Tillis, other senators seek probe of gymnastics, Olympics

By: Kari Travis - Carolina Journal

RALEIGH — The U.S. Senate should establish a special committee to investigate the roles of the U.S. Olympics Committee and U.S.A. Gymnastics in the Larry Nassar sexual abuse case, say lawmakers, including North Carolina U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis.

Nassar, team doctor for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, was convicted of molesting at least 156 women over the course of several decades. He’ll likely spend the rest of his life in prison.

A new, bipartisan resolution, sponsored by Tillis, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, would put USOC and USAG leaders on the hot seat.

“When we think of the U.S. Olympic team, we think of our country’s greatest athletes competing and representing the United States, but we must ensure they are protected to the fullest extent,” Tillis said.

Nassar, 54, received his medical degree in 1985 from the University of Michigan. He became a national team doctor the next year. In 1997 he began simultaneous work as a doctor for the Michigan State University gymnastics team.

Allegations of abuse date to 1994.

In 2016, former Michigan State gymnast Rachael Denhollander was the first to come forward. Her testimony catalyzed a stream of allegations from female athletes, including Olympic gold medalists Simone Biles and Jordyn Wieber.

Nassar was arrested in November 2016. Earlier this year, he was sentenced by Michigan Judge Rosemarie Aquilina to between 40 and 175 years in prison.

Olympian Aly Raisman, a member of the gold medal-winning team at the 2012 London games, has repeatedly said Nassar’s conviction is just a small step toward justice. Nassar also molested Raisman during her tenure on the national team.

USAG is an organization “rotting from the inside,” Raisman said. For years, athletes repeatedly complained to USAG officials about Nassar’s abuse. Last week — on the same day senators announced their plan to investigate the entity — USAG announced plans to provide guidance and counseling services to survivors.

“Our hearts go out to all of the survivors affected by sexual abuse within USA Gymnastics,” said NYC Elite Gymnastics CEO Tina Ferriola, who will chair the Designated Fund Committee. “We hope this fund will provide guidance and financial assistance in securing the necessary counseling services in support of the healing process for survivors of sexual abuse, as well as a method for our community to show their support directly to the athletes that need our assistance.”

USOC is launching its own investigation of USAG, stated a Feb. 9 letter from USOC’s legal counsel to Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut.

The correspondence was a reply to strongly worded letters from Moran and Blumenthal to USOC, USAG, and Michigan State. The senators demanded answers about “failures to protect athletes from sexual abuse.”

“We have said it in other contexts, but we have not been direct enough with you. We are sorry for the pain caused by this terrible man, and sorry that you weren’t afforded a safe opportunity to pursue your sports dreams. The Olympic family is among those that have failed you,” Blackmun wrote in an apology to Team USA.

Condolences are nice, but USAG and USOC should have responded to allegations years ago, Raisman said.

“I’m so angry that, after realizing that we were abused, they let him continue to molest other gymnasts when they told me there was an investigation going on,” Raisman said in an interview with ESPN. “They told me to be quiet. I thought that they were doing the right thing, and I didn’t want to tip off the investigation. I trusted them, and I shouldn’t have.”

The USOC is making drastic changes, said Blackmun. USAG’s culture must change, and all board members must resign. Additionally, the Olympic committee may strike down USAG’s certification if it doesn’t comply with mandated changes, Blackmun said.

Governing bodies should be held to account — and that requires a federal review, Shaheen said.

“There are many disturbing questions that remain unanswered as to how Larry Nassar was able to freely abuse young girls for decades,” Shaheen said. “Because the U.S. Olympic Committee operates under a federal charter and its athletes compete under the American flag, the Senate has a responsibility to deliver answers and accountability.”

The special Senate committee would investigate the USOC and other national sports governing bodies, including USAG. The goal is to learn how complicit the organizations are in allowing and ignoring allegations of sexual abuse.

The committee would also recommend solutions, and demand increased transparency and protections for athletes and their families.

Tillis, Shaheen, and Ernst are still seeking support from party leaders, but backing is broad and bipartisan, they said.

Kari Travis

Carolina Journal