Olympic committee asks USA Gymnastics head to resign

The United States Olympic Committee board of directors asked USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny to resign, according to a USOC official who spoke to the USA TODAY Network on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

The recommendation came during a USOC board meeting in Los Angeles.

After that meeting, in a teleconference with reporters, USOC board Chairman Larry Probst would not tell reporters what the board recommended. He said, "It's not appropriate for us to tell you what that consensus point of view is until USA Gymnastics has had a chance to consider our input."

Probst said the board gave its recommendation to USA Gymnastics board chairman Paul Parilla. USOC officials said USA Gymnastics was not given a deadline to answer, but the board hopes it will be "sooner rather than later."

Asked what would happen if USA Gymnastics decides not to accept the USOC board's recommendation, Probst said, "We don't want to speculate on what the board might want to do. ... Our hope is, obviously, they will be on the same page."

USA Gymnastics declined to answer questions from IndyStar, but issued a statement from Parilla.

“The entire leadership of USA Gymnastics shares the USOC’s commitment to promoting a safe environment for all athletes, and we take its views seriously," the statement said. "USA Gymnastics has initiated a comprehensive, thorough and independent examination of our requirements, mandates and procedures in this area and we expect this review will identify ways to strengthen our program and better protect youth. The USA Gymnastics Board of Directors will convene shortly and work to determine next steps.”

Penny, who graduated from the University of Washington in 1987 and attended Mercer Island High School, has been president since 2005, a period in which the organization’s elite athletes experienced their greatest success on the international stage. But he has been accused of failing to protect children while concentrating on winning Olympic medals.

The USOC discussion appears to be aimed at moving beyond the ongoing sex scandal, which has gripped USA Gymnastics since August when an IndyStar investigation raised questions about its child abuse reporting practices.

USA Gymnastics board members have been steadfast in their support for Penny throughout IndyStar's ongoing investigation. Through every new development, over many months, not one negative word was uttered publicly by a board member.

Before the USOC's press conference Thursday, California attorney John Manly wrote a letter to Probst demanding that the USOC decertify Indianapolis-based USA Gymnastics as the sport's national governing body.

Manly is suing USA Gymnastics on behalf of alleged victims of former national team doctor Larry Nassar, who is in jail awaiting trial on state charges of child sexual abuse, as well as federal child pornography charges. Nassar has denied any wrongdoing.

Manly cited IndyStar's investigation, which was first to make public abuse allegations against Nassar. The investigation also revealed that USA Gymnastics did not immediately report some allegations of child abuse to police, and that more than 360 gymnasts alleged sexual abuse in the past 20 years.

"The entire USA Gymnastics leadership and management shares the blame for this failure," Manly wrote. "If the wholesale rape of hundreds of children because of organizational culture and indifference is not enough, then respectfully, what is?"

Decertification of the national governing body is not unheard of, although poor financial or athletic performance is usually the cause. Taekwondo and team handball organizations have been decertified in the past. The USOC threatened to decertify USA Track & Field in 2008 if it didn't streamline its administration.

But Probst said Thursday that the USOC board did not discuss the possibility of decertifying USA Gymnastics.
USOC CEO Scott Blackmun said the board took up the issue of sexual abuse because of increased media coverage.

"And I think, obviously, the center point of that right now is around USA Gymnastics," he said. "So we felt it was appropriate to talk about the subject of safe sport broadly, and it certainly was difficult to do that without a specific discussion around gymnastics as well."

Pressure on Penny and USA Gymnastics mounted in recent weeks, and swept in the Olympic committee.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and 15 co-sponsors introduced the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse Act of 2017. The bill would make it a federal crime for any Olympic national governing body to fail to immediately report allegations of child sexual abuse to authorities. Gymnastics was not the only Olympic sport facing child sex abuse allegations; also included are swimming and taekwondo.

After the USOC teleconference, Feinstein issued a statement: "It’s welcome news that the U.S. Olympic Committee is acknowledging the systemic problems that have allowed young athletes to be sexually abused. Those problems go beyond any one individual, and I’m hopeful the U.S. Olympic Committee will support our bill to require mandatory reporting of abuse claims and ensure strong safeguards are in place to prevent abuse from happening in the first place.”

On Thursday, International Gymnastics Camp, a long-running and well-known company in the sport, announced it was withdrawing its sponsorship of USA Gymnastics. A statement posted on the company's website said it would return as a sponsor once "a more comprehensive course of action is implemented and enforced consistently throughout all levels of our sport."

On March 3, a Georgia judge unsealed 54 sexual abuse complaint files that USA Gymnastics kept on coaches from 1996 to 2006. IndyStar fought to unseal the documents and depositions in a civil lawsuit. Among the revelations: USA Gymnastics officials who handle sexual abuse complaints acknowledged they had no legal or sex abuse training, yet would judge some complaints as hearsay based on the fact that they were not signed by a witness, victim or victim's parent.

Late last month, Dominique Moceanu, a gold medalist at the 1996 Olympics, called for Penny to resign.

After telling IndyStar last year that it reported Nassar to law enforcement "immediately" upon receiving "athlete concerns," USA Gymnastics revealed last month that it actually waited five weeks while conducting an internal investigation.

And the popular gymnastics podcast GymCastic interviewed former national team gymnast Steven Legendre and his wife Alaina, who criticized the way Penny handled a sexual misconduct claim they made about a national coach.

Jonathan Bernstein, president of California-based Bernstein Crisis Management, said Thursday that in situations such as these, seeking new leadership can help an organization begin to address its growing public relations crisis.

"I'm sure he's done marvelous things for the organization, but the bottom line is the harm to children took place on his watch," Bernstein said. "From a reputation management point of view, there's no way around that. It's almost inevitable that he will need to step down, no matter how good he is at his job."

Penny, whose long career in sports management included stints at USA Cycling and the Seattle Mariners, joined USA Gymnastics in 1999 as its senior vice president. He was paid $628,445 in 2015, according to the most recently available public tax records.

Under Penny, USA Gymnastics has signed up a growing list of big-time sponsors, including Kellogg Co., and Hershey Co., which have pumped millions of dollars into a national governing body that was deep in debt when it arrived in Indianapolis in 1983.

Penny's often-stated mantra in interviews: Win medals, grow the sport, improve customer service and increase visibility.

But revelations about its sexual abuse policies struck hard. More than 100,000 athletes are USA Gymnastics members, about 85 percent of whom are female, according to the deposition of a former high-ranking executive of the organization.

IndyStar reporter Ryan Martin contributed to this story.

Call IndyStar reporter Mark Alesia at (317) 444-6311. Follow him on Twitter: @markalesia.

Call IndyStar reporter Marisa Kwiatkowski at (317) 444-6135. Follow her on Twitter: @IndyMarisaK.

Call IndyStar reporter Tim Evans at (317) 444-6204. Follow him on Twitter: @starwatchtim.

Copyright 2017 KING


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