Major sponsor questions USA Gymnastics
The U.S. women’s gymnastics team leaves the Rio Olympics with a record nine medals, a legion of fans and a legal trademark on the nickname “The Final Five.”
USA Gymnastics, which governs the sport nationally at all levels, will come home to questions about its handling of sexual abuse allegations.
In the wake of an IndyStar investigation, Kellogg’s, a key USA Gymnastics sponsor, has added its voice to a chorus of state and federal lawmakers seeking assurances that the organization is doing enough to protect young gymnasts from sexual predators.
The IndyStar investigation, first published Aug. 4, revealed that officials of the Indianapolis-based nonprofit routinely dismiss allegations of child abuse unless they receive a complaint signed by a victim or a victim’s guardian. The investigation uncovered four instances in which USA Gymnastics was warned about abusive coaches but did not forward the allegations to authorities. All four coaches went on to abuse underage gymnasts.
“We are deeply troubled by the report,” Kellogg’s spokesperson Kris Charles said in an email to IndyStar. “We have expressed our concerns to USAG and we will continue to watch this situation closely.”
The breakfast cereal company is the title sponsor of the lucrative Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions, which starts Sept. 15. Tax forms for USA Gymnastics do not break out how much the 36-city tour brings in. But USA Gymnastics revenue increased significantly in 2012, the previous Olympic year.
Performances take place in major arenas nationally. Two are scheduled for the same day at Staples Center in Los Angeles, with ticket prices ranging from $29 to $299. The Indianapolis show will take place at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Oct. 15 and is expected to draw a large crowd.
USA Gymnastics did not respond to questions for this story. On the day the women’s team won the OIympic gold medal, USA Gymnastics filed for the trademark “The Final Five.”
Kellogg’s did not elaborate on its concerns. In addition to Kellogg’s, state and federal lawmakers have asked USA Gymnastics for answers and called for tighter reporting laws. And two key state lawmakers said they want to know whether USA Gymnastics broke child abuse reporting laws.
Greg Steuerwald, chairman of the Indiana House Judiciary Committee, criticized USA Gymnastics’ policy for handling of complaints.
“If they have reason to believe it happened, then it’s their job to report,” he said. “Law enforcement should investigate what happened and whether USA Gymnastics followed the law. Both aspects should be turned over to law enforcement immediately.”
He added: “It certainly appears they did not act reasonably.”
USA Gymnastics officials said in deposition testimony that they required firsthand information before reporting sex abuse allegations to authorities. But Steuerwald, who played a key role in the recent rewrite of Indiana’s criminal code, said the state’s reporting threshold is a low bar and does not require firsthand knowledge of a crime.
“We have one of the lowest standards requiring them to report,” he said. “It doesn’t get any lower than that.”
David Long, the state Senate's top lawmaker, also said it was up to law enforcement to determine whether USA Gymnastics broke the law.
"I think it's important to determine if USA Gymnastics failed to follow the law,” Long said. “I'm not calling for a witch hunt, but if the law has been broken, we need to know, and there should be consequences. I trust local law enforcement to handle this case and respond as they deem necessary.”
Federal, state and local law enforcement officials, however, either declined to say whether they intended to investigate, or would not answer the question directly.
Josh Minkler, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Indiana, said in a statement that he couldn’t comment directly on USA Gymnastics, but he added a warning.
“I would strongly recommend that anyone with knowledge of a crime immediately report that crime to law enforcement,” Minkler said. “Further, it is a serious federal crime to knowingly conceal evidence of a federal crime or obstruct the investigation of a federal crime. Such a crime would be fully investigated by the United States Attorney's Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
Capt. David Bursten, spokesman for the Indiana State Police, also did not comment directly about USA Gymnastics, but he said his agency "aggressively investigates crimes against children."
Concerning USA Gymnastics' policy of forwarding complaints only if signed by a victim or a victim's guardian, Randall Taylor, assistant chief of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, said “we don't require a signature for us to investigate anything.”
He said IMPD tries to make it as easy as possible for people to report allegations of child abuse.
“We, of course, encourage people to make that call even if they're not sure,” Taylor said. “We'll certainly take a look at it. Anytime there's an allegation of abuse occurring, especially to a juvenile, we would like to know about it. We'd like to at least be able to look at it and see if there's anything to it."
IMPD officials did address USA Gymnastics’ handling of one of the cases uncovered by IndyStar. They praised USA Gymnastics for reporting former Indianapolis coach Marvin Sharp in 2015, but IndyStar revealed that USA Gymnastics had received allegations about Sharp four years earlier. Those 2011 allegations were not immediately forwarded to police.
The 2015 police investigation revealed that Sharp, who committed suicide in jail last year, had already made more than 125 pornographic images of six of his underage gymnasts when USA Gymnastics received the 2011 letter.
Officials of IMPD and Prosecutor Terry Curry’s office said they did not charge USA Gymnastics with failing to report the 2011 allegations because the contents of the letter might not have risen to the level of a criminal allegation. They also cited a two-year statute of limitations on the failure-to-report law.
Neither Curry’s office nor IMPD officials would say whether they would have investigated the 2011 allegations had they been immediately forwarded by USA Gymnastics.
“Once we investigate, if it turns out to be nothing, it's nothing, and typically we look at that as ‘no harm, no foul,’” Taylor said. “But obviously there are plenty of times that we get those reports and it doesn't sound like anything and it turns out to be something serious or something we can proceed with and ultimately present to the prosecutor's office for charges.”
Four U.S. senators, citing IndyStar’s investigation, wrote an Aug. 5 letter to USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny, asking for information on how the organization handles allegations of sexual abuse and how coaches are vetted. USA Gymnastics acknowledged receipt of the letter Aug. 19.
“We urge you immediately to take specific actions to ensure that allegations of sexual abuse are promptly reported to appropriate authorities and law enforcement, so that children are protected,” said the letter, signed by Democratic Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Dianne Feinstein of California, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
IndyStar’s investigation revealed that former USA Gymnastics officials testified in court depositions that they rarely, if ever, reported to police allegations of sexual abuse. Indiana law requires immediate reporting of such allegations. The investigation also detailed holes in USA Gymnastics’ attempts to screen predatory coaches.
Long called for new language in the law, saying the penalty for not reporting — a misdemeanor — is too weak.
IndyStar reporter Tony Cook contributed to this story.
Call IndyStar reporter Mark Alesia at (317) 444-6311. Follow him on Twitter: @markalesia.
Call IndyStar reporter Tim Evans at (317) 444-6204. Follow him on Twitter: @starwatchtim.
Call IndyStar reporter Marisa Kwiatkowski at (317) 444-6135. Follow her on Twitter: @IndyMarisaK.