Report: USA Gymnastics needs culture change

Will Graves
Associated Press

To protect athletes from sexual abuse, an independent report is calling for a “complete culture change” for USA Gymnastics – a recommendation that some say could apply to Michigan State University too.

The report, released Tuesday by former federal prosecutor Deborah Daniels, was prompted partly by allegations against Larry Nassar, a former MSU doctor and USAG lead physician who is accused of sexually assaulting scores of gymnasts.

Nassar’s alleged acts emerged last year after an Indiana newspaper published an investigation into how USAG, the sport’s national governing body, failed to investigate sexual assault complaints against gymnastics coaches across the country.

The report recommends that all USA Gymnastics members be required to immediately report suspected sexual misconduct to legal authorities and the U.S. Center for SafeSport.

Daniels also suggested that USA Gymnastics prohibit adults from being alone with minor gymnasts “at all times” and bar adult members from having “out of program” contact with gymnasts through email, text or social media.

“Cultural change is not an overnight process; it requires an intentional, comprehensive plan ...,” the report said. “To set the tone for the entire sport, the words and deeds of the USA Gymnastics Board of Directors (Board) and the administrative leadership must embody a culture of protection.”

Rachael Denhollander — the most high-profile woman to speak publicly about the alleged assaults by Nassar — said that many others should heed the report’s recommendations. Among them: MSU, where she was allegedly assaulted by Nassar at age 15, along with Gedderts’ Twistars USA — the gymnastics club near Lansing where Nassar allegedly sexually assaulted other young women.

“Part of what I find so horrific about the abuse Nassar was able to commit: There was not one, but two organizations working closely with him (three, if you count Twistars), who could have and should have stopped him decades ago,” said Denhollander, now 32 and living in Louisville. “All three of them failed, and the devastation that followed, because of that failure, will last forever.”

Many of the points Daniels made are good but don’t go far enough because the report doesn’t cite instances where failure occurred, added Okemos-based attorney Mick Grewal, who is representing 30 alleged victims in lawsuits against Nassar.

“If you want to change this culture, you are going to point fingers at what was done by certain individuals or groups of individuals,” Grewal said. “How else are we going to learn from it?”

But Grewal added that the big difference between USAG and MSU is the gymnastics organization is no longer in denial. USAG has written an apology letter to all past and present members.

“This is the first step towards change,” Grewal said. “In contrast, Michigan State University has failed to even acknowledge what is going on at their university.”

But MSU spokesman Jason Cody said many initiatives are underway to bring culture change to the university.

Among them: an ongoing criminal investigation by MSU Police, five Title IX investigations against Nassar, an MSU HealthTeam review of policies and protocols and a campus-wide review looking at Nassar’s former work at the university, Cody said.

“We have an external law firm, Skadden, Arps, leading that effort with our general counsel,” Cody said. “Resulting information is shared with university leaders to inform personnel decisions, administrative action related to policies and procedures, and other important activity.”

USA Gymnastics ordered the review last fall following a series of civil lawsuits filed against the organization and Nassar by a pair of gymnasts who claim the physician sexually abused them during their time on the U.S. national team.

USA Gymnastics has denied wrongdoing. The organization stated it went to authorities quickly in the summer of 2015 after hearing claims of abuse against Nassar but later amended the timeline following a Wall Street Journal report, saying it conducted a five-week internal review before going to the FBI.

“A delay is impermissible,” Daniels said.

Daniels said the organization needs to more closely monitor member clubs to make sure its bylaws are followed. She suggested stripping membership from clubs that fail to report claims of child abuse.

But another lawyer representing more than 70 alleged victims of Nassar called the report a farce.

“(It) attempts to hide decades of emotional, physical and sexual abuse behind a public relations facade,” said John Manly, an Irvine, California-based attorney.

A few months ago, Manly said, USAG refused to send a representative to a hearing of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss pending legislation requiring sexual abuse of athletes to be reported to authorities.

“Now they are recommending that such reporting should take place in the future,” Manly said. “This is not comforting to the hundreds of alleged victims of Dr. Larry Nassar.”

A Michigan judge on Friday ordered Nassar to stand trial on 17 charges of sexually assaulting six young gymnasts who said he molested them while they were seeking treatment for various injuries. It is one of four criminal cases against Nassar in the state.

Kim Kozlowski and the Associated Press contributed.