March 19, 2019; Indianapolis Star
When you love a sport, and that sport is besmirched by scandal involving the sexual abuse of children, regaining the trust of parents, funders, audiences and the general public is not simple. Such is the dilemma that USA Gymnastics finds itself in following the conviction of former team doctor Larry Nassar on multiple charges of sexual abuse. The young women who were abused were also left with the job of having to fight to be heard at untold cost to them and their families as the organization was dragged kicking and screaming into the sunshine of national media attention. Since then, the gymnast activists have been unimpressed with what might be seen as a rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic.
NPQ covered this story as it unfolded in 2018, and this week a new chapter appeared. Now, a new nonprofit has been created to provide free, confidential counseling to gymnasts who have experienced sexual abuse in the sport. The Athlete Assistance Fund (AAF), reachable at its website, is a separate entity from USA Gymnastics. It does not, according to Fund leadership, keep any records of names of its users. That all goes to a third-party management group for confidentiality purposes. Connections to healthcare providers and counselors are made there, and USA Gymnastics is not to have any role or access to this information.
“We are taking definitive action to identify the issues and environment that have allowed sexual abuse in the past and to prevent it in the future,” Tina Ferriola, a New York gym owner and chair of the foundation’s board, said in a statement. “The AAF is committed to making gymnastics safe and requiring our gyms to meet the high standards these children deserve.”
But there may be reason for concern and skepticism if you follow the connections of the people in leadership. As Tim Evans writes for the Indianapolis Star:
Here’s the rub for skeptics. The fund’s creation was announced last year by USA Gymnastics and the foundation. The foundation’s purposes, according to articles of incorporation on file with the Indiana Secretary of State, “are exclusively to benefit, perform the functions of and to carry out the educational and charitable purposes” of USA Gymnastics. And Ferriola also is president of the foundation’s board of directors, which historically has been nominated by USA Gymnastics.
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Ferriola said the fund has “a solid working relationship right now with USA Gymnastics because the resources and education we hope to bring forward in the future, we need help getting it out to the gymnasts and athletes.”
John Manly, a California attorney who represents more than 200 abused gymnasts, said his recommendation to clients is to stay away from the fund.
“This is a PR stunt and a way to get information in my opinion,” Manly said. “It’s all the same people. They’ve tried to tell the bankruptcy court the foundation is independent, too. This is just one more lie in a pattern of lies that allowed hundreds of little girls and boys to be molested.”
This is an opinion that has been hard won of experience, as USAG has repeatedly tried to “reorganize” without completely cleaning house at the board level. In November, due to its lack of progress, the US Olympic Committee, which is itself not without blame, placed USAG into a decertification process, which is still ongoing.
Also announced this week was a partnership with the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to conduct a needs assessment, which will then lead to sexual abuse prevention programs and training for athletes, coaches, parents and gym owners.
Ferriola says she knows only too well that the fund will need to prove itself as worthy of trust.—Carole Levine