Content Warning: sexual assault and child pornography
President and CEO of USA Gymnastics Steve Penny has resigned from his position, effective March 16. Recent sexual abuse allegations regarding the national team doctor, Larry Nassar, compelled the United States Olympic Committee to put pressure on Penny to step down.
Nassar, 53, faces 25 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and two charges of child pornography possession. He served as the USA Gymnastics national team doctor for nearly 20 years and was also a team physician for Michigan State University. During this time, he allegedly sexually assaulted dozens of gymnasts on the national team and MSU’s team under the guise of medical treatment. Former gymnast Rachael Denhollander reports that Nassar penetrated her vagina and anus with his fingers during appointments to treat lower back pain. Nassar also possessed 37,000 images of child pornography between 2003 and 2016.
Penny and USA Gymnastics received widespread criticism for facilitating these abuses. Although several gymnasts approached coaches and parents upon being assaulted, they were told that they were misunderstanding the treatment, and as a result, police reports were not filed until a decade later, when the victims had become adults. When Penny allegedly first found out about the abuses in June 2016, USA Gymnastics did not report them to the FBI until 5 weeks later. Even in light of what has happened, Penny has not issued any form of apology for not stopping the abuses earlier. Many former athletes, parents, and coaches have also stood behind Nassar, refusing to believe that he committed these atrocities simply because they personally never experienced them.
The recent events surrounding such an esteemed athletic organization are severely disappointing.
First, gymnastics is already a very sexualized sport, given how it’s composed of primarily under-aged girls wearing form-fitting leotards. During the Olympics, it is not uncommon for people to leave perverted comments on YouTube and other social media targeting gymnasts’ attire and bodies. It is saddening to see such talented and hardworking individuals reduced to sexual objects and left in a vulnerable position. To see one of the most prominent and trusted individuals within USA Gymnastics abusing a position that requires protecting young athletes is revolting, to say the least.
Next, it is evident that former President Steve Penny did not have the athletes’ best interests in mind, but rather, USA Gymnastics’ financial interests. Over the last decade, Penny transformed the organization financially (Penny himself earned $600 million last year) and into an international powerhouse. However, covering up sexual abuse to protect his organization’s reputation is inexcusable. As an ambassador to young athletes, it was Penny’s utmost responsibility to directly report any instances of assault to the police and Child Protective Services.
Finally, the lack of oversight on the coaches and parents’ behalf delayed many opportunities for the victims to receive justice. Denying that any of these abuses happened to their children is a form of victim-blaming, and it also discourages other victims from speaking up. The demanding nature of elite gymnastics requires gymnasts to train away from home for up to 8 hours a day. Although the majority of coaches are 100% professional, there have been many past instances of sexual assault from coaches. Parents should be aware of the personal backgrounds of coaches and doctors alike.
“Steve Penny’s resignation as head of USAG is the first step of many that need to take place to get our sport on the right track and protect our athletes,” said Dominique Moceanu, former Olympic gymnast and advocate for safety reform.
Hopefully, the new president of USA Gymnastics will be able to incite much-needed changes for the protection of its athletes.