The USA Gymnastics Athlete Assistance Fund: Too Little Too Late

On February 7, 2018, USA Gymnastics announced the establishment of a fund for gymnasts who have been sexually abused within the sport. The fund will give financial support for those who want to receive counseling after gymnasts and their families contact the fund confidentially through a toll-free phone number.
While at first glance the fund sounds idyllic, it’s an insulting, long way from full-on restitution. It’s limited in scope, and there is little information about how it’s actually going to work. Although a press release from USA Gymnastics claims that funds will be released from a third-party administrator, it doesn’t name who it is, nor does it explain how much victims will receive or what the process will be – including how long funds will last. It simply notes that more information will follow in the days to come. In addition, the fund has met backlash from many people who say it’s just “too little, too late,” adding to the outcry about the victims of Larry Nassar and how their complaints about abuse were ignored.

The Entire Board Resigns

The pressure that USA Gymnastics is responding to is reflected by gymnasts and their supporters, who say that the organization just needs to be burned to the ground. In the wake of the sentencing of Larry Nassar for criminal sexual conduct and the victim impact statements provided by more than 150 women, the entire USA Gymnastics board resigned.

Why?

There are several current lawsuits ongoing against USA Gymnastics, claiming that the organization silenced complaints about abuse for years. Investigators have seized documents from Michigan State in an attempt to figure out exactly what Nassar’s employers knew and for how long they knew it. In addition, fingers are pointing to the FBI for its significant delay in taking action. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) has been quite critical of the way USA Gymnastics has handled the Nassar case, calling on the entire USAG board to resign and threatening to decertify board members for their inaction.

The Olympic Committee Isn’t in the Clear

USA Gymnastics isn’t the only entity finding itself in hot water, however. The United States Olympic Committee has been circumspect about when exactly their officials first received reports about Nassar; they initially claimed that they first learned about him in September of 2016. However, they later said that it was actually in the summer of 2015 when they were first informed. They also insist that they “followed proper procedures.”

A story by the Wall Street Journal says differently, however. USOC officials were first warned about Nassar’s behavior in July of 2015, but failed to investigate until a Star of Indianapolis story broke later the next year. Then-president of USAG Steve Penny called USOC Chief Executive Scott Blackmun, according to The Journal, to ask for help after an internal investigator had discovered that one of the doctors for the team had potentially been sexually abusing gymnasts. It doesn’t look like Blackmun assisted Penny or took any action at all, save for making one disturbingly nonchalant comment: A person familiar with the phone call said that Blackmun simply told Penny to “do what he had to do.”

Mr. Blackmun provided no further guidance to USA Gymnastics on the matter.

That September, Penny once again contacted the USOC. Giving details of claims of sexual abuse from three gymnasts, he emailed chief security officer Larry Buendorf, mentioning Nassar’s name for the first time, supposedly, to the USOC. Neither Buendorf nor Blackmun had any comment for the Journal at all, though USOC has since released a short statement reiterating its request to launch an internal investigation.

MSU and USAG Turn their Backs on Victims

Janice K. Cunningham announced in court that a total of 265 women have told law enforcement that Nassar abused them. Anne Labrie spoke publicly about her abuse for the first time recently, describing a strained relationship with her parents, panic attacks, and self-destruction as a result of Nassar’s abuse. She also called out the system that allowed Nassar to get away with the abuse for decades. “Our bodies did not belong to us. Our experiences were constantly invalidated. We were taught not to be respected, and to be judged by men,” she explains. “Coaching by fear, intimidation, shame, and favoritism was the norm. We’d been conditioned for years to obey at all costs…when MSU and USAG refused to listen, this is a direct reflection of the patriarchal system we all function in today. This is what makes the Nassar trial bigger than gymnastics.”

Many victims have spoken out with a fear of being labeled, thoughts of self-doubt, and worse. Kate Wells said on Twitter, “A pedophile like Larry cannot flourish in an environment that doesn’t enable his behavior…he was prolific because the gymnastics world allowed him to be. Gymnastics functions in a culture where we had to be over-sexualized before we knew what it meant.” Madison Bonofiglio said that after a neck fracture, she began going to see Nassar. She said he would penetrate her while massing her neck, telling her she was “tight, just like my wife” and laughing.

Victims as young as 13 spoke; tragically, so many have described attempting suicide as a result of Nassar’s abuse. The fact that so many of these survivors were afraid that no one would believe them, that they felt so helpless and hopeless, and the fact that they were shamed and harassed when they did tell someone what was going on is a disgusting crime in itself.

The Horrendous Culture of USA Gymnastics

Another survivor, wanting to remain anonymous, also spoke about the toxic culture that enabled Nassar for so long. The victim noted that coaches would throw water bottles at, kick, and belittle her and her team mates any time they showed any signs of injury. As for Nassar, the victim explained, “I would lay on my back, and he would…fondle my adolescent breasts. He would work down to my pubic bone,” she said. “He always found his way to my butt, to ‘make sure everything was where it should be.’ I thought this was the price to pay [for health.]” Furthermore, after she told a friend of hers about the abuse, she was told that being abused was a sin – after which she attempted suicide.

Michigan authorities are also investigating former Olympic head coach of the 2012 team John Geddert, who has been suspended by USA Gymnastics. Geddert is accused of creating a toxic atmosphere at his club, which enabled girls to be abused who felt they shouldn’t complain about the doctor’s bare-handed pelvic treatments. One woman wrote that she was told what Nassar was doing was medically legitimate, and that she needed to “do her research.” Many gymnasts hold Geddert responsible for what happened to them.

Several victims have spoken and described the roles that Michigan State, USA Gymnastics, and John Geddert played in enabling Nassar’s abuse, and more continue to come forward.  More than 150 women have come forward to accuse Nassar of sexual misconduct, including gold medalists Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, and Mckayla Maroney.

In January, USA Gymnastics responded by stating that it didn’t have a “reasonable suspicion” the women had been molested by Nassar. In a tweet by Raisman, outrage is clear toward USA Gymnastics as she said, “@USAGymn STOP VICTIM SHAMING. Your statements are hurtful. If you did not believe that I & others were abused then why pressure and manipulate us? WE WERE MOLESTED BY A MONSTER U ENABLED 2 THRIVE FOR DECADES. You are 100% responsible. It was mandatory to get ‘treatment’ by Nassar.”

USA Gymnastics: Burning to the Ground

The fact that The National Gymnastics Foundation hasn’t offered any kind of a fund for victims until now is just the “icing on a very disgusting cake” as far as many people are concerned. The National Gymnastics foundation supports the charitable, educational, and outreach efforts of USA Gymnastics. In the press release dated February 7, the Foundation asked for contributions to help build up the fund.

On top of all the other blunders, insults, and fallacies that plague these organizations, the fact that the Foundation would even ask for contributions is far worse than being insulting to the victims of Nassar, who were ignored, shunned, berated, and shamed by those who should’ve been the first to respond to the victims’ cries for help.

Asking for money for this fund is despicable; it represents The Foundation, USA Gymnastics, MSU, the Olympic Committee, and all those involved mocking the victims further as if to say, “Yes, we ignored victims and let the abuse continue, so now we’re going to put up a fund to make us look better. By the way, if anyone wants to help, send money now.”

Will this fund pay for counseling for victims and their families for the rest of their lives? Will the fund heal the physical scars left by suicide attempts? How about the devastating emotional scars? Will these victims be able to restore relationships with their loved ones or erase the pain of years of wrongdoing, years of silencing, years of berating, and years of torture? No. This fund is a poor excuse – a ridiculous and insulting substitute for what should’ve been done years ago to stop the abuse that first happened to Nassar’s patients and prevent the abuse of those who fell victim after the first ones.

They failed. All of them failed: Nassar, his assistants, MSU, USA Gymnastics, USOC, and everyone else who had been told about Nassar and turned a deaf ear. Each deserves the same fate as Nassar – and they can keep their fund. They’ll need it to bail themselves out of the mess they’ve created. Sadly, it still won’t bring justice for these athletes. That chance disappeared the very first time an athlete filed a complaint and was ignored. If the National Gymnastics Foundation wants to start a fund for abused athletes, forget asking for donations and contributions; what they need to do is pledge money of their own for each time every victim complained and was ignored. Then perhaps they’d gather enough to at least pay for the victims’ counseling. Everything else, at this point, is irretrievably broken. Shame, shame, shame.

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