USA Gymnastics has named Mary Bono as its newest CEO. Bono is a former Republican Congresswoman who is expected to provide stability to an organization that has been in a state of constant churn since revelations about Larry Nassar’s abuse entered the public record. Bono’s steady and calming influence is expected to restore confidence in the institution after it inexplicably squandered its own reputation on repeatedly covering for Nassa…
Well. Uhh. After less than a week on the job, Mary Bono has now stepped down as the head of USA Gymnastics. The organization’s gymnasts were very publicly aghast at the decision to hire her and after a brief and middling attempt to ride it out, Bono rightly folded.
But First, Some History
Bono had stepped into a role that had been a meat-grinder. She was replacing Kerry Perry, who spent less than a year on the job before being asked to resign in the wake of what appeared to be general indifference to the job; among her most jaw-dropping decisions was championing the appointment of Mary Lee Tracy to a coordinator position within the USAG. Perry had apparently not bothered to look into Tracy’s background, which included publicly defending Nassar long after it had become clear that his allegedly ground-breaking medical treatments were nothing of the sort. Gymnasts within the organization – ones who had been abused by Nassar – criticized the decision and Tracy was asked to resign almost immediately. Perry’s resignation came next.
Perry had replaced Steve Penny. He was then the USAG CEO and President. Penny had described investigations into Nassar’s behavior as a “witch hunt” which is awfully familiar phrasing. Penny ignored reports of abuse within USAG and did not contact police about them. He publicly claimed that the USAG had immediately contacted law enforcement officials about Nassar’s abuse; he later acknowledged that “immediately” had, in this case, meant five weeks after receiving a report. Penny then repeatedly pled the fifth in front of Congress instead of talking about how the USAG had handled accusations of Nassar’s abuse. While refusing to answer any questions, he did manage to say this in his own defense:
Mr. Chairman, with respect to you and your question and the committee, I have been instructed by my attorney to assert my rights under the Fifth Amendment to the constitution. Which, according to the United States Supreme Court in Ohio v, Reiner, protects innocent men who might otherwise be ensnared by ambiguous circumstances, where truthful responses of an innocent witness may provide the government with evidence from the speaker’s own mouth which it would somehow use against him. For that reason, and based upon the advice of my attorney, I must respectfully decline to answer your question.
Perry was supposed to be able to do better than that. She could not. Bono was expected to do better than both of them. If that seems like it must have been a very tall order, well, it was, but such is the nature of the situation. USAG has never been in worse shape and has been largely abandoned by its former sponsors. It here that Bono almost immediately managed to get herself into trouble.
Simone Biles, one of the greatest American gymnasts ever, publicly rolled her eyes at Bono’s hiring over the weekend when it was revealed that the Republican had publicly spurned Nike in the wake of that company’s embrace of Colin Kaepernick. If that seems like a tremendous amount of word salad, well, yes, but Biles was onto something when she wondered publicly what the USAG thought it was doing.
don’t worry, it’s not like we needed a smarter usa gymnastics president or any sponsors or anything https://t.co/cYQizcjywn
— Simone Biles (@Simone_Biles) October 13, 2018
Although it is almost certain to be lost in the cultural fight over Kaepernick – those aghast that anybody would protest abusive policing will almost certainly also believe that Biles is in the wrong here; Bono’s very public politics will no doubt reinforce that conclusion – Biles’s point about sponsorship is an important one. Nike has the capacity to help a rebuilding organization. It is entirely reasonable to wonder what good is achieved by poisoning that possible relationship with a hire who has publicly dismissed the company? Bono seemed to realize as much almost as soon as Biles took her to task. Bono took down the tweet and apologized:
I regret the post and respect everyone’s views & fundamental right to express them. This doesn’t reflect how I will approach my position @USAGym I will do everything I can to help build, w/ the community, an open, safe & positive environment.
— Mary Bono (@MaryBonoUSA) October 14, 2018
Biles, it would seem, struck a nerve, something that the athletes themselves have repeatedly been forced to do by USAG management, a group that seems to inexplicably believe that the athletes themselves are the organization’s least concern. But while everybody has been focused on Bono and Biles and Nike, a second, much more significant issue arose.
How Is This Possible?
After losing her seat in Congress in 2012, Mary Bono returned to practicing law at Faegre Baker Daniels, a national law firm with offices throughout the nation. FBD is in Washington DC, in Bono’s own California, and, curiously, in Indianapolis, Indiana. And if Indianapolis, Indiana seems familiar, it might be because the newspaper located there is the one that nationally broke the news about both Nassar and his enablers. One of the reasons the Indianapolis Star was able to do such incredible work is that USAG is also based out of Indianapolis. And, in just the damndest coincidence in the world, FBD has relationships with USAG and Nassar himself.
Part of that relationship involved FBD conspiring with the USAG and Nassar to cover up for his sudden disappearance from team events when he was under (yet another) investigation. One of the firm’s numerous lawyers, Scott Himsel, twice worked out cover stories for Nassar’s absences, first claiming that he was sick and then claiming that he was focused on his private practice. While these excuses were being offered, neither the USAG nor Himsel bothered to tell Michigan State (his other employer) what was being investigated, and even though MSU had plenty of good reasons of its own to have stopped Nassar, he went on seeing and abusing athletes there for another calendar year. Himsel would later abandon Nassar in the aftermath of his arrest for possessing child pornography; Himsel has also, almost certainly wisely, abandoned the law itself.
FBD is an enormous law firm. It is obviously quite possible that Mary Bono never knew that it had worked with USAG or Nassar, or, if she had known, that she still had not had anything to do with the firm’s, or Himsel’s, decisions about how to protect Nassar. Bono worked out of the firm’s Washington DC and Silicon Valley offices, after all. She was far away from Indianapolis.
That bit of plausible deniability has understandably not quieted gymnasts abused while investigations – the ones that USAG, Nassar, and Himsel were conspiring to cover for – remained open and ongoing. As far as they are concerned, FBD is an enormous part of the bigger problem, and since Bono worked for FBD, well, here’s Kaylee Lorincz to roast Bono alive in less than 280 characters:
You owe me an explanation of why you and your firm allowed Larry to abuse me in 2016 after you were well aware that he was abusing little girls. https://t.co/a6Xwl9S2vJ
— Kaylee Lorincz (@KayleeLorincz) October 15, 2018
Lorincz is referencing this unbelievable failure. Bono can claim, perhaps correctly, that she had no idea what was happening with USAG, Nassar, or Himsel. She can claim, perhaps correctly, that she would have handled things differently. She can claim, perhaps correctly, that the firm was bound by professional obligations that prevented it from warning anybody about what Nassar had been accused of. Maybe all of that is true.
Bono had no way to offer a suitable explanation to Lorincz’s demand. Nothing she could offer was ever going to be good enough; nothing would have changed what Bono’s firm, whether or not she knew about it, chose to enable; nothing would have changed the fact that FBD cared more about its clients than it did about Lorincz’s well-being.
Meanwhile, and much more importantly: what on Earth is USAG’s excuse for having chosen an FBD lawyer to head up the organization? How is it possible that nobody fronting USAG bothered to wonder what it might look like appointing a lawyer from a firm that had defended both it and Nassar? And how is it possible that all of the feedback from all of the athletes that Nassar hurt – the ones who repeatedly warned USAG that it was ignoring them, their concerns, and their safety – went unthought of yet again? If Lorincz was not enough, and maybe she would not have been, having Aly Raisman note her tweet and once again tip the spear certainly did:
My teammates & I reported Nassar's abuse to USAG in 2015. We now know USOC & lawyers at Faegre Baker Daniels (Mary Bono's firm) were also told then, yet Nassar continued to abuse children for 13 months!? Why hire someone associated with the firm that helped cover up our abuse?
— Alexandra Raisman (@Aly_Raisman) October 15, 2018
Raisman rightly lit into Nassar when she was given the chance. Her searing indictment of the man is breathtaking in its totality. It seems unlikely that she will ever withhold all similarly furious enmity toward those that knew what Nassar was doing and did nothing. That included Bono, by professional association if nothing else, and if that seems unfair – some clown somewhere, desperate to defend Bono for inexplicable reasons, will no doubt claim that gymnasts should have been willing to accept her inevitable denials, and will insist that it is unfair to accuse her of wrongdoing just because she worked for a law firm that encouraged it – then at least she can count her lucky stars that she is not in the position that USAG’s gymnasts continue to find themselves in: abandoned by the organization that they have given everything to.
There is no bright side here. Bono left*, but the message has been sent either way. USAG’s leadership has reaffirmed its commitment to believing that it can be trusted to make good decisions, mountains of evidence otherwise notwithstanding. And the gymnasts will be left wondering when, exactly, it will be that they begin to matter to an organization allegedly dedicated to gymnastics.
*Bono, perhaps indicating just how unprepared for the job she had accepted, decided to relitigate the Kaepernick tweet she had earlier apologized for. She also bizarrely claimed that she was motivated to do right by abused gymnasts, as she had witnessed abuse herself when she was younger and done nothing to stop it. It is unclear what on earth gymnasts are supposed to take away from that. She did not address at all the points that Lorincz or Raisman made, presumably because she could not do so.