With less than five months left before the Tokyo Olympics, the governing body for gymnastics in the United States has proposed a multimillion-dollar legal settlement to close a dark and painful chapter in which hundreds of gymnasts were sexually assaulted by a former team doctor.
Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in the sport, is not having it.
Nor is Aly Raisman, another Olympic gold medalist, and other victims who in recent days have publicly demanded answers, yet again, to how the doctor, Lawrence G. Nassar, could molest hundreds of girls and women under the watch of U.S.A. Gymnastics, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and so many coaches charged, in part, with keeping them safe.
“They’re just trying to push it under the rug and hoping people forget about it when people watch the Olympics this summer,” Raisman said Monday on the “Today” show on NBC, which will broadcast the Tokyo Games.
Raisman also accused Olympic organizations of a cover-up, though she did not say what, exactly, was being covered up because she said she did not have enough information.
And that lack of information is the crux of the problem.
Details of U.S.A. Gymnastics’ $217 million settlement offer became public last month and includes an offer that releases from liability various entities and people involved in the case, including the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the former chief executive of U.S.A. Gymnastics, Steve Penny, as well as the former national team coordinators, Marta and Bela Karolyi. The proposed payouts to Nassar’s 500-plus victims range from $82,550 to $1.25 million, with the highest tier of payouts going to gymnasts molested at the Olympics or world championships.
Yet the offer does not appear to require Olympic or gymnastic officials to disclose any more information that might shed light on how Nassar could assault so many people without the kind of oversight that could have stopped him. John Manly, a lawyer who represents Biles, Raisman and other victims, called that unacceptable.
Manly said that the $500 million settlement that Michigan State paid victims of Nassar, who was an employee of the university, was much different in that it spurred investigations that led to the firing or resignation of university officials, including Lou Anna Simon, the university’s president, who now faces criminal charges of lying to the police in the Nassar investigation. Kathie Klages, the university’s former gymnastics coach, last month was found guilty of lying to investigators and could face up to four years in prison.
“In typical fashion, U.S.A.G. managed to offend everyone with a settlement plan that doesn’t allow for any of our questions to be answered,” Manly said. “We want to figure out who at the highest levels of Olympic sports allowed this totally corrupt culture to continue.”
There have been numerous investigations into who knew about Nassar, when they knew and what they did about it.
A congressional subcommittee pursued one investigation, and the law firm Ropes & Gray, retained by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, pursued another. Yet the survivors say they still don’t know how Nassar was able to act with such impunity when he assaulted them under the guise of medical treatment. The Justice Department is also conducting an investigation into sexual abuse in Olympic sports, but no information on the investigation has been made public.
The lack of information has been so worrisome to victims that Biles, who is training for the Tokyo Olympics, has trouble keeping it out of her head.
On her way to national team training camp, she sent a tweet that said she still wanted answers from U.S.A. Gymnastics and the U.S.O.P.C.
“Wish they BOTH wanted an independent investigation as much as the survivors & I do. Anxiety high. Hard not to think about everything that I DON’T WANT TO THINK ABOUT!!!” the tweet said.
In another post, she said: “And don’t THEY also want to know HOW everything was allowed to happen and WHO let it happen so it NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN? Shouldn’t people be held accountable? Who do I ask??? I’m torn at this point….”
These strong reactions could indicate how far apart the athletes and officials are in resolving the case, and their very different goals.
The gymnasts are fighting for the maximum amount of information to be released in order to maintain public pressure on the Olympic committee and gymnastics federation to make the kinds of sweeping changes that would curb any future abuse. The governing officials, however, would rather expedite the end of the case so that attention on it fades before the Olympics and to avoid a trial that could impose harsher financial penalties if the victims prevail.
U.S.A. Gymnastics filed for bankruptcy in December 2018, claiming that the move would expedite payouts to Nassar’s victims. The filing halted the dozens of lawsuits U.S.A. Gymnastics was facing, stopping any exchange of information in those cases.
But the route from filing for bankruptcy to offering to pay those women has been circuitous, and was likely expected to be.
Jonathan Lipson, a bankruptcy law expert and professor at the Temple University Beasley School of Law, said U.S.A. Gymnastics’ case is tricky because it goes deeper than just a typical bankruptcy court’s case of “just money” and “just business.”
He said it was similar to the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy case stemming from the avalanche of lawsuits the company faced related to the drug at the center of the opioid crisis or the Boy Scouts of America’s recent bankruptcy filing in light of their sex-abuse scandal and the hundreds of lawsuits from it.
“All of them involve underlying harm that is more difficult to address than the usual failure to pay a debt,” Lipson said. “That was also the problem with the Catholic church. They had problems that can’t be cashed out, and the bankruptcy system was designed to cash people out.”
The next step to the bankruptcy case will be negotiations. There will be hearings and amended offers and lots of brinkmanship, as Lipson called it.
Another option is for the judge to dismiss the case, and that’s exactly what Nassar’s victims want.
In January, they filed a request with the court to throw out the case because they see the bankruptcy filing as U.S.A. Gymnastics’ effort to hide from public scrutiny and delay litigation in the hundreds of cases it faces throughout the country.
Rachael Denhollander, a lawyer and former gymnast who was the first person to publicly accuse Nassar of molesting her, said she and other victims were just about done with dealing with U.S.A. Gymnastics. A long and frustrating four years have gone by since she came forward to The Indianapolis Star with her accusations against Nassar.
“If they hadn’t prioritized money over the safety of children, we would’ve been done with all of this three years ago,” she said.
This is not about the money, she said, although funds are important for medical care of the survivors who need therapy. It’s about forcing the system to change, she said, and to do that, U.S.A. Gymnastics and the U.S.O.P.C. need to give the public more information — all the text messages, email exchanges, everything — to show who enabled Nassar to thrive and hurt so many girls and women.
“We are talking about the biggest sexual assault case in sports history,” Denhollander said. “The bottom line is that the survivors aren’t going to let this go.”