In February, the U.S. Olympic Committee commissioned an investigation into former team doctor Larry Nassar’s abuse of hundreds of children over a period of decades. Now that report, conducted by independent law firm Ropes & Gray, has finally been released. Entitled “The Constellation of Factors Underlying Larry Nassar’s Abuse of Athletes,” the findings are damning: the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and USA Gymnastics (USAG) enabled Nassar’s abuse by prioritizing medals and money at the expense of the safety and wellbeing of athletes.
But the failures outlined in the Ropes & Gray report extend well beyond Nassar’s abuse of gymnasts. These same failures have enabled similar abuse over decades in gyms, pools, and other sporting facilities around the country. Through the Ted Stevens and Amateur Sports Act, Congress has given the USOC essentially a monopoly power over all “Olympic-related activity” in the United States. Lost in much media coverage of abuse in Olympic sport, is that “Olympic-related activity” extends well beyond actual participation in the Olympics. Under the USOC, 47 national governing bodies (NGBs) also credential coaches and oversee teams at the local level.
Thus, the toxic culture described in the Ropes & Gray report also affects children whose involvement in sports is casual. I was an average swimmer, not an elite gymnast, yet many parts of the report felt familiar as I read through it. My perpetrator abused me starting in the mid-1980s, when at the age of seven I joined a swim team at my local YMCA.
Not long after, my coach decided to start his own team at a non-regulation length pool in the basement of a local college in order to have less accountability and more access to me. The process was easy. He paid his dues to USA Swimming and became a USA Swimming team with me as his first and only member. His main work experience prior to founding the team was as an elementary school playground monitor and lifeguard. But because the USA Swimming and Olympic brand inspires trust, he soon had a steady stream of customers.
Before I reported my perpetrator in 2014, I fantasized that the culture in sports had somehow changed and that children would be protected. I was wrong. My abuser is now in prison and USA Swimming banned him from the sport. And yet, the team my perpetrator created to abuse me still exists and is now owned by a woman who called my abuser a man of impeccable character after he had pleaded guilty.
The USOC has an obligation to be a better steward of the Olympic brand. It has the means to protect athletes, but for decades has failed to adequately do so. The culture that existed when I was abused in the 1980s persists today because of the twisted priorities of those in charge. Pursuit of the Olympic dream should never be accompanied by life-ruining abuse, and participation in a sport should never compromise a child’s wellbeing.
Until the USOC — perhaps with the help of Congress — undergoes a seismic cultural shift, youth sports should come with a warning label. As this latest report shows, athletes across all sports governed by the USOC are at risk because of the same broken policies, practices, and culture that brought us Larry Nassar.