American Campaigners Who Burst Bubble Of Olympic Autonomy In Fight Against Abuse in Sport Call Out NY Times’ Interview With Banned Coach
Abuse in Olympic sport – The Committee to Restore integrity to the USOPC has called out The New York Times for granting a suspended gymnastics coach “a platform for her to dispute the neutral arbitrators’ factual findings that she was emotionally and physically abusive to the children”.
The Committee, an advocacy group that includes Team Integrity and Champion Women and ran a successful campaign to get the Empowering Olympic, Paralympic, and Amateur Athlete Act (S2330) passed into law with bipartisan backing for an overhaul of Olympic governance in the country, sets out its response to an interview with gymnastics coach Maggie Haney in a statement issued today.
Haney was banned for eight years after investigations into USA Gymnastics in the wake of the prosecution of Larry Nasser, the national team doctor who abused hundreds of women. The Netflix documentary Athlete A highlighted issues at the core of abuse in gymnastics, some of them, including poor and even harmful governance, reaching far and wide across many Olympic sports.
- Editorial: Athlete A Presents Strong Case For Independent Oversight Of Olympic Governance & Safe Sport
Media coverage of abuse claims also includes lengthy interviews with victims that do not grant those accused similar space, references such as “X denies allegations” also reflecting the fact that legal representatives for those who stand accused often advocate that their clients make no further comment. Lawyers working with survivors have, at times, also been a part of the count of those who do not or feel they cannot answer questions sent to them by journalists seeking to bring balance to coverage of abuse claims.
What The Committee to Restore integrity to the USOPC (United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee) highlights goes beyond that. The New York Times article, it suggests, is a one-sided exercise that only gives voice to a banned coach. In its response to the article, the Committee states:
“In the article by Juliet Macur, suspended coach Maggie Haney was allowed to present her version of events, without an opportunity for those she harmed to be heard similarly. These gymnasts participated in the investigation and the arbitration hearing process, and, if asked, would have refuted a familiar role in which abusers cast themselves, as victims. Moreover, Macur did not interview experts in the field of child development or athlete-abuse, experts that would have refuted the coaching techniques she admitted to using as harmful, and moreover, would have exposed Haney’s gas-lighting as its own type of emotional abuse. “The Committee to Restore integrity to the USOPC
In its defence, The New York Times can point to a much deeper archive of coverage of abuse than the Haney article, including an extensive interview with Laurie Hernandez, the gymnast who’s revelations sparked the inquiry into Haney:
At the same time, the criticism of the Integrity team notes aspects of abuse culture that stretch to making excuse for wholly unacceptable behaviour and making victims of long-endured abuse victims all over again by allowing the perpetrator to raise the notion of ‘well, yes, mistakes were made but it wasn’t that bad…’. In many cases, abuse was part of a culture and style of governance and control that led to and even encouraged outcomes with consequences that victims will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
The campaign against abuse in sport has been gathering momentum for decades and has left few Olympic realms untouched, both in terms of nations and disciplines, swimming among sports where abuse, including sexual abuse, has reached crisis point and been the subject of criminal and other official inquiries.
Below links to related S.O.S. coverage on the theme of abuse, The Committee to Restore integrity to the USOPC sets out its case in response to the New York Times interview with Haney.
S.O.S. Coverage Of Abuse, The Athlete Voice And Related Issues
The Law That Burst The Bubble Of Harmful Olympic Autonomy
- Great Day For Athlete Safety As U.S. House Matches Senate To Pass Empowering Olympic, Paralympic, and Amateur Athlete Act (S2330)
- Powerful Backing For U.S. Olympic Review
The Athlete Voice
- Sport Rules “Should Never Supersede Human Rights”, Says Global Athlete
- Nancy Hogshead-Makar & Simone Manuel Named Among The Unrelenting Powerhouses of Women’s Sport In USA
- Seb Coe: “If an athlete wishes to take a knee on a podium, then I am supportive of that. Athletes are a part of the world”
- How The Story Of Jesse Owens & Luz Long Shines Yet As A Beacon Of Hope For An End To Discrimination
In South Africa right now:
- South African Sport Under Scrutiny Over Handling Of Child Sexual Abuse Claims – Swimming In Focus
- Penny Heyns & Peers Urge Abuse Victims & Survivors To Turn To SportsVoice Safeguarding Initiative As SSA Confirms Inquiry Into Two Swim Coaches Under Police Investigation
- Debbie Wade, 51, Speaks Out About Sexual Abuse As A Child Swimmer In South Africa, Saying Through Tears: “The Only Reason I’m Emotional Today Is That At Last Somebody Is Listening”
- More Allegations Of Child Sexual Abuse Surface In South African Swimming Years After First Being Reported
The response of advocates for an end to abuse, Team Unity / Champion Women, in full:
The Committee to Restore integrity to the USOPC responds to Juliet Macur’s New York Times article allowing abusive gymnastics coach Maggie Haney to portray herself as a victim
Last week, the New York Times gave banned gymnastics coach Maggie Haney a platform for her to dispute the neutral arbitrators’ factual findings that she was emotionally and physically abusive to the children she coached, and that, as a consequence, Haney was to be banned for eight years.
In the article by Juliet Macur, suspended coach Maggie Haney was allowed to present her version of events, without an opportunity for those she harmed to be heard similarly. These gymnasts participated in the investigation and the arbitration hearing process, and, if asked, would have refuted a familiar role in which abusers cast themselves, as victims. Moreover, Macur did not interview experts in the field of child development or athlete-abuse, experts that would have refuted the coaching techniques she admitted to using as harmful, and moreover, would have exposed Haney’s gas-lighting as its own type of emotional abuse.
Worse, the article validated the very sick culture of abuse that produced over 400 sexual abuse victims from Larry Nassar, a culture that is now well-documented by eight Congressional Hearings, four major reports – costing the Olympic Movement tens of millions of dollars – and award-winning documentaries like Netflix’s Athlete A, HBO’s At the Heart of Gold and Broken Trust; Athlete Abuse Exposed.
Members of The Committee to Restore integrity to the USOPC (Team Integrity) recognize just how difficult and painful culture change is; if it were easy, it would have been done when Jennifer Sey wrote her book, “Chalked Up” back in 2008, or when Dominique Moceanu wrote “Off Balance” in 2012. Instead, it took one of the worst, most systematic sexual abuse stories in history to expose the horrors inside the sport; Larry Nassar, a criminal fueled and enabled by the very abusive culture that Haney was allowed to defend.
The Gymnastics community responded quickly and harshly to Haney’s quotes that she “cared too much.” In an open letter on Medium, former gymnast and dancer Stephanie Ventura cast the article as a “slap in the face to all abuse survivors,” and a step backwards in the coverage of athlete abuse and reforms.
The NY Times could have been part of this necessary culture change by demonstrating the juxtaposition of Haney’s quotes against her factual record of cruelty. The article could have reported the harms of overtraining and abuse, well-documented by research, or it could have helped erase the imbedded idea that abusive-equals-effective.
To be clear, Team Integrity is comprised of numerous Olympians and the most elite athletes in the world; we have no illusions that achieving athletic greatness is easy or “fun.” But this article attempted to equate highly disciplined, elite training as synonymous with abuse, an ethic that we are all trying so hard to expose, discuss and eliminate from sport.
As Team Integrity member Olympic Gymnast and television commentator Kathy Johnson Clarke said:
“The dynamics we can’t change are these: Gymnastics routines are scored by assessing the difficulty value of the routine, which places a premium on doing the most difficult skills in combination and do as many as possible to maximize the D-score. That open-ended part of the scoring system has driven the escalation of training for strength, power, endurance necessary to perform an inordinately high number of difficult skills.
“What we cannot allow are coaches who abuse their power and take advantage of these inherent dynamics to raise the temperature by using fear, shame, embarrassment, humiliation, withholding approval, social engineering, threats of punishment – whatever – to force young gymnasts to keep quiet and push beyond their limits.
“The depth of talent, ability and accomplishment in the US elite program has perpetuated this ‘myth’ that our system works. Those in contention for qualifying for Team USA are inside a culture that requires them to be quiet, to not complain about very serious injuries and hellish emotional abuse in order to be among the chosen ones.
“USA Gymnastics made the calculation that it could afford to ‘break’ a few great gymnasts in the path to Olympic glory because our conveyor belt was filled with replacements. Yes, it worked for some, but at what cost to the thousands of children? And if the process is inherently harmful, to what end? A harmful process that requires breaking our best devalues the prize itself.
“Today, we cannot say that a system without abuse would produce better results; a system that is intense, but in a positive way, would work, because we have not tried it or demanded it. We are now.”
Acknowledging the depth and breadth of this problem, not only in Gymnastics but throughout our elite sports system, is essential to solving it.
Team Integrity members and Champion Women have been working to address athlete abuse issues for over a decade. Not long ago, it was acceptable for coaches to have sexual or romantic relationships with the athletes they coached, so long as the athletes were above the age of legal consent, or at least looked like they were post-puberty. Pedophilia was recognized as harmful, but the sports world looked away when coaches used their position of power and authority to gain sexual access to the athletes they coach; looked away from the harms to the entire team dynamic.
In 2013, Congressman George Miller initiated an earlier Congressional investigation into sexual abuse in the Olympic Movement. Eva Rodansky, a world-class speedskater and member of Team Integrity, provided moving testimony that plainly illustrated the sick dynamics within the Olympic system. Unlike subjectively-judged sports like gymnastics and diving, speedskating is an objective sport, a win-or-lose. Yet still, Rodansky was retaliated against after she called out Team USA’s coach for openly engaging in an ongoing sexual relationship with her rival, a teammate actively competing in the same events. At the time, Andy Gabel was the president of the US Speedskating. Gabel has now admitted to child sex acts with child-athletes. Together with speedskating’s high performance team director, Mike Crowe, the two high-ranking abusers protected each other. US Speedskating membership was kept quiet the same way gymnasts were silenced; athletes in contention for the Olympics had to toe the line. Tragically, Gabel and Crowe were allowed to manipulate the Olympic Team selection criteria, and Rodansky was not named to the Olympic Team, despite Team USA having a space for her.
The U.S. Center for SafeSport flatly prohibits these sexual or romantic relationships between coaches and their athletes as an abuse of power. The Center, opened in 2017, is akin to a business’s Human Resources department or a business licensing bureau; it’s purpose is to remove abusers from the Olympic Movement. (It cannot put someone in prison or get money damages, like criminal and civil courts.) The Center’s job is to ensure that both athletes and the accused are heard, that a fair process is used to determine whether there was abuse, and if so, to determine whether a member of the Olympic Movement should be suspended or banned.
Team Integrity acknowledges the difficulty in culture-shift. In the past, abuse was considered a normal day-to-day part of the job. Coaches that fat-shamed, that required an athlete to ignore their broken bones, that called an athlete “lazy” “incompetent” and “useless as a human being” were once considered acceptable… even positive or “motivational.” It is inevitable that as the culture shifts, some coaches would get “caught in the middle” and would be called out for behavior that was once common and affirmed within the sport-culture. Some coaches have begun to apologize. Now that these practices are recognized as abuse, that they hinder outstanding performances, and that they leave harmful lifelong impacts on athletes, it is time for sport to acknowledge this new reality, and affirm healthy coaching practices.
A fork in the road is still ahead for elite sport; abusive coaches will either learn, apologize, and work to heal the culture they were once part of, or, like Maggie Haney in this New York Timesarticle, they will defend their past abuse. Unfortunately, articles like this one harm this effort at reconciliation; it attempted to validate cruel practices that are objectively harmful to athletes. The task of sport is to engage in self-reflection, to recognize harmful practices, to learn new ways to motivate excellence in their athletes, and to atone for the harm they inflicted. The opportunity is there, and all sport can benefit.