While former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar will spend the rest of his life behind bars for sexually assaulting underage patients, what about the people at the top who allegedly covered up his crimes?
When teenage gymnast Maggie Nichols reported Nassar to USA Gymnastics in 2015, she kicked off a reckoning against the now-disgraced doctor. While eventually 500 women and girls came forward to state that Nassar had sexually assaulted them under the guise of standard medical procedures, Nichols seemingly stood alone at first. She was referred to as “Athlete A” because she was the first recognized accuser who made sexual abuse claims to USA Gymnastics, as a new Netflix documentary by the same name — "Athlete A" — shows. It later came out that girls were complaining about him for decades only to be told that they misunderstood the situation.
Nichols' family explained in the documentary that then-USA Gymnastics CEO and president Steve Penny told them he would take care of Nichols following her abuse claim — yet they noted that he ostracized her instead. They believe she even got snubbed from making the 2016 Olympics roster because she reported the then-beloved doctor. Weeks after Nichols came forward, Olympic champions Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney also reported that they had been sexually assaulted by Nassar. Still, Penney allegedly kept the abuse hidden from the public. Instead, he investigated the matter internally and worked quietly with FBI agents in the bureau’s Indianapolis office, the Orange County Register reported in 2020.
While Penny fired Nassar in 2015, USA Gymnastics claimed that he'd retired; they also neglected to inform the U.S. Olympic Committee or Michigan State University, where he held his medical practice, about the sexual abuse allegations. That meant Nassar had another 15 months to abuse patients.
Penny, who was a sports marketing expert before working with USA Gymnastics, cared more about marketing the organization than the athletes involved, Steve Berta, the head of the Indianapolis Star's investigations team, alleged in “Athlete A.” He and his coworkers broke the national story on Nassar’s abuse in 2016. Berta noted that Penny was first hired by USA Gymnastics in the '90s, where Penny shifted the focus of the organization to raising money and tracking sponsorships before becoming president in 2004.
“These children are all being advised by adults as to how they can realize their Olympic dream. So you’re basically using that child’s dream to build this brand, and they were so busy trying to sell that brand, that they didn’t have time for those girls,” Berta told the documentary’s producers.
After Nassar was arrested in 2016, and subsequently sentenced to more than 200 years behind bars in 2018, Penny’s role in his abuse began to get publicly examined. It was also brought to the public’s attention that Olympic coaches Béla and Martha Karolyi, like Penny, allegedly neglected to contact the authorities after Nichols came forward. They instead allegedly attempted to cover up the scandal. In legal documents, the Karolyis maintain that they were not aware of such allegations against Nassar until the news broke publicly in 2016, CNN reported in 2016. A large portion of the abuse against USA gymnasts took place at their Texas ranch and former training center, known as the Karolyi Ranch. Former USA Gymnastics coaches John Geddert and Kathie Klages have also been under investigation since accusations that they knew of the abuse came to light.
Where is Penny now?
Penny resigned from his presidential position in 2017 in response to the Nassar scandal, CNN reported at the time.
As “Athlete A” shows, Penny testified before a Senate subcommittee in June 2018 about the Nassar scandal. He didn’t give much testimony, though. Rather, he pleaded the fifth to basically every question he was asked. Mostly, he was questioned about why he allegedly covered up the abuse. Senator Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut pressed him on his quiet stance, and asked him, "Don’t you feel you have a responsibility to the athletes who are here today and to others around the country to be more forthcoming?”
Penny pleaded the fifth to that question as well. His secrecy resulted in the crowd — which included survivors and their family — to express disgust. One person even shouted “shame” at him.
A few months after that appearance, in October 2018, he was arrested in a Tennessee cabin for allegedly tampering with evidence in the Nassar case. He pleaded not guilty to the charges, the Associated Press reported at the time. His attorney claimed he didn’t know about the abuse. He was freed shortly after, when he posted a $20,000 bond.
A day after his arrest, USA Gymnastics banned Penny from the sport for his alleged actions, the Orange County Register reported.
Earlier this year, USA Gymnastics asked Nassar survivors to accept a settlement agreement which would release Penny, the Karolyis, and others at the top from legal claims, the Orange County Register reported in February.
“This is the most disgusting, reprehensible, vile view of children I can imagine. And for (USA Gymnastics) to put this out there and act like it is a constructive step shows how out of touch they are,” John Manly, an attorney for several Nassar survivors, told the outlet. “Steve Penny was so bad USA Gymnastics banned him for life, the Karolyis, every one of them, and they pay nothing. They have no consequences. What message does that send to the next Steve Penny? The message is you get off scot free.”
Penny is still facing tampering with evidence charges. If convicted, he could face two to 10 years in prison. His lawyer has not immediately responded to Oxygen.com's request for comment.
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