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USA Gymnastics Tries But Fails To Execute The Rare Triple Down Maneuver

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…

…oh.

Oh no.

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

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.

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:

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:

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:

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.

 


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28 thoughts on “USA Gymnastics Tries But Fails To Execute The Rare Triple Down Maneuver

    • Agreed, lots of people who could fix things. But the leadership at USAG need to keep things contained in the rarified corners, because their positions are at risk if an outside agitator got their hand on the tiller and decided to excise the root.

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    • It does seem wild that USAG continues going back to the same well. Why not find somebody who has not, and cannot, be accused of having covered for Nassar? Hell, how about a search committee that at least includes women who endured Nassar’s abuse?

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        • She worked for a law firm that covered for Larry Nassar’s abuse. It does not matter if she was personally involved. It matters that USAG thought that this was not an issue at all. It matters that USAG did not even consider what sort of message this would be sending to its athletes.

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          • Ergo, it’s a question of optics.

            Bono may have been perfectly competent to help the org recover from the scandal(s), if she appeared to be aware of, and actively working to overcome those optics.

            Instead, she seems to have been acting as if this is mostly a side gig she didn’t need to pay too much attention to. Which is fine, lots of powerful people have such side gigs. But USAG doesn’t need a person working a side gig, they need a dedicated and conscientious HMFIC.

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          • Sam Wilkinson: She worked for a law firm that covered for Larry Nassar’s abuse. It does not matter if she was personally involved. It matters that USAG thought that this was not an issue at all. It matters that USAG did not even consider what sort of message this would be sending to its athletes.

            It’s a sad world when things like this need to be explained to people.

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            • The USAG is obviously directly to blame. It is the organization that chose Bono. It is the organization that again asserted that it knew best, when it is plainly obvious to everybody else on Earth that they should not be trusted to decide anything. It apparently did not occur to them that anybody might wonder whether trusting the law firm that had enabled the abuse of at least 40 women might was actually worth trusting. And again, even if Bono had nothing to do with what FBD had done for Nassar, it is still entirely reasonable for the organization’s gymnasts to ask how in the hell it was possible that somebody from the same firm was going to be trusted with oversight of the USAG. (That Bono seemingly had no good answer – saying, “I looked the other way when I witnessed abuse when I was younger, so you should have trusted me now!” is, uhh, unconvincing on its own – is evidence of how poor a fit she was going to be.)

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              • Speaking of standards, what am I to make of this:

                “saying, ‘I looked the other way when I witnessed abuse when I was younger, so you should have trusted me now!’ is, uhh, unconvincing on its own”

                ETA: Actually I don’t know if I have to add anything, but just for clarity, if you’re saying that ignoring an earlier assault makes a woman unqualified to lead, are you willing to apply that universally? Wouldn’t you be appalled by this standard in any other context?

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                • “a woman” is not the same thing as “Mary Bono” who is the specific person being discussed. She is using as evidence of her competence that she responded to abuse in the exact same way that the USAG did. That is neither exculpatory nor a reason to trust her. If anything, it is a reason to be dubious of her.

                  As for you continuing to not see what the problem is with trusting a lawyer from a law firm that enabled abuse, I don’t know what to tell you. Do you genuinely believe that gymnasts should trust a lawyer from an apparently amoral law firm to have their best interests at heart?

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                  • “Amoral law firm”? The idea that a law firm’s morality can be judged by the actions of one member/team is the fallacy of divsion. The idea that a law firm’s morality can be applied to each lawyer is the fallacy of composition. You’ve committed both of them, by saying that the Nassar case tells you about FBD’s morality, which in turn tells you about Bono’s morality.

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                    • I think it is beyond neat that you cannot bring yourself to judge an organization that decides that enabling abuse is more important than preventing it. I, however, am not burdened by such nonsense, and so I am still able to look at what FBD did as the monstrousness that it obviously is.

                      As for Bono – since you believe so deeply in her ability to successfully do the job despite everything she has already shown us – can you explain why gymnasts owed her their trust in her ability to properly execute the job, given exactly what had happened?

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                      • (And while I’m at it, I don’t give a damn about your debate club nonsense. What Bono did actually matters – which included voluntarily sticking with a law firm that enabled the abuse of at least forty women – and pretending otherwise is something I won’t be wasting my time on.)

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                      • “since you believe so deeply in her ability to successfully do the job despite everything she has already shown us”

                        False dichotomy: I never said she could do the job.

                        “debate club nonsense”

                        Ad hominem.

                        “and pretending otherwise is something I won’t be wasting my time on”

                        Ignoratio elenchi.

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                        • “false dichotomy”

                          Nah. But, if you genuinely are not here to argue in favor of her, then what are you doing?

                          “Ad hominem”

                          Don’t care. If you want to discuss the substance of the situation, let’s do that. If you want to subject everything to a set of rules that I never agreed to, why waste our time?

                          “Ignoratio elenchi”

                          Debate club nonsense.

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        • But you said that there’s no reason to believe that she worked on the case. How is that different from holding you responsible for Will’s articles?

          Real lawyers in this forum, that who practiced in large firms are invited to comment, but, in my experience, it is standard that when one lawyer or law office associated with a larger firm takes in a new client or case -even with an existing client-, a firm wide search is made to check any past interaction the firm has had in any capacity with the new client or the parties in the new case, to detect any potential conflict of interest.

          I’ve had firms that I’ve been a client for years refuse to take a new case because it would pit me against another customer of them, and I’ve personally signed many waiver of potential conflict letters, because they had been engaged in some six degrees of separation unrelated transaction with someone at sometime that could potentially be in conflict with me. If anything, large firms may take weeks to clear any possible appearance of conflict.

          Doesn’t matter that Ms. Bono worked in a different area in a different office, I would have expected her to raise the Nasar defense as a potential conflict and require a written waiver from USAG before taking the position.

          If she did raise the issue, and USAG formally waived the conflict, it speaks volumes about USAG’s cluelessness. If she didn’t raise the issue, proper lawyers here are invited to comment about whether it raises to a professional ethics matter that could be reviewable by the Bar.

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  1. Unless USA Gymnastics is engaging in some incredibly vile trolling, hiring a former Republican Congressperson is a tone deaf and not very wise decision on their part. It comes across as saying that the real important thing is to keep pushing young girls into gymnastic superstardom and fighting their sexual abuse and other exploitation is a very distant second. It would not surprise me if many of the higher ups in USA Gymnastics really did not learn anything from the Nasser scandal and still believe that getting Olympic medals and other awards is paramount. There are terribly cynical people like this. People who put glory over everything else and believe any suffering in pursuit of said glory is a good thing. They are evil.

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  2. Like Bailes pointed out, it takes a rare talent to alienate both rank&file membership *and* sponsors. Normally you’re put in a situation where you have to alienate one to win favor of the other (and that’s normally the sponsors, because money talks).

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  3. I know it’s wholly tangential to the actual story, but I can’t get over her resignation latter itself. Shouldn’t lawyers be able to write better copy than that? I guess not, but it still surprises me:

    With respect to Mr. Kaepernick, he nationally exercised his first amendment right to kneel

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    • That she only wanted to address Kaepernick, as opposed to her association with the law firm that covered for Nassar, gives her game away. She had no way to explain that relationship. So she focused on what she could score (extremely undeserved) political points about instead.

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  4. Whoa. From ESPN:

    Former USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny was arrested Wednesday after a Texas grand jury indicted him, alleging he tampered with evidence in the sexual assault investigation of now-imprisoned gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.
    ….
    The indictment alleges Penny ordered the removal of documents from the Karolyi Ranch — a longtime training ground near Huntsville for the country’s elite gymnasts — relating to Nassar’s activities there. It alleges Penny acted after learning that Texas Rangers and Walker County authorities were investigating the ranch, which was being managed by USA Gymnastics.

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