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After Abuse Scandal, USA Gymnastics Says It Will Take Steps To Protect Athletes

USA Gymnastics announced Tuesday that it will adopt all 70 of the recommendations in an independent review of its policies about reporting abuse. An investigation by The Indianapolis Star last year found that at least 368 gymnasts have alleged they were sexually assaulted by adults working in the sport.

"Even one instance of child abuse is one too many," USA Gymnastics said in a statement on its website. "USA Gymnastics is very sorry that anyone has been harmed during his or her gymnastics career, and we offer our deepest regrets to any athlete who suffered abuse or mistreatment while participating in the sport. By working together, we can move the sport forward to better prevent the opportunity for abuse to occur."

The organization's board unanimously adopted the report's recommendations on Monday night, the Associated Press reports. But some say USAG's pledge to do better isn't enough.

"The same people who have groomed this environment and didn't catch it to begin with, and now all of a sudden you're telling us overnight this is going to be fixed?" Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu told the Star.

Attorney John Manly, whose firm represents more than 100 people who allege abuse by former team doctor Larry Nassar, called the report "a public relations facade," according to the AP.

"The report calls for a change in culture but those who created the toxic culture remain in charge of the organization," said Manly in a statement, the AP reports. "The lack of any real investigation, facts or accountability for those who failed thousands of boys and girls victimized by Nassar and others in the report is disturbing."

Late last year, USA Gymnastics hired Deborah Daniels, a former federal prosecutor and current partner at an Indianapolis-based law firm, to conduct an independent review of its bylaws, policies, procedures and practices related to handling sexual misconduct matters, and to make recommendations on how to improve.

That report was released yesterday, and its overarching recommendation is a "cultural shift" at both the organization and its member clubs. "USA Gymnastics has never felt it had the ability to exert influence over the club," Daniels told the AP. "You can use membership to enforce the policies."

One of Daniels' recommendations is reducing the power of the organization's president. "A president who was not inclined to take reports of misconduct seriously, or who was concerned about tarnishing the reputation of the organization, or who was a friend of the respondent in the matter, would have the authority to dismiss the complaint, or choose not to pursue it, without the involvement of others."

The group's former president and CEO, Steve Penny, resigned in March under pressure that followed the Star's investigation. USA Gymnastics expects to hire Penny's replacement by the fall, the newspaper reports.

USA Gymnastics staff received "little, if any, formal training" relating to the dynamics or prevention of child abuse, according to Daniels' report, and it also had no staff dedicated to child protection. The organization says it is "in the final stages" of hiring a Director of Safe Sport, who will be charged with driving the importance of athlete safety and creating education and training plans for athletes, parents and coaches.

The Daniels report describes the specific qualities of women's gymnastics that increase its athletes' risk of sexual abuse and harassment: the young age of athletes, long hours of training that prevent athletes from receiving typical socialization, an emphasis on toughness and not complaining, physical contact as a coaches "spot" an athlete or correct her form, and an emphasis on obedience. "Everything about this environment, while understandable in the context of a highly competitive Olympic sport, tends to suppress reporting of inappropriate activity," the report says.

And parents of elite gymnasts often defer to coaches, the report explains: "[P]arents learn that they must turn their child's upbringing and discipline over to the coach during the training portions of her day, and even beyond. If the coach orders no desserts, the parent is doing the child a disservice by taking her out for ice cream. ... And generally, the parents are not themselves gymnasts, so they are uncertain of the propriety of actions that may be taken by coaches. They want their child to succeed, so they tend to defer to the authority figures in the sport and not question them."

The report recommends USA Gymnastics create a database of coaches who are dismissed from member clubs, so that coaches suspected of abuse do not move from one club to another. The AP reports that such a database is planned.

USA Gymnastics listed a number of policies it would introduce to decrease "opportunities for grooming and other inappropriate interactions." Those policies include prohibiting adult members from being alone with minor gymnasts, sharing or being alone in a sleeping room with gymnasts, or having "out-of-program" contact with gymnasts via email, text or social media.

"What we've recommended can't happen overnight, it will take thoughtful and strategic planning to implement," Daniels told the AP on Tuesday. "If USA Gymnastics adopts recommendations and implements them, it is poised to be in the forefront."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.