After four years of first an investigation and then a drawn out hearing process, on Wednesday the Maggie Haney ruling was finally delivered. Haney has been suspended by USAG for eight years. For gymnastics fans, it is the triumph of good over evil and the downfall of a coach who is widely despised amongst the Gymternet. But this case is so much more than that. The Maggie Haney ruling brings the sport to a crossroads. Will this be a watershed moment? Or will it have only a minor impact on abuse cases of the future?
That is the most important question when it comes to Maggie Haney. The reality of this case is that it is about far more than Maggie Haney for the following two reasons.
It marks the downfall of a top-tier coach.
Putting aside the widespread hatred people have for Haney, it must be remembered that she was an incredibly successful coach. Haney was the coach of 2016 Olympian Laurie Hernandez. Haney then repeated her success with Riley McCusker who made the 2018 World Championships team, the premier competition in non-Olympic years. For a coach to have repeat success like that for any nation is incredible.
But to do that in the modern era of American gymnastics is not just incredible, it is historic. The American system has so much depth that fans debate whether it could sweep the team competition if USAG was allowed to send three separate teams. Any coach who can take multiple gymnasts to the very top of the USAG hierarchy joins an incredibly exclusive club of top tier coaches.
But the most important thing to remember, Haney is only 42 years old. We were seeing only the very beginning of what Haney is capable of. Haney was coaching yet another gymnast, the brilliant Olivia Greaves who seems poised to leave her own mark in senior competition when she comes of age. In a different universe, MG-Elite could very well have gone down as one of the top clubs in gymnastics history. Maggie Haney was on the verge of forging a dynasty.
But all of that has since been stopped dead in its tracks. For all her coaching talent, Haney’s career is currently hanging by a thread.
Haney wasn’t just a talented coach, she was a young coach. This wasn’t an example of doing away with an old coach from a bygone era that was done in by his or her refusal to get with the times. Nor was this the jettisoning of an old coach who had few good years left. This was the jettisoning of one of USAG’s rising stars.
This is a significant event because seeing such a talented coach have her career destroyed sends a message. It sends a message to every other coach in the country that no one is safe. It doesn’t matter how successful you are, your previous wins will not protect you. Everyone from the very best coaches the American program has to offer to the complete unknowns are now on alert. They have seen what happened to Haney and will think twice about their own approach.
But it is significant for another reason. It wasn’t that a top-tier coach has suffered a fall from grace, it was the specific nature of the allegations that led to her undoing that adds to the significance of this case.
Haney did not go down for sexual and/or physical abuse allegations
When fans, commentators, and advocates talk about trying to stop abuse within sports, they are talking about a wide range of issues. Abuse comes in many different forms such as sexual abuse, physical abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, and other harmful coaching methods like encouraging an athlete to play through a serious injury.
Even the most authoritarian coaches know that sexual and physical abuse is wrong. It is widely accepted that that is a line you do not cross. Physical/sexual abuse has a very clear line in the sand as to what is and is not acceptable. You don’t hit an athlete and you don’t make sexual advances on them. It is that simple.
But for other forms of abuse it becomes more challenging to clearly define what does and does not constitute abuse. If training through injury is a common practice in high-level sports, at what point does having an athlete compete through an injury go from being a reasonable request to coaching abuse? At what point does a coach expressing frustration in front of his or her athlete go from a good faith attempt to get a point across, to constituting verbal abuse?
But perhaps the most difficult challenge is getting stick-in-the-mud coaches to realize that verbal abuse and other forms of abuse like it are a serious problem. Often times this category of abuse is dismissed as merely a “lesser” form or a necessary evil that is required if one wants to win an Olympic medal.
Note: I don’t want to give the impression that all coaches think like this. Many of them don’t and one thing I have learned from this blog is how many fantastic coaches there are in gymnastics.
High level athletics requires forcing the stress and pressure of an adult world onto athletes, even if those athletes are in their early teenage years. High level athletics is not easy. What makes being a member of the National Team so prestigious is all the pain, endurance, and toughness that is required to get to that level. Including overcoming and playing through injuries.
So how do you get a coach who believes these tactics are necessary to win to change his or her behavior? How do you draw a line in the sand while also saying that some things are acceptable, but only up to a certain point? How do you weather the paradox that being a high-level athlete is hard, stressful, and demanding, but then ask coaches to not be too hard and too demanding on their athletes?
That is what makes the Maggie Haney ruling so important. Her career is in ruins and Haney did it without crossing the universally accepted red line against physical and sexual abuse. Rather she did it as a result of alleged offenses in the more ambiguous area of verbal abuse and requiring gymnasts to train through injury. Make no mistake about it, the Maggie Haney decision is one of the most historic rulings in SafeSport history.
It lowers the threshold of what constitutes abuse by a considerable margin. It marks a gigantic shift where a type of behavior that had once been seen as not serious enough to ruin a high profile career, resulting in exactly that. The idea that this behavior being abusive is not new, but the idea of such a highly successful coach being raked over the coals for this sort of behavior is. This ruling is a message to other coaches that the definition of abuse and the standard they will be held to is significantly different. That is on top of it being a message that even the most successful coaches can fall.
Is this a watershed moment or a one-off?
Whether this ruling will cause massive changes for the better (a watershed moment) or do nothing to change the status quo (a one-off) is the most important question of all.
At face value this case has all the elements of a watershed moment, but this is a sport where watershed moments simply don’t happen. The high-profile injury to Elena Mukhina did nothing to change coaching behavior. The deaths of Julissa Gomez and Christy Henrich were met with reforms that were minimalist in nature. In some cases, coaches continued to make the exact same mistakes with their gymnasts that had been made in regards to Christy and Julissa.
And then there was the fall of two high profile gymnastics coaches (Marvin Sharp and Don Peters) after credible allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced against them. USAG took the same approach towards those two cases at it had with Christy and Julissa, a minimalist series of reforms that ultimately did not solve the problem.
For a sport that time and time again allows what should have been watershed moments to pass by while the abuse continues to go unabated, the Haney scandal should not be another example added to the list of missed opportunities. Rather than reveling in the downfall of Maggie Haney, the conversation should be about using her case to send a message to other coaches. To use her case to encourage other gymnasts who have witnessed abuse to come forward. That is when the Maggie Haney scandal will become a watershed moment.
We don’t know whether the Maggie Haney scandal will be the elusive watershed moment or a one-off. Only time will tell. But one immediate impact it can have is bringing awareness that verbal/emotional abuse happens and the damaging impact it can have. Per Scott M. Reid’s article:
The verbal and emotional abuse and the bullying left gymnasts despondent, depressed, even suicidal, parents said. At least two gymnasts told their parents they hated themselves.
In his article Reid specifically uses the word “girls” which is important to note because his article cites victims as young as 10 years old. Reid also published an additional allegation brought forward by a parent.
Some gymnasts were so concerned about being screamed at, bullied or humiliated in front other girls that they suffered anxiety attacks. On one occasion, a young gymnast was so nervous performing an uneven bars routine in front of Haney and Victoria Levine, a coach and co-owner of MG Elite, that she began shaking uncontrollably, according to a parent.
“Do you have Tourette’s?” Levine joked, the parent recalled.
Haney and Levine then began laughing at the girl, the parent said.
There is one more allegation from the Reid article that is absolutely sickening. It is reprehensible to think that an adult decided to put that kind of guilt on gymnasts who are teenagers.
Other parents said Haney herself threatened to commit suicide if their high-profile daughters left MG Elite.
It must also be remembered that with allegations like the one above, it becomes easier for USAG to dismiss Maggie Haney as a lone-wolf. An extreme outlier example of verbal abuse that isn’t occuring elsewhere. Nor should gymnastics fans tolerate USAG using the Maggie Haney case as an example of selective prosecution.
It is a common public relations tactic to severely punish a lone individual in a high profile case in order to give a false impression that change has been enacted on a wide scale basis. When an institution finds itself dealing with an enraged public, giving the public what they want by severely punishing one of their most controversial figures is often an effective distraction tactic. For these reasons it is imperative that gymnastics fans make the Maggie Haney scandal less about celebrating the downfall of Maggie Haney, and more about establishing a new standard for all coaches.
(1) It must be remembered that this particular case involves more than just Maggie Haney, but also includes allegations against Victoria Levine. Her lack of fame relative to Haney should not absolve her of the same scrutiny. It is not just a coach that needs to be shut down, but an entire gym.
(2) I don’t want to give too much credit to Maggie Haney as a coach. While I do think it is important to highlight her rapid rise up the coaching ranks, it must also be asked whether this was all inevitable? Was the downfall bound to happen sooner or later? In a timeline where the Larry Nassar scandal never happens, would Maggie Haney still have imploded because her coaching tactics were so bad and unsustainable? Perhaps the answer is yes.
(3) At the hearing Laurie Hernandez testified against Haney while Riley McCusker submitted a letter to the hearing panel critical of Haney. Laurie and Riley deserve tremendous praise for realizing that as high profile gymnasts their voices carry significant weight. They used their voices to speak up and prevent additional gymnasts from suffering abuse. It is a sign that high profile and active gymnasts now have an environment where they feel comfortable encouraged to speak out against abusive behavior. It is a stark contrast to the old days where gymnasts would be reluctant to do so out of fear they would suffer retaliation. It is a real indication that USAG’s culture is improving.