Timeline of a crisis: USA Gymnastics

U.S.A. Gymnastics struggled to demonstrate transparency and commitment to athlete safety when accusations emerged in the media about child sexual assault on its watch.

August 4, 2016
On the eve of the Rio Olympics, the IndyStar publishes a story claiming USA Gymnastics officials failed to alert law enforcement of child sexual assault committed by coaches and other staff, allowing predators to operate undetected. A statement by CEO Steve Penny stresses the organization’s commitment to preventing sexual assault and outlines steps taken to protect athletes and legal hurdles faced in disclosing case information.

August 29
The IndyStar wins a case in Georgia to unseal depositions and sexual misconduct complaint files compiled by USA Gymnastics on 54 coaches. The organization appeals the court decision.

September 12
Two gymnasts accuse former team physician, Dr. Larry Nassar, of sexually abusing them in the 1990s and early 2000s. USA Gymnastics explains it relieved Nassar of his duties in summer 2015.

November 3
USA Gymnastics hires  former federal prosecutor Deborah Daniels to review its handling of sexual misconduct cases and issue recommendations to the board. The IndyStar characterizes it as the first acknowledgement of "a need to examine its handling of sexual misconduct cases."

October 29
Georgia Supreme Court upholds the ruling that USA Gymnastics should release complaint files. The organization continues to delay their release as it fights to redact information.

December 1
The IndyStar’s nine-month investigation says at least 368 gymnasts alleged some form of sexual assault from personnel associated with USA Gymnastics. A statement by board of directors’ chairman Paul Parilla reminds the public of Daniels’ work and announces a policy review panel. CEO Penny says the IndyStar "largely mischaracterized" their efforts. He also reiterates USA Gymnastics’ formative role in setting up the U.S. Center for SafeSport, an entity to investigate and adjudicate sexual misconduct for all U.S. Olympic Committee governing bodies.

December 19
Parilla and Penny co-author an editorial entitled "We’re determined to raise standards" in USA Today, which is owned by the same parent company as the IndyStar.

January 17, 2017
USA Gymnastics engages FleishmanHillard sometime in December amid its ongoing crisis.

January 30
Two more women accusing Dr. Nassar of sexual assault file a motion to join a federal lawsuit against him. USA Gymnastics and a local gymnastics club are named as co-defendants. More than 60 women have accused Nassar of abuse since September, when the first of the lawsuits and complaints were filed.

February 16
USA Gymnastics releases a timeline of actions it took against Dr. Nassar, showing the organization was made aware of his alleged sexual misconduct in June 2015, had alerted the FBI and relieved him of further assignments within a month.

February 18
A video statement from Parilla reiterates the organization’s efforts to protect athletes, respect their privacy, cooperate with law enforcement, and remove Dr. Nassar from any position that would endanger members. "USA Gymnastics cares deeply for all our athletes," says Parilla. "They are the ‘heart and soul’ of the sport, and their health and wellbeing comes before all else."

February 19
The organization follows up with a press release saying prosecutor Daniels would unveil her recommendations in Q2 2017.

Hit or Miss?
Being an effective communicator also means being a strategic adviser, but that voice of reason was desperately lacking at USA Gymnastics. Its poverty of oversight created shadow where transparency was needed and, ultimately, facilitated decades of tragedy. That’s on every leader in the organization, including communicators.

Lesson #1: Stop talking. Take action.
USA Gymnastics’ efforts to block the release of sexual misconduct documents belie its claims of transparency and athlete safety. It needed to signal its willingness to fundamentally transform the organization and send a message to sexual predators in no uncertain terms: never again.

Lesson #2: Apologize.
Hiring an independent investigator to examine policies is a good first step, but not a cue to trumpet your values. USA Gymnastics’ good intentions aren’t the point. Now is the time to apologize, acknowledge victims’ pain, and help them heal.

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