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Things Are Happening – December 11, 2018


Ropes and Gray

Never o’clock has actually arrived!

Ever since Box of Scarves appeared in front of Congress and seemed not to know that the name of the engaged law firm was “Ropes & Gray” rather than “Independent, Ropes & Gray,” we have been promised a very independent investigation full of independence that intended to reveal who knew what at the USOC and USAG, the circumstances that allowed abuse to thrive, and everything that wasn’t done correctly.

So you might be surprised to learn the report is only 233 pages and not the length of time itself.

In some ways, the report exceeded expectations in that it was actually willing to name major figures within the USOC and detail how horrible they are, namely Scott Blackmun and Alan Ashley. Those two come across looking…not great…with particular focus on their dual decision to ignore and subsequently delete an email from Steve Penny that named Larry Nassar in 2015, telling no one about it and doing nothing for more than a year.

Because the important thing is pretending you don’t know anything so that you can protect your own job and avoid negative news stories and/or the police. Or, I mean, the children. It’s about the children.

That email receives a ton focus in the report. My first reading of it saw Stevie Boy just being a lying sack of lies (as usual) by pretending he didn’t know anything about Nassar, but I think he’s saying he’s not sure what prompted the announcement of the retirement, not the retirement itself. Which he definitely knew all about.

That’s actually worse for Blackmun and Ashley because it implies previous conversations among the trio about Nassar’s involvement and the decision to allow him to retire silently from USAG and continue to practice in Michigan. You know, because this is a follow-up note. Make sure Blackmun and Ashley are high on your list of the people who knew, early on, and decided to ignore—especially because they had the power to do something real. And instead decided to DELETE.

The report is not without dark comedy, however, my favorite part being Scott Blackmun’s subsequent excuse that he deleted this email because he was afraid of Russian hackers. BECAUSE WHAT IF THE RUSSIANS GET THAT EMAIL?!?!?!?!?!

Oh, also, Alan Ashley was fired yesterday, simultaneous with the publishing of the report. YA THINK?

Beyond Blackmun and Ashley, the report doesn’t get much into the “who” at the USOC—potentially because Blackmun and Ashley made sure there weren’t any other specific “whos” that knew anything. But, one of the troubles with a report like this is that we can’t know what’s not in it. It might be comprehensive, but we can’t know that it is. We can only know what’s in front of us.

Most of the other USOC failings outlined in the report are constructed as general failures of oversight, that the USOC played the “I’m not like a regular mom, I’m a cool mom” role with the NGBs and let them be exactly as trashy as they wanted. And they wanted to be really trashy.

For the most part, the section about who knew what and when at USAG is review for those who have been following it closely. The lion’s share of the information is “Steve Penny = BAD AND FULL OF LIES and WHY WERE YOU EVEN HANDLING THIS.” There’s not a ton of news there—although the scope of poor behavior by easily manipulated law enforcement officials is expanded upon here and worthy of much more investigation—but it does aggregate everything we’ve learned in a single, comprehensive account, which is helpful in its own way. It also expands upon a number of suspected details.

The deep dive into the reports of abuse that were made to USAG and all the flimsy evasions that Kathy Kelly and Renee Jamison used is particularly galling. We haven’t focused much on those two, but they do not come out of this investigation well. They were tasked with handling abuse reports (you know, on account of their zero experience or training in any area related to abuse), and guess what? They did a very, very bad job.

Time and again we see them hiding behind the unnecessarily onerous rules about reporting abuse that USAG instituted for no reason other than to provide an excuse not to have to care about athletes. I’ve included the worst example here.

“Take any steps necessary to discredit these allegations.” Just in case you were still under the misapprehension that USAG was in it for the athletes.

Also the ranch kept the medical records in a BARN you guys. A BARN.

The investigation is cathartically damning with regard to USAG’s self-serving, bad-faith interpretation of the Ted Stevens Act and the concept of due process that it hid behind to excuse its despicably lenient, ignorance-based treatment of coaches accused of abuse. The report emphasizes that this approach was based on…nothing at all. USAG had every opportunity to take swift action against members accused of abuse and not wait for a legal process to play out. It chose not to.

Speaking of the USOC and USAG choosing to do nothing, a new bit of information reveals that, in an evaluation by a member of the USOC medical staff at the 2012 Olympics, Larry Nassar was given an “unsatisfactory score” and was recommended not to be included in the staff at further Olympics. The reason for this unsatisfactory score? He was secretive about his treatment, refusing to let other doctors treat the female gymnastics athletes, also refusing to treat them in sight of the rest of the USOC medical staff. AHMMMMMMMM.

And yet, information also indicated that as of the spring of 2015, he was still scheduled to be on the medical staff for 2016, despite the negative recommendation. And everyone was totally fine with him continuing to be the USAG doctor too. Because sure. Nothing matters.

Understandably, few of the survivors were interested or willing to speak with an investigation initiated by the USOC, especially when they still have outstanding lawsuits and have been given no reason to trust the USOC.

But it does mean that the interviews in this investigation are heavily weighted toward the bad guys team, with many of the quotes from survivors coming from outside media interviews, not interviews by these investigators to specific questions.

They did, however, manage to interview some of the cagier members of the cabal from whom we’ve heard very little previously, like Stevie Boy and Peter Vidmar, but because those are the interviews the team got, sometimes those recollections are given outweighed emphasis.

In some ways, that’s unavoidable. Because so much of this business was conducted through private conversations with narrow invitation lists due to an extreme and calculated lack of professionalism and record-keeping, all we’ll ever have to go on is their own accounts of these conversations.

Still, in a real shocker, it turns out that Peter Vidmar says the right things in his own memories of what happened. (Though he still comes across as a major Big Bad because he was among the very few people with board-member power who knew super early about Marvin Sharp and Larry Nassar.)

Oh did you now.

(Also, “made my blood curl” is not an expression—did you mean boil or curdle?—and I do enjoy how the investigation chose to include that quote for no other reason other than just to be like, “Look at this dumbass.”)

In these moments in the report, people like Vidmar are allowed to sculpt their own narratives of what took place, without enough caveats or analysis from the investigation itself. That’s where the report is weaker. There are times when it allows obvious “Steve Penny trying to make himself look good” nonsense just to sit there.

If you’re looking for a comprehensive list of the stupid, unprofessional, passively hateful, and often dangerous things executives at USAG and the USOC did, by all means give the full report a read. There are scream-worthy nuggets on every other page, and dozens upon dozens upon dozens of bad actors. If you’re making a list of everyone you want to be indicted, there are some names to be added.

If you’re looking for conclusions and solutions, you’ll be more disappointed. This is more book report than analytical piece. A summary of what happened to prove you did the reading. It’s willing to say what’s bad (which is a lot—basically every person and practice in the organization), but less willing to analyze roles, classify who the worst actors were, differentiate between “you should have done that differently” and “you’re a literal monster,” or say what the organizations should do instead. Partly because what the organizations should do instead is NONE OF THIS WITH NONE OF YOU EVER IN ANY WAY.

And in that regard, the main thing this report manages to be is an extremely convincing argument for decertification.

This is less because of the monstrous actions of so many individuals in positions of power, the majority of whom are no longer employed by these groups, but because it reveals an organization in USAG (and to some extent in every NGB) that is fundamentally unsuited to do, or incapable of doing, what should be its most important job.

If you’re not doing that, if you can’t do that, then you shouldn’t be the national governing body at all…end of conversation.

Oversight and enforcement of rules should be the whole purview for the organization that oversees gymnastics in America. The NGB needs to be like the FDA of gymnastics (but, like super effective). Any NGB without that approach, any NGB fundamentally constructed instead with the monetary, brand-first attitude espoused by Stevie Boy—no matter who you fire or hire or replace, no matter how many times—will be a failure.

If you want to function as a private business that makes money off your brand and off of gymnastics—but that is also subject to competition like any other business and doesn’t have the “you have no choice but to buy into what we’re selling” protection of NGB status—then by all means continue doing that, USA Gymnastics.

But the NGB must be a regulatory and protection-focused organization first. Enforcing strict membership and safety requirements. Making sure the sport is totally above board in every way and being an uncompromising dick about it who kind of hates all you. Not being a marketing organization. Not caring about the BUM BUM BUM *reputation* of the sport and having absolutely nothing invested in that reputation, with no qualms about taking the whole thing down if you all keep being awful.

The marketing of the sport, the growth of the sport, that must be down to someone else entirely. Not the same organization tasked with writing and enforcing the rules of behavior, monitoring gyms, and protecting athletes. If the NGB system is not set up to accomplish that, it has to go. The whole thing. And probably the USOC with it.

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