For someone like me — who has covered several Olympics and thinks they’re up there with space travel and recycling as among the coolest things humans do — this is a tough one. While U.S. women’s gymnasts mesmerized a global audience this week (yours truly and my livestream-addicted editor included), the Indianapolis Star reported that USA Gymnastics, the sport’s national governing body, essentially sat on allegations of sexual misconduct by coaches, some of whom went on to misconduct themselves again. And again. Your four Ws:
According to the Star, USAG — which is headquartered in Indy and has more than 120,000 athlete members and brand sponsors like AT&T and Kellogg’s — kept a dossier of complaints against more than 50 coaches. Apparently, USAG HQ has actual filing cabinets filled with sexual misconduct complaints. Not coming soon to an IKEA near you: filing cabinets perfectly sized for squirreling away allegations of predator coaches.
USAG would not tell the Star how many complaints it had in those drawers — always a good sign — but the Star tracked down four cases in which no investigation was initiated following a complaint, and the coaches in question went on, the Star says, “to abuse at least 14 underage gymnasts after the warnings.”
Were prominent coaches involved?
The Star highlighted Marvin Sharp, 2010 national Women’s Coach of The Year. The Star says that USAG received a “detailed complaint” in 2011 about Sharp’s inappropriate touching. But, the paper says, he was only reported to police four years later, following another allegation that included taking sexually explicit pictures of a girl starting when she was 12 years old. Shortly after he was charged in federal court, Sharp committed suicide in jail. Other filing-cabinet-of-horrors examples the Star unearthed are even uglier.
What does USAG say?
The organization’s president, Steve Penny, declined to be interviewed, citing ongoing litigation related to one of the cases. But he said that “USA Gymnastics has a long and proactive history of” protecting athletes/evaluating best practices/recognizing its leadership role/promoting safety and fun etc. etc. … you can extrapolate the rest of his statement. The Star reports, though, that in a 2015 court deposition the USAG president said: “To the best of my knowledge, there’s no duty to report if you are — if you are a third party to some allegation.” True leadership in action.
They Said It
“And in the sport of gymnastics, it’s very competitive to gain and retain students and/or athletes, and people might have all kinds of reasons for saying things. And if they couldn’t substantiate it, we wouldn’t investigate it.” —Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics, in a deposition
In this edition of Shortstack, we’re deviating from accountability journalism, but staying with gymnastics, and trying a little explainer. This Shortstack focuses on shortness: You may have wondered why gymnasts are so small, and why Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast ever, is noticeably smaller than her teammates. Well, at 4’8”, Biles is actually only slightly small for her sport. As I mentioned over in Slate, over the last 30 years, the average elite female gymnast has shrunk from 5’3” to 4’9”. Smaller, shorter-limbed humans (and Ewoks) have a lower “moment of inertia,” which is a measure of an object’s resistance to rotation. The less weight that a body has far from the axis of rotation, the easier it is to spin. That’s why smaller gymnastics can turn more readily in the air, and why figure skaters speed up a spin by pulling their arms in. So next time you’re spinning on a bar stool, remember to tuck those arms in.
Tweet of The Week
Just FYI, people should feel free to try cupping if it feels good. There are no harmful side effects. There’s also no good evidence to support the claims of “improved circulation.”
Additional research by Kate Brown.
Tips are appreciated. The paper kind, or the green paper kind.
ProPublica does not vouch for the accuracy of stories appearing on SRSLY. We select, review and summarize key points from accountability stories that may not have gotten wide exposure. But we are not able to independently vet or vouch for the accuracy of stories produced by others. We will inform readers if we learn that stories have been challenged publicly or corrected.