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USA Gymnastics Denies Cover Up of Nichols Complaint
(6 votes, average 4.33 out of 5)

The parents of world champion Maggie Nichols have alleged that USA Gymnastics pressured them to keep quiet for more than a year after the gymnast made allegations of sexual assault by then-team doctor Larry Nassar to USAG. USA Gymnastics has denied any allegations of a cover-up.

The parents of world champion gymnast Maggie Nichols have alleged that USA Gymnastics pressured them to keep quiet for more than a year after the gymnast made allegations of sexual assault by then-team doctor Larry Nassar to USAG. Olympic gold medalists Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney have made similar allegations against USA Gymnastics, which issued a statement Tuesday flatly denying any allegations of a cover-up in the Nassar scandal that only continues to widen in 2018.

The statement made by USA Gymnastics — sent to IG Tuesday afternoon and then posted on the USAG website — conflicts with the accounts of the three gymnasts and their families, and it also appears to be inconsistent in some ways with comments made Tuesday by Fran Sepler, a Minneapolis-based human resources consultant USAG hired to interview the gymnasts in 2015.

Nichols, 20, came forward early Tuesday to reveal she was the first known gymnast to report Nassar's assaults to USA Gymnastics — for the past 18 months, she has been referred to as "Athlete A" in legal documents to protect her identity. At the national team camp at the Karolyi ranch in June 2015, Nichols' coach, Sarah Jantzi, became alarmed when overhearing Nichols and two other gymnasts discussing Nassar's uncomfortable treatments. After confirming with Nichols what Nassar had been doing, Jantzi reported the assaults to Rhonda Faehn, USA Gymnastics women's program director, and Nichols' mother, Gina, in Minnesota. Maggie Nichols also shared Facebook messages Nassar had sent the teen, reportedly telling her how beautiful she looked, which were also reported to Faehn and Penny.

The accounts described by Maggie Nichols, who helped the U.S. women win a team gold medal in October 2015 at the world championships in Glasgow, and her parents echo the story first told in Raisman's best-selling autobiography, Fierce, which was published in November. Raisman recounted the same incident at the national team camp in June 2015, as she was one of the two gymnasts talking to Nichols (although in her book she did not identify by name the other gymnasts or the coach who overheard them talking). Nichols is among more than 130 gymnasts suing USA Gymnastics and/or Michigan State University over Nassar; she joined the lawsuit in August 2017 under the alias Jane A68 Doe.

USA Gymnastics has faced criticism for its response to the Nassar allegations, particularly for not immediately filing a police report after Jantzi first reported what she had learned. Instead, the governing body hired a human resources consultant named Fran Sepler, who specializes in workplace harassment issues, to interview Nichols and Raisman at their homes in Minnesota and Massachusetts, respectively. According to Nichols' parents, Dr. John and Gina Nichols, they erroneously believed that Sepler was an investigator from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

According to USA Gymnastics' statement today, "USA Gymnastics immediately contacted [Nichols'] parents and hired an experienced, independent investigator to speak with her and others at a mutually agreed date and time. The information that Maggie and later a second athlete provided was important, but did not provide reasonable suspicion that sexual abuse had occurred."

However, Sepler told Sports Illustrated she was only hired to interview the gymnasts.

"I was not hired as an investigator," Sepler said. "I was only asked to conduct several interviews by US Gymnastics (sic), who indicated they were conducting an investigation into allegations and needed someone who was a skilled interviewer. I did not decide who to speak to and did not provide any advice or recommendations except that law enforcement needed to be involved."

According to Raisman, she was also under the impression that Sepler was an investigator, as she states that Penny personally called her and said a "private investigator" would be visiting her. While Raisman admitted to Sepler that Nassar had touched her in ways that made her feel uncomfortable, she initially defended him because, as she later wrote, she was afraid of speaking up. According to her autobiography, she described herself as being paralyzed by shock and fear of what an allegation would mean against a highly respected doctor, and that it could create a scandal that might destroy her chances of competing at the 2016 Olympics. She explained to the investigator that Nassar probably did not mean to hurt anybody deliberately and that he was her friend who brought her gifts and tried to help her.

However, Raisman wrote that after Sepler left, she realized she had been in deep denial and could no longer make excuses for Nassar. ("I wanted to throw up," she wrote of that moment.) She said she immediately contacted USA Gymnastics as Sepler apparently did not leave her contact info should she decide to follow up with her.

"So I called a USA Gymnastics official and I told her everything that I was remembering, the things I would have told Fran if I hadn't been in shock, " Raisman wrote. "Hours later, I got a text back from someone, saying that I needed to stop speaking about Larry. I was warned that there is a process in place and that staying clear of the process would protect me and the others."

According to the Nichols' lawsuit against USA Gymnastics, Penny immediately "discouraged [Maggie's parents] from reporting Nassar's conduct to law enforcement and pressured them to keep the matter quiet." The Nichols stated that Penny repeatedly assured them that the federation was handling the matter along with the FBI and they should not pursue separate legal charges against Nassar.

"I got a phone call probably the next day [from] Steve Penny," Gina Nichols told Sports Illustrated on Tuesday. "He called me, I don't know how many times, to talk to me about it and make sure that I understood they were taking care of it."

Nassar, who was appointed USA Gymnastics' National Medical Coordinator in 1996, quietly left USA Gymnastics in September 2015. He remained on staff at his primary employer, Michigan State University, in East Lansing, and continued to act as physician to gymnasts at the Twistars club in Lansing and a nearby high school. None of the allegations against him were reported to the police, Michigan State University, Twistars, the school, the Michigan Board of Medicine or any other organization he was still affiliated with.

In her book, Raisman wrote that she and her family became concerned in September 2015, when Nassar posted a long message on Facebook announcing his decision to retire from USA Gymnastics to focus on a run for the local school board. She wrote that their repeated efforts to get updates on the case against Nassar were met with assurances from USA Gymnastics that they should not interfere.

"Has USA Gymnastics gone to the authorities?" Raisman wrote in Fierce. "Would he go to jail? I wanted to be sure he would no longer be working as a doctor. My mom and I reached out to USA Gymnastics. They assured us that the situation was being handled, and said that we shouldn't interfere. Concerned we would jeopardize the case against him, we took USA Gymnastics at their word. We continued to reach out. Each time, we were told that they were handling it, but there was little that they could reveal."

Gina Nichols stated that the family felt pressure from Penny to do as he told them, as they feared disregarding his instructions could not only jeopardize the FBI investigation but also could negatively affect their daughter's chances of making the 2016 Olympic team.

"When I have the president of USA Gymnastics telling me what to do, he's in a position of power over me," she explained. "We've given our whole family up to get our daughter to this point and [when] I have Steve Penny telling me 'this is what we're going to do, we're going to be quiet,' I'm going to listen to him. I'm not going to jeopardize my daughter's chance of going to the Olympics."

Nichols, despite making a strong comeback from a torn meniscus suffered in early 2016, was not selected for a spot on the five-member Olympic team or as one of the three alternates after the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials in July. She announced her retirement from elite gymnastics to focus on collegiate gymnastics. In a heartfelt note announcing her retirement, she stated that USA Gymnastics had extended an invitation to her to return to the Karolyi ranch to train alongside the Olympic squad before they left for Brazil. She declined.

According to USA Gymnastics, "Maggie's conversation overheard by a coach and her willingness to be interviewed about her comments and experiences initiated the process that resulted in the conviction of Larry Nassar for the reprehensible crimes he committed."

However, USA Gymnastics claim that Maggie Nichols' complaint to USA Gymnastics led to his conviction is not supported by any facts known to the public. It is entirely inconsistent with the two county affidavits for his arrests in Michigan for sexual assault and federal affidavit related to child pornography. While USA Gymnastics states it filed a complaint with the FBI in July 2015, and the Nichols family confirmed Maggie spoke with an FBI agent one year later, Nassar was never arrested by the FBI in relation to any assaults. He continued to practice medicine for 15 months.

Following a series of investigative reports by The Indianapolis Star into USA Gymnastics' historic handling of sex abuse, first published August 4, 2016, former Michigan club gymnast Rachael Denhollander spoke to the newspaper about being assaulted by Nassar at age 15. She then filed a police report with the Michigan State University Police Department. The next day, August 30, Michigan State University suspended Nassar pending investigation. 2000 Olympian Jamie Dantzscher, also reportedly encouraged to act by the The Indianapolis Star series, filed a Jane Doe lawsuit in California on September 8. After Dantzscher's lawsuit and Denhollander's allegations were made public in The Indianapolis Star on September 12, more women came forward and contacted the Indianapolis newspaper, as well as the Lansing State Journal. Dozens of police complaints were filed in Michigan alleging sexual assaults by Nassar, mostly on the MSU campus and at the Twistars club. Law enforcement searched Nassar's home on September 20 — the same day he was fired by MSU — and discovered more than 37,000 files of child pornography on hard drives he had thrown in the garbage taken out for collection, according to a federal affidavit.

In October 2016, after a request by the MSU Police Department, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette opened an investigation that led to Nassar being arrested and charged with multiple counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in two counties. He was freed on bail and maintained his innocence. On December 16, 2016, he was indicted in federal court and arrested for the receipt of and possession of child pornography. (A third charge, related to his attempted concealment by the destruction of his computer hard drives, was added later.) He was denied bail in federal court, with the judge stating Nassar posed "the worst kind of threat." He has been imprisoned since then.

The FBI has refused all comment on its investigation and has not explained why it did not apparently initiate a joint investigation with local law enforcement agencies in Texas and Michigan. At least 19 victims stated they were abused by Nassar in the 15 months after USA Gymnastics was first alerted by Nichols' coach and before allegations against him were made public in September 2016.

Nassar pleaded guilty to the child pornography charges in July 2017 but continued to deny he had ever assaulted anyone, insisting that he had performed valid osteopathic procedures. After more than a year of maintaining his innocence, Nassar pleaded guilty in November 2017 to the state charges as part of a plea deal with the attorney general. For the first time, he admitted that the intra-vaginal penetration and other invasive touching he had done were entirely for his own gratification and were not medical treatment. According to reports, Nassar confessed to local police that he had committed these assaults "thousands of times" during his work with athletes and other women. Last month, Nassar, 54, was sentenced to 60 years in federal prison on the three charges related to child pornography. He will be sentenced next week on 10 counts of criminal sexual conduct related to assaults in his home state of Michigan, a term he must serve before his federal sentence. The judge has reserved three days for any victims, including ones abused outside of Michigan, to read an impact statement prior to his sentencing.

In October 2017, 2012 Olympic gold and silver medalist McKayla Maroney came forward to reveal she had been abused by Nassar, alleging his abuse extended to drugging her with a sedative on an international flight to Japan, after which she woke up in his hotel room in Tokyo with him on top of her, and outright assaults not disguised as treatment. Maroney became the most high-profile victim of Nassar to come forward, and she was followed shortly by Raisman and Gabby Douglas. (Nichols noted the three gymnasts' bravery in her decision to come forward Tuesday). In December, Maroney filed a lawsuit against USA Gymnastics, the U.S. Olympic Committee, MSU and Nassar, in which she alleged she was pressured to sign a confidentiality agreement by USA Gymnastics in December 2016 in order to receive a $1.25 million settlement. Confidentiality agreements in civil lawsuits concerning felony sex offenses are illegal in California, according to the 2016 California Code of Civil Procedure and multiple attorneys commenting on the Maroney-USAG case. USA Gymnastics has denied the settlement agreement was illegal.

The USA Gymnastics Board of Directors continued to publicly support Steve Penny despite calls for him (and board members) to resign. Penny was forced to resign in March 2017 after pressure from the U.S. Olympic Committee. The board voted to award Penny upwards of $1 million as a severance package. Paul Parilla, chairman of the board of USAG, acted as CEO until Penny's replacement, Kerry Perry, took over the role in December.

Statement from USA Gymnastics on Maggie Nichols

January 9, 2018
"USA Gymnastics admires Maggie Nichols' bravery and encourages our athletes and others, like Maggie, to share their personal experiences with abuse. We are sorry that any athlete has been harmed during her or his gymnastics career. USA Gymnastics is focused every day on creating a culture of empowerment that encourages our athletes to speak up about abuse and other difficult topics.

Maggie's conversation overheard by a coach and her willingness to be interviewed about her comments and experiences initiated the process that resulted in the conviction of Larry Nassar for the reprehensible crimes he committed.

Contrary to reported accusations, USA Gymnastics never attempted to hide Nassar's misconduct. The suggestion by plaintiff's counsel John Manly, who indicates that he is representing Maggie, that USA Gymnastics tried to silence athletes or keep the investigation secret to avoid headlines before the Rio Olympics and to protect Los Angeles' Olympic bid is entirely baseless. USA Gymnastics kept the matter confidential because of the FBI's directive not to interfere with the investigation.

USA Gymnastics reported Nassar to the FBI in July 2015 and to a different FBI office again in April 2016. When Maggie's comments were relayed by her coach to the organization, USA Gymnastics immediately contacted her parents and hired an experienced, independent investigator to speak with her and others at a mutually agreed date and time. The information that Maggie and later a second athlete provided was important, but did not provide reasonable suspicion that sexual abuse had occurred. Following a third athlete interview on Friday, July 24, 2015, the investigator recommended that USA Gymnastics report to law enforcement, and USA Gymnastics contacted the FBI on the next business day, Monday, July 27. When USA Gymnastics representatives met with the FBI on Tuesday, July 28, 2015, they disclosed the information received during all three interviews, including Maggie's. The FBI then took over the matter, and it decided who to speak with and when. USA Gymnastics cooperated fully with the FBI, including the agents' July 28, 2015, request to not do anything that might interfere with their investigation. USA Gymnastics interpreted that request to mean that it should not discuss the matter, and it refrained from doing so.

Except with law enforcement, USA Gymnastics did not identify any interviewed athletes by name to protect their privacy, including Maggie, who was a minor at the time. At all times, USA Gymnastics has attempted to support athletes' desire for confidentiality or public disclosure, and it has commended every athlete who has come forward to report abuse and will continue to do so.

USA Gymnastics is committed every day to ensuring our athletes are safe and further developing a culture of empowerment. The new CEO Kerry Perry is eager to meet and talk with Maggie and others who can help guide and lead these efforts. USA Gymnastics has and will continue to take specific and concrete steps to prevent future abuse by vigorously enforcing the USA Gymnastics Safe Sport Policy. We are focused on further developing a culture that has safe sport as a top priority throughout the organization."

Comments (1)add comment

Joy said:

Where are the parents of all the young female gymnasts who were molested. Did the girls not tell their parents?? If not. Why ? It seems to me that The parents should be held partially responsible for the abuse the daughters suffered during their training! I have heard & seen first hand how “organized sport” parents are. They are selfish & living “their dream” thru their kids! These parents don’t want to hear any negativity nor complaining.
February 07, 2018
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