“We believe the challenges facing the organization are simply more than it is capable of overcoming in its current form,” Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the USOC, wrote in an open letter to the U.S. gymnastics community. Instead of taking further steps to correct the toxic culture within USAG, which allowed a predator such as Nassar to cycle through dozens of victims undetected, the USOC has decided to get rid of the organization altogether.
The #MeToo movement has sparked countless conversations about the culture of companies plagued by sexual harassment, particularly about how that atmosphere developed in the first place and how it can be fixed. Especially at the elite level, gymnastics creates an environment where it is easy for predators to take advantage of athletes, said Michelle Simpson Tuegel, the attorney representing several former gymnasts in a lawsuit against the USOC. Young girls practice, sometimes for weeks, at remote training facilities far away from their parents. And they are encouraged not to listen to their bodies, she told me, and are often praised for competing while injured.
Various leadership teams at corporations rife with sexual harassment have employed an array of strategies: Fire the alleged harassers, fire the CEO, hire a diversity and inclusion officer, and make commercials about the extent to which the culture has changed, then blast them across American TV networks. But the tactic that the USOC will likely employ—dissolve the problematic organization and make a new one—appears to be something of a new idea. And it’s not at all clear whether that tactic will work.
When the USOC announced its decision to decertify USAG, Nassar victims and other high-profile Olympic gymnasts praised the move. “THANK YOU,” tweeted Rachael Denhollander, one of the victims, after the announcement. “This is for every survivor.” The Olympic medalist Aly Raisman, who was also abused by Nassar, described the decertification as “a significant step forward that is necessary for the overall health and well-being of the sport and its athletes.”
Still, the dissolution of one organization, and the possible creation of another, might not be enough to permanently change a culture of abuse that victims claim has existed within American Olympic gymnastics for more than 30 years. “Decertification is not going to overhaul the cultural problems inherent to the sport,” Simpson Tuegel told me. “The Olympic Committee will just be stamping a different name on the same thing.”
She suggested that the move might have something to do with the pile of lawsuits pending against both USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee, filed by former gymnasts who say they were sexually assaulted while on the U.S. Olympic team. “It seems awfully convenient that the announcement comes now, right as these lawsuits are really starting to move,” Simpson Tuegel said. “It really appears that USOC is trying to distance themselves from USAG.” USAG, not the USOC, has borne the brunt of the criticism for its handling of the Nassar case, so establishing some distance between the two organizations, she told me, could work in the USOC’s favor.
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