(Reuters) - USA Gymnastics must put athlete safety ahead of winning medals, said the head of an independent review examining the organization’s handling of abuse incidents involving a number of gymnasts.
Deborah Daniels, a former federal prosecutor who spent a significant portion of her career prosecuting child sexual offenders, made 70 recommendations in a report released on Tuesday and called for a sweeping cultural change within the sport.
“The report indicates that at least there is an external perception that the primary focus of the organization is on winning medals,” Daniels said during a conference call. “That wouldn’t be surprising. It is the national governing body of the Olympic committee and the Olympic committee wants to win medals.
“But what we are saying is there needs to be a clearer articulation that the culture is athlete safety first, not just success on the field of play.
“That needs to start with the board and permeate through the entire organization.”
Paul Parilla, chairman of the USA Gymnastics Board of Directors, said the organization will immediately move forward implementing policy changes recommended in Daniels’ report.
The sport has been rocked recently by a string of sex abuse scandals, the most sensational involving Larry Nassar, once a team doctor for Olympians at USA Gymnastics.
A judge last Friday ordered the former Michigan State University sports doctor be sent to trial on multiple charges of criminal sexual assault.
Gymnasts say he sexually assaulted them under the guise of medical examinations over two decades when most of them were minors.
Among the report’s recommendations were that adults affiliated with USA Gymnastics be prohibited from being alone with minor gymnasts at all times and they be prohibited from having out-of-program contact via email, text or social media.
It was also recommended that all USA Gymnastics members must report suspected sexual misconduct immediately to the appropriate legal authorities and the U.S. Center for SafeSport.
Daniels also pointed to a lack of oversight by USA Gymnastics when it came to monitoring member clubs and recommended the governing body use its leverage to enforce standards, including levying severe sanctions, particularly in the case of failure to report child abuse.
“USA Gymnastics believed it had no real leverage over member clubs,” said Daniels, adding that it “would encourage them to take the steps that it wanted them to take, but it really it really didn’t feel it could enforce those steps.”
Daniels recommended the governing body make clear that individual membership in the organization can be at risk as well as club and club owner membership “meaning their ability to participate in USA Gymnastics sanctioned events if they didn’t follow those rules.”
Board of Directors chief Parilla apologized for any athletes that might have been harmed while participating in the sport.
“An athlete’s well-being is our primary focus,” said Parilla. “Even one instance of child abuse is one too many.
“USA Gymnastics is very sorry that anyone has been harmed during his or her gymnastics career, and we offer our deepest regrets to any athlete who suffered abuse or mistreatment while
participating in the sport.
“Success in competition is important, but not at the expense of an athlete’s health and safety.”
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Larry Fine