The Gymternet has plenty of ammunition when it comes to finding reasons to hate Mary Lou Retton. At the very top of the list is the accusation that she worked to counter a congressional bill that was designed to protect children in sports from sexual predators. Such behavior sounds so awful that I often see people try to defend it. To them it sounds so terrible that certainly that’s not how things went down. Trying to give Retton the benefit of a doubt as surely there must be a reason for such behavior or context we are missing. So they brainstorm possible explanations to make sense of it all.
I actually welcome this kind of commentary. I believe it is important to ask these questions and make sure “all your bases are covered” rather than just blindly follow a narrative. So what I am going to do is take all the questions I have seen about Retton and this incident that either defend her, or express confusion about it. I will then answer those questions so you can see for yourself whether Retton’s actions are defendable in any way.
What bill are we talking about here?
The bill is S.534 and is called: “Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017.” Gymnastics fans commonly refer to it as the “Sex Abuse Bill” and that is the name I will use for this article. A more formal nickname for it is “SafeSport Act.”
Did she really meet with Congress?
This is by far the most important question to ask. Did it actually happen? The New York Times would state the following:
“The federation has had no shame, either. When the sex abuse bill was introduced, Penny and others from U.S.A. Gymnastics met with Feinstein about the federation’s sexual assault policies. How about this for a public-relations stunt: Tagging along was Mary Lou Retton, the smiling, bubbly sweetheart from the 1984 Games, as they said that the federation’s policies were solid and that gymnastics was a happy, safe place.”
The reader with a keen eye may notice that nowhere does it say USAG opposed the bill. As USAG framed it, they didn’t try to block Congress from passing the bill, rather they wanted to remind Senator Feinstein just how great their current policies and guidelines are. As if the implication clearly wasn’t “the current rules are fine, we don’t need more rules.” What USAG had done was avoid giving off the impression that they were trying to discourage passage of the bill, while spewing a seemingly innocent narrative that was meant to accomplish exactly that.
It speaks volumes as to just how reprehensible and evil of an organization USAG is. It wasn’t enough for them to attempt to discourage Congress from passing sexual assault reform. They had also specifically behaved like a think tank brainstorming talking points designed to mislead. Spending resources doing that rather than on their gymnasts. But the worst part of all, they appeared to be quite good at it. For an organization notoriously incompetent when it comes to combating all the problems within its ranks, USAG suddenly becomes ruthlessly efficient when it wants to find a way to combat reform.
Was the bill related to the sport?
The bill does three things:
1. It expands the statue of limitations giving survivors of sexual abuse more time to take civil action.
2. It expands and strengthens mandatory reporter laws for those who suspect child abuse.
3. It expands the role of the United States Olympic Committee to include promoting a “safe environment in sports that is free from abuse” and designates SafeSport as the independent organization authorized with jurisdiction over abuse cases.
The bill was entirely sports related. It wasn’t a case of a general bill designed to combat sexual abuse in all areas of society that added a small title covering sports as well. Sports was the entire focus of the bill with a special emphasis on national governing bodies such as USAG. The bill even goes as far as to specifically cite emotional and physical forms of abuse as well.
Was the bill ramrodded through?
This is one argument I’ve seen a couple of times. It largely stems from the idea that perhaps Congress was being unfair to USAG. That in the aftermath of the Nassar scandal Congress wanted to look like it was tough on sex crimes involving children, score some public relations points, and/or look like it was at least doing something. Resulting in a bill that was poorly thought out and had glaring flaws. Thus USAG can be defended under the guise that there were legitimate reasons to oppose this bill.
The legislative process for the bill began on 3/6/2017. It spent eight months in committee before the bill made its way to the floor on 11/14/2017. It then spent another 2.5 months (10 weeks) undergoing floor debate before being passed on 1/29/2018. Two weeks later on 2/14/2018 it was signed into law by the President. The bill took 11 months to pass. To put that in perspective it took six months to pass Obama’s Affordable Care Act and two months to pass Trump’s 2017 tax cuts. The Sex Abuse Bill took longer to pass than the trademark legislative accomplishments of Obama and Trump combined.
By Washington D.C. standards, the Sex Abuse Bill was a somewhat lengthy process. Members of Congress who had taken a leadership role in promoting the bill met privately with gymnasts who had been abused to give them a say in the process. It also took meetings with USAG so they could give their perspective as well. It is from one of these meetings that the source of all the controversy regarding Mary Lou Retton arises.
Was there significant opposition to the bill?
The bill was passed unanimously in the Senate and 406-3 in the House of Representatives. There are 535 Congressmen in the American legislative branch, only three voted against it. The three Congressmen were Justin Amash, Thomas Massie, and Mark Sanford.
All three are members of the Liberty Caucus. The Liberty Caucus has a Libertarian ideology. Supporters of said ideology often brand themselves as moderates. Others will classify them as a more extreme faction of the Republican Party who will vote against nearly any measure that expands the power of the federal government, adds more regulations, and costs more money. Even if that involves a popular bill designed to protect children from sexual abuse.
Justin Amash is the founder and leader of the group. He wrote a 772 word Facebook post defending his actions. The bulk of Amash’s reasoning was largely based on political ideology. Amash believes the Constitution gives Congress the power to criminalize only a few activities and everything else should be criminalized by the states. He also expressed opposition to the concept of a mandatory reporter as he considers it a “thought crime” and such activity can’t be criminalized.
Amash has a reputation of taking stances limiting the power, scale, and scope of the Federal Government regardless of how unpopular his “no” vote will be. Most notably he was the only representative from Michigan to vote against federal aid for the Flint Water Crisis effectively declaring he won’t support an increase in federal spending even when the money is going to his own state. Amash would become the first Republican to support the impeachment of Donald Trump and was the only Republican to vote in favor of it in the House of Representatives. He would later leave the Republican Party and become the first Independent in the House of Representatives since Bernie Sanders. Sanders is now an Independent in the Senate.
Mark Sanford wrote an 826 word Facebook post defending his vote. Unlike Amash, Sanford focused most of his argument to the way the bill dealt with sexual assault allegations. Sanford argued SafeSport was given too much authority and argued on behalf of the rights of the accused. He went as far as to cite specific high profile cases of men who were falsely accused of rape. Sanford would later lose the Republican nomination for his seat, effectively losing his reelection before he could participate in a general election. His seat is now held by a Democrat.
What was the motive for blocking it?
It is becoming routine for organizations that oversee large numbers of children and/or are currently facing a child sexual assault scandal of their own to lobby against bills designed to combat sexual assault. They don’t want the statue of limitations extended that will open them up to more lawsuits. They don’t want more rules regarding the safety of children that will increase their regulatory burden. They also have widespread problems and would rather ignore the problem than confront it and risk exposing an even wider degree of abuse.
“At the same time, the organization has lobbied lawmakers in various states to limit its exposure – seeking to defeat measures that would give child victims more time to claim damages as adults. Last year, the Boy Scouts spent almost $950,000 on lobbying, four times its average over the previous five years. The group doesn’t say how all of that money was spent, but the increase was enough to draw the scrutiny of nine members of Congress, who expressed concern about the nature of the group’s advocacy.”
“In New York, the church spent $2,912,772 in what ultimately was a failed bid to prevent the passage of the Child Victims Act, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law on Feb. 14. It allows child sexual abuse victims to sue their abuser or institutions until age 55. Previously the cutoff was age 23.”
Mary Lou Retton was the sixth American to win a major medal (World Championships/Olympics) in women’s gymnastics. The five that preceded her are Cathy Rigby, Marcia Frederick, Kathy Johnson, Tracee Talavera, and Julianne McNamara. All five of them have a track record of advocating on behalf of, and fighting for reform in gymnastics.
They have been present at high profile gatherings where gymnasts discuss problems in the sport. Their various advocacy have covered topics such as sexual abuse, eating disorders, biased team selections, and leaving child athletes unprepared for adulthood. In some cases, their advocacy has been going on for three decades or more. Follow their social media accounts and it is not hard to find them making a comment that can be perceived as critical of USAG.
Mary Lou Retton has no such track record. She has been a long standing advocate of USAG. Retton frequently parrots its talking points highlighting only the positives of the sport and ignoring or downplaying signs of an abusive culture. Retton can be described as a member of USAG’s inner circle, working with the organization to ensure the only perception of the sport that is presented is one that doesn’t discourage participation rates.
Mary Lou Retton has a history of “deafening silence” by opting not to take a notable role in advocating for reform in gymnastics. Even as so many of her contemporaries did, even as the sport underwent chaos within ten years of her 1984 victory when USAG witnessed the deaths of two high profile athletes in the early 1990s. Retton’s reputation on the matter and where she stands is well known.
Did Mary Lou Retton have the opportunity to support it?
According to Nancy Hogshead-Makar who is one of the most notable (and effective) advocates of reform in the Olympic sports, Retton was asked to support the Sex Abuse Bill. Retton declined.
Has Mary Lou Retton changed her behavior since then?
One week after the Sex Abuse bill was passed, USAG released a statement from Mary Lou Retton to counter criticisms from Dominique Moceanu. The tactic was rather obvious. USAG used Mary Lou Retton who is one of the most famous and iconic gymnasts in American history to drown out opposition from lesser known gymnasts such as Moceanu.
Retton would later appear on the Today Show where she would state the following:
“It’s a beautiful sport filled with beautiful people, and the spotlight’s going to the monster. And it’s a problem.”
The wording sounds innocent, but what she is actually saying is the problem with the sport is not abuse, but the bad press generated by the Nassar scandal. That is what Retton appears to be the most concerned with. The quote implies Nassar was a stain on the image of a good system rather than a predator who found so much success abusing gymnasts because the system is flawed.
The quote even gives off the impression that USAG shouldn’t be blamed, all the blame rests exclusively on Nassar. Lastly, what Retton said follows a mindset of just wanting the negative attention to die down so USAG can carry on with the status quo and avoid implementing reform.
But the worst thing of all was when Retton answered a question regarding how parents can keep their kids safe in the sport, she responded by saying:
“I think if you go with a reputable gym you’re gonna be okay.”
It’s a completely ludicrous statement to make. From 2011-2016 there were 31 spots available for the World Championships and Olympic teams. 27 of those spots went to gymnasts who later came forward as a Nassar survivor. It is asinine to argue a reputable gym will keep gymnasts safe from abuse when the top gymnasts who all came from USAG’s most reputable clubs were abused. Retton’s comment defies either basic common sense or basic knowledge of the Nassar scandal. But the gut punch would come from Rachael Denhollander who would point out Retton’s 1984 Olympic team coach Don Peters would later be banned for life over allegations involving sexual misconduct with gymnasts. One of which was a national team member from Retton’s era.
Note: Bela Karolyi was her personal coach.
How could Mary Lou Retton not know about Don Peters? How could she not know that all five members of the 2012 Olympic team were abused by Nassar? She simply doesn’t care and will tout a line about reputable gyms being the answer. Retton has decided to be an ambassador for the well being of USAG, not for the well being of gymnasts. She will say anything to uphold USAG’s positions. This includes things that are incorrect, illogical, and even dangerous as they give parents a false sense of security.
For any alumni of USA Gymnastics this would be a problem. But for Retton, it’s a massive problem because she is one of the most famous, recognizable, and well known gymnasts in American history. Few gymnasts have the clout to make an appearance on the Today Show anytime they want. But Retton did exactly that and used her platform to make comments to millions of people that inhibits reform. That’s what makes Retton’s actions such a big problem.