that favors executives over athletes.
“Sexual abuse is a symptom of athletes having no power,” she continued. “So you can’t solve sexual abuse without this underlying function of power.”
Which is why athletes have stepped in to correct the imbalance — to demand accountability — and so has the government.
Bipartisan legislation called the Empowering Olympic and Amateur Athletes Act of 2019 addresses the lack of oversight by, among other things, giving Congress the authority to dissolve the board of the U.S. Olympic Committee and decertify National Governing Bodies, like USA Gymnastics. Hogshead-Makar remains hopeful about the legislation, which made it out of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on Nov. 13.
But increased oversight — she calls it “structural accountability” — can’t easily fix a cultural problem. Doing so requires a relational reckoning — an honest assessment of what went wrong and why.
“The real problem is leadership and how they see their members, their athletes,” Silverstein summarized. “Do they see them as tools to generate revenue? Do they see them as people who can be seen in the spotlight and market their sport? Or do they see them as people, human beings who have real needs?”
Answering that last question — quickly — will determine the influence of the scandal in Tokyo. And if the answer is anything less than accountability, perhaps a better question than “Can American gymnastics be saved?” is to wonder whether it should be.