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Some officials (not all) confront abuse

It must have been uncomfortable for Rick Adams, chief of Paralympic sports for the United States Olympic Committee, to sit between two gymnasts during the congressional hearing about sexual abuse Tuesday.

To his right, Jamie Dantzscher started crying during her testimony. She described how she was molested by the former USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar when she was a teenager.

Dantzscher, 34 and a former Olympian, said Nassar abused her "all over the world."

"In my own room, in my own bed, in my hotel room in Sydney at the Olympic Games," she said, through tears. "I thought I was the only one."

To Adams' left, Jessica Howard, a former national champion in rhythmic gymnastics, testified that Nassar began assaulting her when she was 15, during what he called therapy for a hip injury.

"He began to massage my legs, and then quickly moved inwards on my thighs," she said. "He then massaged his way into me."

Give these women credit for telling their stories. They're a main reason Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., decided to introduce a bill that would make it mandatory for national governing bodies of Olympic sports to report sexual assault to the police. It would be a federal crime not to report abuse.

Give Adams credit, too. In the past, the Olympic committee had failed to prioritize the issue of sexual assault and appeared to turn a blind eye to the issue by handing it off to the governing bodies of each Olympic sport. But on Tuesday, finally, Adams said something that was a long time coming.

He said sorry.

"The Olympic community failed the people it was supposed to protect," said Adams, the head of organizational development for the national governing sports bodies, which exist under the umbrella of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "We do take responsibility, and we apologize to any young athlete who has ever faced abuse."

Nassar was fired by USA Gymnastics in 2015 and is currently in jail in Michigan, where he is facing multiple sexual assault charges and federal child pornography charges. He has denied any wrongdoing.

You would think USA Gymnastics also would go out of its way to apologize for its role in an abuse scandal that has shaken Olympic sports and caused the ouster of its president, Steve Penny. More than 80 athletes have accused Nassar of abusing them. But the gymnastics organization did not even have a representative in that Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room.

Feinstein had asked USA Gymnastics to testify and said its board chairman, Paul Parilla, was thinking about it but backed out.

Instead, Parilla provided a statement. It said the board of directors offered "our sincere and heartfelt regrets and sympathies" to any athlete harmed and USA Gymnastics is "appalled that anyone would exploit a young athlete or child in the manner alleged."

No apologies. Court documents released earlier in March showed USA Gymnastics had complaint files on 54 coaches, regarding sex abuse claims from 1996 to 2006.

No apologies, even for its lack of a backbone and for sending only a lobbyist to the hearing. That lobbyist first identified himself as working for USA Gymnastics — which I figured, considering he was holding a file folder that said, "USAG 50 copies" on it. A few minutes later, he said, no, he was actually there for USA Hockey.

The federation has had no shame, either. When the sex abuse bill was introduced, Penny and others from USA Gymnastics met with Feinstein about the federation's sexual assault policies. How about this for a public-relations stunt: Tagging along was Mary Lou Retton, the smiling, bubbly sweetheart from the 1984 Games, as they touted that the federation's policies were solid and that gymnastics was a happy, safe place.

On Tuesday, Feinstein and her fellow senators weren't thrilled the gymnastics federation ditched them this time.

"If they really cared, they would be here," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said as he looked at Dantzscher and Howard, the abused gymnasts who testified. "They have to answer for what happened to you."

At a news conference later, Blumenthal called for an investigation into "who knew what and when."

Feinstein said she would like to see the gymnastics board of directors change and for its replacement to be people who make the sexual assault issue a priority.

The USOC should hasten that change. It can do so by decertifying USA Gymnastics, which would basically kick the federation out as the national governing body for the sport of gymnastics in the United States.

To let USA Gymnastics back into the family, the Olympic committee could demand the federation clean house and start new with fresh faces. The committee has used this power before, with other federations, and it used its influence to push out Penny when the Nassar case exploded into one of the biggest abuse scandals in sports history. It might as well go one step further, if only to show athletes and other federations that it won't tolerate sexual abuse on its watch.

When asked if USA Gymnastics knew about the abuse of gymnasts at the hands of Nassar, Feinstein said: "Do I believe they knew about it? Absolutely, yes, I do."

But they didn't report it, she said, and that's the culture of the sport.

If Feinstein's bill passes, it would help change that culture. The new U.S. Center for SafeSport — a nonprofit formed to prevent and handle abuse in Olympic sports — should help, too, if it ever gets going the way it should. Last week, after many delays, including a struggle by the Olympic committee to find funding, the center finally opened for business.

There should be a hotline for athletes and others to anonymously report abuse in Olympic sports. Good luck finding it on the center's website. Feinstein said the Olympic committee should easily find money to fund the site and keep it running, whether it's through raising money from the private sector or using its own cash.

"The Olympic committee has money, so they can use it the way they want to use it," she said.

Mattie Larson was sitting in the public seats at the hearing Tuesday. She is 24 now, but I first met the senior at UCLA when she was 15, sometime before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She was quiet, and a rising star. She was being molested by Nassar about that time.

So many years later, in 2016, when the Indianapolis Star published an article about a gymnast who accused Nassar of abusing her, Larson's former teammate on the national team called her and said, "Read the story and tell me what you think."

The two realized Nassar had abused them. It had never occurred to them that his so-called "intravaginal treatment" was sexual assault. After all, he was the head doctor for USA Gymnastics. If the federation trusted him, they should, too.

Now Larson replays the abuse in her head, again and again. What could she have done to stop it? What should USA Gymnastics have done to stop it?

"I'm mad at myself for not knowing," she said of the abuse. "On so many levels, it was complete betrayal.

"You'd think in a sport with young girls, with young girls wearing leotards, prancing around with their legs flying all over the place, that USA Gymnastics would educate gymnasts and coaches and parents about sexual abuse. But they didn't. And they knew they should have."

Larson said it could have saved her and others, countless others, if the U.S. Center for SafeSport existed when she was competing.

"There are so many more victims who haven't come forward yet," she said. "I know them. They're national team members, Olympians."

At the very least, USA Gymnastics or the U.S. Olympic Committee could have mandated sex abuse awareness training for athletes and their parents. The committee didn't require its national governing bodies to run abuse education programs, or even conduct criminal background checks, until 2014.

When Adams was asked why so many years had passed with no independent entity like the SafeSport center, his answer was vague.

"It took too long to happen," he said.

— New York Times

Some officials (not all) confront abuse 03/30/17 [Last modified: Thursday, March 30, 2017 7:38pm]
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