When it comes to television ratings, the most popular Olympic sport with American audiences is gymnastics. Specifically, it’s women’s gymnastics, realm of those wondrous little pixies that twist and tumble and teeter their way into our hearts. But one wonders if the sport’s fans would be quite so enamored if the sport's dirty little secret was more widely known: That USA Gymnastics, the governing body of the sport, has a long history of turning a blind eye to accusations of coaches molesting under-aged girls.
According to a disturbing report published this week by the Indianapolis Star, between 1996 and 2006 no less than 54 gymnastics coaches in the U.S. were alleged to have sexually molested under-aged gymnasts, complaints that, with few exceptions, were filed away and never investigated by USA Gymnastics. Instead, in a policy decried by child welfare experts, and possibly in violation of Indiana law, USA Gymnastics kept those allegations in a file in a drawer, regarding them as hearsay unless a USA Gymnastics member with first-hand knowledge of the crime came forward with a signed complaint.
Three of those 54 coaches -- Mark Schiefelbein, James Bell and Bill McCabe -- are now in jail, serving sentences ranging from eight to 36 years for various crimes against under-aged gymnasts, some as young as 7 years old. A fourth coach, Marvin Sharp, the 2010 national Women’s Coach of the Year, hung himself in jail in 2015 after being charged in federal court in Indianapolis after a raid of his home and office uncovered thousands of sexually explicit photographs of under-aged gymnasts, both male and female, that Sharp had coached.
The other 50 coaches? We don’t know. Nor do we know how many more complaints have been filed against how many other gymnastics coaches since 2006. USA Gymnastics, which is based in Indianapolis, has not released the alleged abusers names or their accusers, citing privacy concerns and a pending lawsuit that has been filed against that organization by Lisa Ganser, the mother of one of the gymnasts whom McCabe abused after USA Gymnastics had received, and ignored, a complaint by a third party.
It may, or may not, be a legal obligation for sports organizations like USA Gymnastics to report each and every allegation of child abuse they receive, but without question it is their moral obligation.
“In my opinion this person has no right to work with children and should be locked in a cage before someone is raped,” former gym owner Dan Dickey wrote to USA Gymnastics in 1998, after he had fired McCabe and then learned McCabe had been hired by another gym. USA Gymnastics responded with a brief letter saying they would add Dickey’s letter to McCabe’s file in the event a USA Gymnastics member or member’s parent came forward with an official, signed complaint. Later that year, the gym that had hired McCabe also fired him, and alerted USA Gymnastics by fax that it had three pages of allegations of inappropriate behavior by McCabe and a list of previous gyms that had asked him to leave under suspicious circumstances. That fax, too, went into McCabe’s file without investigation. In 1999, USA Gymnastics renewed McCabe’s membership. He kept coaching until 2006, at which time he was arrested by the FBI for videotaping young gymnasts he coached as they changed clothes and sharing those videos online. He was also convicted of inappropriately touching gymnasts as young as the fifth grade.
The feeble defense of USA Gymnastics is that the coaching profession is highly competitive, and gym owners are apt to do or say almost anything to steal a promising young gymnast from a competitor, or put that competitor out of business. So they dismiss any allegation that is made by someone without first hand knowledge of a crime as hearsay. But when the victims are as young as 7, and when the predatory coach tells the child that this is the way to get to the Olympics, this is the way all the champions have done it, that it is their secret, that what is happening is not to be shared with the parents or anyone else, how reasonable is it to expect that child to come forward? What responsibility does the USA Gymnastics bear?
That is what happens. Coaches who target youngsters are predators. In addition to covering gymnastics, I also wrote about figure skating for years, and predatory coaches were a huge, covered-up problem in that sport, as well. The U.S. Figure Skating Association was just as obtuse and hands-off as USA Gymnastics is today. These organizations are more concerned with their image, with their sponsorships, with gold medals, with television ratings, and with attracting more and more youngsters into their sport than they are with protecting children and ferreting out the monsters who prey on them. It may, or may not, be a legal obligation for sports organizations like USA Gymnastics to report each and every allegation of child abuse they receive, but without question it is their moral obligation.
So for the next couple of weeks, when you watch gymnasts perform their magic on the beam, on the high bar, on the floor, applaud their skills and marvel. Then remember the dozens, likely hundreds, of girls who in the last 20 years have been let down by this sport and its officials, and who will bear the emotional scars for the rest of their lives.