If the tone of this article sounds extreme, it is because in the two years that Li Li Leung has been the leader of USAG, the name “Leung” hasn’t appeared anywhere on this site. So this article features two years of repressed anger that has been brewing for 23 months.
USAG naming Li Li Leung as its president and chief executive officer was the ultimate deal breaker for me. What made the arrival of Li Li Leung so significant is that the gymnastics community had actually celebrated the move. They saw it as a step forward, a positive development, and an example of progress.
Meanwhile I was fuming. I felt Li Li Leung was a terrible selection and a setback for the sport. My opposition to Li Li Leung had nothing to do with Li Li Leung herself. She had a strong resume having established herself as a leading executive in the sports world, most notably her work with the NBA. She had no “dirty laundry” in the sense of past moral shortcomings/misdeeds that should disqualify her as a candidate for USAG. The issue I had with Li Li Leung was as simple as her background as a marketing, business, and public relations executive.
In 2021 gymnastics fans have come to understand the link between the rising influence of marketing/business executives in the decision making process of national governing bodies like USAG, and a culture where abusive behavior is widespread.
When financial considerations are the primary concern of a sports institution, everything else including the welfare of the thousands of child athletes in its care are demoted in order of importance. The reason gymnastics fans have come to understand this in 2021 is because the popular 2020 Netflix documentary Athlete A did such a great job of explaining it. Which is why when Li Li Leung was hired in 2019, this issue wasn’t as widely understood amongst gymnastics fans.
Li Li Leung’s background made her the ultimate establishment pick. Even though she was a fresh face, Li Li Leung was a continuation of the very same executive culture Steve Penny emphasized under his tenure. Even worse, not only were the similarities between Steve Penny and Li Li Leung not properly understood, but her previous history as a former gymnast was brought front and center. Making it seem as if Li Li Leung was a friend of Simone Biles because she was once a gymnast herself. Further blinding gymnastics fans to just how much of an continuation to the old school of thought that her arrival represented.
The following excerpts are from the profile pages of Penny and Leung that were taken from USAG’s website. The two excerpts are very different, but largely tell the same story.
“Leung most recently served as a vice president at the National Basketball Association (NBA), where she was responsible for building, leading, negotiating and managing key partner relationships around the world.“
“Prior to becoming president, Penny was the federation’s senior vice president, responsible for sponsorship, events, television, public relations, international relations and U.S. Olympic Committee affairs.“
When Li Li Leung came to power, I wasn’t expecting her tenure to be as bad as Steve Penny’s, but I still felt things were 99% likely be a disaster. And that’s exactly what happened.
The failures of Li Li Leung’s tenure can be seen everywhere. If Li Li Leung was a good leader, she would have ordered the release of everything USAG knew about the Nassar scandal so the sport could learn from its mistakes to ensure those same mistakes never happen again. Instead Li Li Leung has maintained USAG’s traditional strategy of containing fallout from the Larry Nassar scandal, keeping damaging revelations secret, and avoiding transparency.
Nassar-survivors live under Li Li Leung in the same way they lived during the final days of Steve Penny’s tenure. Waiting for new revelations to appear slowly and one at a time. The pain inflicted on them made worse not only by the slow and drawn out process as new revelations slowly eke out one-by-one, but the added insult of USAG acting as if they still don’t care to do the right thing.
The long list of horrific new revelations that have slowly eked out during the Li Li Leung era include a report that USAG had specifically avoided giving Biles’ name to the FBI even though USAG investigators had flagged Simone as a gymnast who had potentially been abused by Nassar. There was also a report that USAG had transferred millions of dollars to the “closely affiliated” U.S. National Gymnastics Foundation. The implication being it was done to protect those funds from being awarded to Nassar-survivors as they sought damages from USAG in civil court.
Why Li Li Leung didn’t release these awful revelations on her first day to promote reconciliation, truth, and transparency is beyond me. The only explanation being she’s simply a continuation of the old guard rather than a leader who is interested in doing right by Nassar-survivors. Simone Biles crying in front of the cameras is Li Li Leung’s highlight reel as leader of USAG.
Then there is USAG’s awful conduct during the Azarian Gymnastics case. I already covered this fiasco in the past. But the quick version is this. If you think USAG has reformed itself and is now able to prioritize the well-being of athletes over winning medals, the Azarian Gymnastics single handedly proves that assertion incorrect. To quote myself:
“For USAG to argue against suspending a coach because they can’t find a suitable replacement is precisely what a flawed culture where “winning medals” takes priority over the personal safety and well being of gymnasts looks like.“
Another addition to the list of things that haven’t changed under Li Li Leung. But there is more awfulness to be had.
Another glaring flaw that has occurred during Li Li Leung’s tenure has been problems involving the athlete representative position (athlete rep). This position is intended to serve as the athlete advocate and the official a gymnast is supposed to approach if she wants to report abusive coaching behavior. Technically speaking, these positions can’t be decided by USAG administrators and it is the athletes themselves who select their representative.
However, in practice we have seen time and time again where the athlete rep goes to the absolute worst candidate possible. Usually the byproduct of USAG giving disproportionate support to the candidate of their choosing. Creating a situation where the person who is supposed to be overseeing the well-being of athletes has interests more closely aligned with USAG leadership than the very gymnasts whose interests they are supposed to be advocating on behalf of.
The most important sentence in this article:
The younger an athlete-rep is, the more effective she is in protecting the gymnasts from abuse and there are three reasons for this:
(1) Gymnasts who last competed ten years ago can only tell you what the coaching conditions were like ten years ago. Gymnasts who competed in the past 365 days can tell you what the coaching conditions have been like in the last year and under the current regime.
(2) Gymnasts who last competed ten years ago are unlikely to have trained alongside and have a personal friendship with any member of the national team. Gymnasts who competed in the past year are guaranteed to have longstanding friendships with various members of the national team, as well as a relationship with the gymnasts who view the athlete rep as someone they personally know and trust.
(3) Any individual who is seeking a USAG position ten years after they last competed is the type of person who plans on having a career in USAG administration/coaching. Thus, their interests don’t align with the ideal candidate the athlete representative is designed for. If anything, their interests align with the very interests this position is designed to counter.
For these three reasons the athlete reps in all Olympic sports are required to be no more than a decade (10 years) removed from high level competition to have eligibility for the position. This is done specifically to encourage the position to be held by younger candidates who can more able to effectively perform the task of protecting the athletes whose care they are entrusted with.
The most recent athlete rep in women’s gymnastics was Kayla Williams who first served on the 2019 World Championships selection committee. She last competed in major elite level competition in 2009. Pushing the elgibility of the candidacy to its absolute limits. The equivalent of following a rule but not the spirit of the rule. If not, finding a way to outright spite it. I’m not saying Kayla Williams did anything wrong, but the same can’t be said for her two predecessors who also served as the athlete rep for women’s gymnastics during the Li Li Leung era.
Before Kayla Williams it was Anna Li who was named to the position three months after Li Li Leung’s tenure started. Not only was Anna Li fairly close to the ten year cut-off, but she was effectively a loophole to the rule. Anna Li may have competed in 2012, but during the London Olympics she had been an abnormally old gymnast whose career goes all the way back to the 2004 U.S. Championships. With a 1988 birth year, Anna Li could theoretically be twice as old as the very gymnasts who were slated to come of age over the course of her tenure. Anna Li was effectively four Olympic quads removed from a position that ideally should go to someone who is no more than a single Olympic quad removed.
But that wasn’t even the bad part. The bad part was that Anna Li was a legacy athlete, the daughter of a well known Chinese Olympic gymnast who was now a coach. Not only was Anna Li part of a coaching family, Anna herself worked alongside her parents and was part of the family coaching legacy. It was an unapologetically bad selection coupled with a blatant flaw of a role designed to protect athletes from coaching abuse, was given to someone with a coaching background.
The arrival of Anna Li set the tone for what Li Li Leung’s tenure was going to look like. Not only had Li Li Leung done nothing to fix what was a glaring problem with the athlete rep position, what was effectively a fire hazard waiting to catch fire, quickly caught fire. Just one month later, it was revealed that allegations of coaching abuse surfaced against both Anna Li and her mother. To quote Scott M. Reid:
“Li’s selection to the Athletes’ Council, critics said, was USA Gymnastics latest misstep in the wake of the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal and further fueled criticism of Li Li Leung who has been plagued by controversy since taking over as the organization’s chief executive officer last February.“
“Leung, a former sports marketing executive and NBA vice president, was hired to restore credibility to USA Gymnastics. Instead the organization has stumbled through a series of scandals on her watch that have further called into question the national governing body’s commitment and/or ability to change the culture of abuse within the sport that enabled Nassar, the former U.S. Olympic and women’s national team physician, to sexually abuse at least 250 young gymnasts and athletes.“
In the end an individual who would be linked to allegations of coaching abuse was the person in USAG being tasked with protecting national team members from coaching abuse.
But before any of that happened, at the beginning of 2019 the athlete rep was Terin Humphrey, a 2004 Olympian who continues the theme of the athlete rep position being filled by people who are at the absolute maximum elgibility limits that the role requires. Terin Humphrey found herself at the center of a controversy when she posted to Facebook a meme that embraced the idea of tough coaching.
The optics could not have been worse. The person gymnasts were supposed to go to if they wanted to report an abusive coach was openly proclaiming that tough coaching was how champions are made. Do you think a gymnast would trust an athlete rep to hear her complaint after seeing that post? And even if a gymnast did lodge a complaint with Terin Humphrey, do you trust Terin to act upon it after demonstrating sympathy towards coaches accused of abusive coaching?
This article isn’t meant to tear down Kayla Williams or Terin Humphrey. Kayla has yet to do something wrong whereas Terin has also suffered from USAG and Li Li Leung’s failings. The real scandal in the Terin Humphrey story is not the meme she posted or the attitude she expressed, but the way she was fired. As Terin tells the story:
“Humphrey said she was driven out of her USA Gymnastics positions by Li Li Leung, the organization’s fourth CEO since March 2017, who Humphrey accused of misleading her and continuing a culture of cover-ups that existed under previous USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny.“
“As the training camp was wrapping up, Humphrey said she was summoned to an office at the gym by USA Gymnastics officials.”
“We were about to leave, I was called into the office and I was asked to resign,” Humphrey said. They said, quote, ‘We don’t want trolls. We don’t need trolls. So you have to resign.’”
In the title of this article I asked “why does Li Li Leung keep treating gymnastics fans like trash?” The answer is simple, she sees gymnastics fans as trash. She sees us as trolls. Terin Humphrey absolutely deserved to lose her job. But did Li Li Leung see it that way? No she didn’t. Leung didn’t see the moral right and the moral wrong, and fired someone who had violated ethical guidelines. She fired someone because of the negative attention she was drawing.
Who could expect anything else from an administrator who had a marketing, public relations, and branding background? It didn’t take long at all for Li Li Leung to prove exactly why marketing gurus shouldn’t be given major influence in a national governing body, especially ones with a heavy focus on child athletes. Li Li Leung thinks in terms of positive and negative press. She doesn’t think in terms of “right or wrong” and “just or unjust.” Even worse, she doesn’t subscribe to the philosophy that an athlete rep should be fired based on her continued presence being a danger to the well being of the athletes she is tasked with protecting.
Li Li Leung only cares about “trolls.”
Think about that for a second. According to Terin Humphrey, Li Li Leung thinks you are a troll. That bringing up a valid example of cultural failings inside the ranks of USAG is being a “troll.” And if Li Li Leung is alleged to have said this word, her actions do more than enough to prove that she has no respect for gymnastics fans.
The first indication of this came in the early months of her tenure when Mary Lou Retton infamously went on the TODAY show and made numerous controversial statements. But among the comments she made, Mary Lou Retton revealed that Li Li Leung gave her a call and said “she just wants to pick my brain.”
For those who don’t know, Mary Lou Retton is arguably the most hated figure in the gymnastics community. The reason can be found here. As many gymnastics fans see it, Mary Lou Retton was the leader of the old guard who enabled Larry Nassar. The gymnast who fought to maintain the very cultural failings that allowed Larry Nassar to happen. She is so hated by the gymnastics community that the TMC article that has generated the most clicks is an anti-Mary Lou Retton article. Just about every reform advocate would label Retton public enemy #1 and fans cheer for the day USAG decides to blacklist her from the sport.
But what does Li Li Leung do? From the very beginning it becomes publicly known that Li Li Leung wants to make Mary Lou Retton an influential figure and a member of her inner circle. Elevating the very person who made herself notorious for the way she conducted herself during the Nassar scandal. It was a slap in the face to those who want to rid Nassar enablers from having a say in USAG’s affairs.
Gymnastics fans saw Mary Lou Retton’s actions as an insult and a betrayal of all the affection they have given her since 1984. When Li Li Leung aligned herself with Mary Lou Retton, it was a betrayal to the gymnastics fanbase and to treat fans like trash who feel hurt at the sight of seeing Mary Lou Retton continue to have a prominent role in the sport. If associating with Mary Lou Retton was a move Li Li Leung didn’t realize was going to be controversial, she had plenty of time to learn and adjust her behavior.
Li Li Leung had a sitdown with IndyStar and the following excerpt was featured in it.
“More recently, she was criticized for embracing Mary Lou Retton, one of the organization’s former Olympic stars. Retton was a member of the USA Gymnastics board as the scandal unfolded, and she defended former CEO Steve Penny, who is now facing criminal charges in Texas for allegedly tampering with evidence.“
It would be impossible to believe Li Li Leung has not been made aware that associating with Retton is perceived as controversial by the gymnastics fanbase. It would require that she doesn’t read the finished product of her own interviews, or has never looked at her Twitter notifications. Or she simply doesn’t care.
Even after being criticized for associating with Retton, Li Li Leung has continued to do so. Going as far as to personally travel to Houston, Texas to attend an awards ceremony where Retton was to be honored. The Retton-connection wouldn’t be the only time Li Li Leung betrayed the gymnastics fanbase by openly associating with someone fans felt should be blacklisted from the sport.
It was recently announced that under Li Li Leung, USAG had partnered with FloSports. Under the best of circumstances it would have been an extremely unpopular move. From the perspective of gymnastics fans, USAG was making a move that was anti-consumer in the worst possible way. Under the terms of this deal USAG shifts what was once free and open content to paywall content at $29.99 a month and a company that is notorious for unreliability.
There is a FloSports parody account on Twitter that has (almost) 20,000 followers and is dedicated to mocking the company for its unreliability and low quality productions. FloSports’ practices are so consumer unfriendly that in the past various services have offered neither a free trial nor an option to refund. Readers may want to ask themselves what kind of company would refuse to let you experience its product before forcing you to buy it, and not allowing you to return it once you have bought it.
With that in mind, any fanbase would have reacted negatively to the news. But the gymnastics fanbase is different because FloSports is personally hated by the gymternet for reasons which go even deeper. The source of the controversy is Gymnastike, a site that was once owned and operated by the company known as FloCast that is now FloSports. At the time gymnast McKayla Maroney was one of the multiple victims of a celebrity photo hacking scandal. She was among the celebrities who had nude photos stolen that were taken for personal use and not meant for public viewing, and then shared to the Internet without their consent.
Even outside the gymnastics community the presence of images featuring McKayla Maroney was especially controversial as it would be claimed by her attorney that she was underage when the photos were taken. The multiple celebrities involved in the story were covered by the mainstream media, but no major outlet had linked to the photos. Gymnastike linked to them. The details of the whole affair can be found here.
For a fanbase which frequently has to deal with its athletes being sexualized, it was an experience that resonated deep. Gymnastics fans know all too well that its favorite athletes are targeted on a daily basis by outsiders who want to sexualize their image.
Sometimes the comments are restrained. Sometimes comments come from people who believe anonymity on the Internet is a free pass to act in the most wretched way possible. I have seen parents of gymnasts lash out with a “you do realize she’s underage” comment in response to the way their daughter is being treated. I have seen 16 year old gymnasts have their top hits on Google images be links to either bathing suit photos or leotard crotch shots. I get nauseous at the thought of these girls Googling their names, seeing these photos at the top of the results, and the 18+ themed url names attached to them.
One thing I’ve learned about the gymnastics fanbase since starting TMC, a very large percentage of it is young women, many of which are still in high school and are of similar age to the high profile athletes who highlight the sport. I cringe at the thought that not only do I see examples of gymnasts being sexualized, but thousands of ultra young gymnastics fans likely see it as well.
This was something that appeared while working on this very article. As part of my research I Googled McKayla Maroney’s name. The top result was disgusting, but it drives the point home as to how frequently gymnastics fans are subjected to this type of behavior. But it pales in comparison to the gymnasts who are the ones personally targeted by it.
Gymnastics fans care about the well being of its athletes. Perhaps because the athletes are so young, perhaps because this fanbase knows all too well how little USAG has cared about protecting them in the past. It goes without saying that the gymnastics community could never bring itself to support a company that crossed the line and tried to benefit off the sexual exploitation of one of its athletes. The company that had hurt one of its own. Gymnastike’s actions didn’t just reflect an intent to exploit Maroney’s suffering for their personal benefit, but an attempt to invite in the outsiders who only see the athletes as sex objects to coexist directly alongside gymnastics fans.
But on top of so much bad behavior, the sticking point is this. Those pictures were non-consensual. Those pictures were of an athlete who was purportedly underage at the time they were taken. For that reason, many gymnastics fans think Gymnastike’s actions amount to spreading child porn and don’t believe that statement is an exaggeration.
Despite my insanely low expectations for Li Li Leung, I didn’t think it could get this bad. It is not an exaggeration to say that FloSports and Mary Lou Retton are the two most despised names that currently exist in the sport. Li Li Leung could not be any more out of touch with her own fanbase than to publicly align with both. This from someone who is supposed to be a business-minded selection, but doesn’t seem to know the fundamental opinions of her own fanbase. I never thought I’d see the day where USAG demonstrated out of touch behavior which rivaled Mary Bono’s actions, but here we are.
If Li Li Leung treats gymnastics fans like trash, it is because she doesn’t care about your thoughts, opinions, or feelings. She will openly align with the two most despised things in your fandom and trample on the sensitive issues you hold dear to your heart. She will even make you give $29.99 a month to people you hate if you want full access to the gymnasts you love.
When it comes to selling media rights, every major sports body has a decision to make. They can either take less money and make the sport easier to grow, or they can take more money and make the sport less accessible to fans, and stifle the growth of their own sport in the process. If FloSport was willing to offer USAG a lucrative contract, it is because that money comes at a cost. The cost being massive tradeoffs paid in the form of losing fans and not attracting new ones.
But Li Li Leung doesn’t care. She was promoted as a “marketing guru” and represented a hire intended on promoting the business side of the sport, not the athletics side of the sport. The problem with business-centric hires, their focus is money and nothing else matters. That is who Steve Penny was and that is who Li Li Leung currently is. Look no further than Terin Humphrey:
Humphrey said Leung told her, “She did not want to fight for me during litigations with Manly.”
Why did the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts, and various Olympic sports find themselves dealing with child sexual abuse scandals? Because they have a history of behaving in a way where they respond to developing scandals with the primary focus of protecting itself in civil court. What is Terin Humphrey alleging? That Li Li Leung openly advocated for that exact same mindset as Humphrey was being removed from her position.
The ousting of Terin Humphrey was one of the few things USAG did right under Li Li Leung, but that was only the way things had appeared externally. Internally, Li Li Leung had done the right thing, but for all the wrong reasons.
So I say it again, why does Li Li Leung keep treating gymnastic fans like trash? It is because Li Li Leung is a cut of the old guard, who has an old guard approach towards dealing with problems. Li Li Leung does not share the same mindset that gymnastics have when it comes to dealing with misconduct. Li Li Leung is not a reformer. If Li Li Leung doesn’t outright hate you, she probably thinks you’re stupid. Or at the very least doesn’t respect gymnastics fans enough to not lie directly to their face.
“We know the FloSports platform will provide a unique opportunity for us to continue growing the sport of gymnastics at all levels and across all disciplines.”
That is Li Li Leung’s dishonesty at play. The idea to perform such a blatant money grab that will surely stifle the growth of the sport, and tell fans it will actually grow the sport disrespects our intelligence. Because Li Li Leung doesn’t respect the intelligence of gymnastics fans, she sees us as trash. And treats us so. We see it with her actions of signing a deal with FloSports, we see it in her commentary in the way Leung spoke of the move.
The final reason Li Li Leung treats gymnastics fans like trash, is because Li Li Leung is not a gymnastics fan. If she were a gymnastics fan she would know about the issues regarding FloSports and Mary Lou Retton. If Li Li Leung were a gymnastics fan, she would understand all that happened during the Nassar scandal. Her association with FloSports demonstrate she does not. She would have known about this detail:
“Maroney also believes Nassar took photographs of her when he was sexually abusing her, images she fears that are on the internet and in the possession of pedophiles and other sexual predators, according to a legal filing obtained by the Southern California News Group.“
Among Nassar-survivors, McKayla Maroney has the most difficult hill to climb if she wants to move on from the trauma inflicted on her by Larry Nassar. There will be no closure for Maroney. Because unlike other survivors, Maroney lives with the thought that images of her abuse are still being shared online and in various collections. These are not images involving the Gymnastike scandal, but a separate batch of images directly related to the Nassar scandal. Once they are posted to the web, it is impossible to guarantee that every copy will be deleted.
The dilemma for Maroney is that she will always be wondering if more copies are still out there. That at any given moment, there could be someone out there who has a photographic copy of her abuse is taking pleasure in looking at it. Thinking of that possibility is a never ending emotional toll that will be a life-long sentence for McKayla Maroney.
By resurfacing one story, Li Li Leung has brought up the other. If Li Li Leung was a true gymnastics fan, she would have known about this particular element in the Nassar scandal. She would have known to stay away from anything that resurfaces a discussion on McKayala Maroney and sensitive photos. Because for McKayla Maroney, the Gymnastike scandal is very similar to another photo scandal that is far more traumatic. How could McKayla Maroney hear about one and not have that immediately trigger painful memories of the other?
When Li Li Leung was first hired, I was furious at the widespread commentary that this was a positive hire. My big fear was that Li Li Leung was a business-centric hire who would copy much of Steve Penny’s mistakes. In the end, that is exactly what happened. But my other big fear was that Li Li Leung was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. That Li Li Leung’s track record as an outsider with no previous affiliation to USAG and a former gymnast, would make her appear as if her elevation meant USAG was heading in a new direction.
Unlike Li Li Leung, gymnastics fans saw very early and very quickly what their true colors were when Kerry Perry and Mary Bono took a leadership role with USAG. For as terrible as they were, gymnastics fans at least knew what they were dealing with and had the awareness to watch them closely like a hawk had they remained. What made Li Li Leung so bad is that her true colors were much harder to see. Thus, she could quietly rack up damage over a long period of time without people realizing just how catastrophically Li Li Leung is harming the sport.
The last person like that was Steve Penny.