USAG Is Only Pretending to Follow Child Protection Recommendations (Literally)

On March 10th, 2021 USA Gymnastics posted to its website an audit which was undertaken to track “progress toward implementing the recommendations set forth in the 2017 Deborah Daniels Report.” After reading the audit, it quickly became obvious to me that this audit is blatantly overstating how much progress USAG has made in implementing its reforms.

I’d go as far as to state that the audit is effectively useless as it allows USAG to “satisfy” a recommendation it hasn’t truly satisfied thanks to a combination of extremely low thresholds, playing coy with its wording, and dancing around with certain definitions. Tragically, the element in the report which I believe is the most flawed, is in the realm of “child protection” and hiring senior level administrators with a background in addressing child sexual abuse and child physical abuse.

The term “child protection” can be found in both the Deborah Daniels Report (13 times) and the recent audit (7 times). Throughout both reports the term “child protection” is used only in reference to topics in the realm of coaching abuse (physical or mental) and sexual abuse. I’d like to draw your attention to recommendation #13 of the audit.

Recommendation #13: Seek Individuals with Expertise in Child Protection for
Leadership Team

Background
Previously, those leading USA Gymnastics did not have sufficient expertise to protect athletes from abuse, and little if any training was provided to staff in relation to child abuse prevention. Only one individual holding multiple responsibilities had any training related to protecting athletes from abuse.

This specific recommendation clearly points towards a topic of discussion addressing an individual whose background is in combating coaching abuse which can come in three forms (emotional, physical, and mental) as well as sexual abuse. In fact, here is the description from Deborah Daniels Report:

Seek Individuals With Expertise in Child Protection for Leadership Team

At least some members of the leadership team, who have supervisory authority over other members of the staff, should have some background in child protection and the dynamics of child abuse. It is critically important to infusing the entire staff with an understanding of its obligations in this regard that there be people in leadership positions with the organization who have some background not just in the gymnastics world but in the protection of children from physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

Both the audit background for Recommendation #13 and the Deborah Daniels Report make it clear as day, this recommendation is asking for USAG to find people who are bona fide experts in child abuse prevention and have professional backgrounds on this subject. But that is nothing close to how USAG has gone about fulfilling this requirement. Instead the audit credits the following person as having satisfied this requirement:

Kim Kranz, the Chief of Athlete Wellness, has 25 years of experience with athlete care and safety

For all intents and purposes, Kim Kranz sounds like a wonderful person who is highly qualified for the role in which she was initially hired for. The problem is she does not have any qualifications in the realm of child protection. When the hiring of Kim Kranz was announced by USAG, the terms “SafeSport” and “abuse” was nowhere to be found in the announcement. Her background was listed as follows:

Kranz has more than 25 years of experience in physical therapy and sports medicine, with a focus on sports nutrition, positive coaching, and sports psychology. Most recently, she served as the Director of Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Surgery Services and Neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters where she reinforced the program’s mission to promote athlete wellness and injury prevention with a variety of educational programming and a large offering of injury prevention/wellness classes for youth. Kranz also served as a physical therapist and clinic director at Physiotherapy Associates, where she provided physical therapy for the LPGA Tour’s professional golfers and treated a full caseload of orthopedic and sports medicine clients utilizing exercise, manual therapy, and modalities.

USAG also listed her as having the following job description:

As part of her role, Kranz will focus on creating educational materials and guidance for athletes in all areas of wellness, including, but not limited to, injury prevention, sleep, nutrition, mental health, mindfulness, and finding balance between their sport, education, and personal lives. Kranz will also oversee the sports medicine program, which provides medical support and care to elite-level athletes as well as at USA Gymnastics’ training camps and premier events.

While Kim Kranz is highly qualified for an athlete wellness position, it is a completely different field than Safe Sport/child protection. Kim Kranz doesn’t have any direct links to a child protection background. By USAG’s own rhetoric when they first hired her, they never framed this hire as an example of their seeking an individual with a background in combating sexual abuse and coaching abuse.

But per the 2021 audit, Kim Kranz is mentioned by name with having “25 years of experience with athlete care and safety” and the specific hire that satisfies recommendation #13.

This is what I mean by the audit playing fast and loose with various definitions. Athlete wellness and Safe Sport are fundamentally different roles, yet USAG and this audit is pretending that they are the same thing. Here is the line from the audit:

“…and adding a leader with experience in athlete safety in a critical position.”

It is a blatant attempt at a white lie because while she has experience in athlete safety, it is a type of athlete safety that pertains to injury prevention and nutrition. Not identifying warning signs of sexual abuse and abusive coaching methods. Furthermore, this audit by its own admission credits a single hire as satisfying the recommendation, even though the initial recommendation was plural and suggested numerous individuals be incorporated into USAG with backgrounds related to Safe Sport issues.

By allowing only a single hire to qualify as “satisfying the recommendation” it demonstrates just how generous this audit is at crediting USAG with satisfying a recommendation despite displaying little to no effort in implementing it. Currently, Shelba Waldron is USAG’s director of safe sport education and training. Why the 2021 audit didn’t spend more time highlight Waldron as a new hire to be celebrated is simple.

The hiring of Shelba Waldron is covered in recommendation #19. But here’s the catch. Shelba Waldron must report to Kim Kranz, leaving Safe Sport relatively marginalized within USAG’s power structure, and effectively makes it a subsidiary of Athlete Wellness. Furthermore, the 2021 Audit gets even more audacious in wording with its conclusion for recommendation #19 stating:

USA Gymnastics has complied with the spirit and goal of this recommendation

Unlike other recommendations where the audit explicitly states whether this particular recommendation has been satisfied, that is not the case for #19 which requires this position has direct access to USAG’s board. The issue at hand is the following:

Although in practice the Director of Safe Sport and the Chief of Athlete Wellness have direct access to the Board, there is no written document memorializing this practice.

And yet this issue is bypassed after the audit claims it is no longer necessary because USAG has completed Recommendation #15: Exclude President from Safe Sport Disciplinary Control.

Recommendation #15 and Recommendation #19 were never described as bearing a relationship with each other. They were introduced as two separate issues requiring two separate solutions. To USAG’s credit they did satisfy #15, but nowhere did it state this issue also pertains to satisfying #19 until it suddenly became necessary. Likely because USAG didn’t truly satisfy #19 and the report had to invoke #15 to cover for shortcomings related to #19.

This further relates to Recommendation #13 as it calls for individuals with a Safe Sport background for leadership/supervisor roles, but it is difficult to ascertain if this requirement has truly been fulfilled. Throughout multiple recommendations the status of Shelba Waldron as someone who can truly be described as having a leadership role becomes increasingly sketchy.

Most of the recommendations listed as “satisfied” were genuinely satisfied. But I have significant concern regarding the recommendations covering child protection and granting Safe Sport a larger voice in USAG’s leadership structure. The 2021 audit drastically overstates how much additional influence Safe Sport has gained within USAG’s leadership structure in the past few years, while also avoiding a discussion regarding its continued marginalization.

But my gravest concern is the appearance of a “rookie mistake.”

Safe Sport: Pertains to a regulatory body designed to police the sport with no regard given to how its decisions will impact the winning ability of the team it serves.

Athlete Wellness: Pertains to a coaching role designed to grant the team a larger athletic advantage by finding additional ways to improve athlete performance. Usually via methods such as better diets, reducing injuries, and improving the mental outlook of athletes.

Safe Sport and Athlete Wellness are not only two fundamentally different roles, but at times they may directly conflict with each other as one has a duty to ensure victory within the limits of safety, whereas the other has a duty to enforce the limits of safety and determine where those limits even are.

One hypothetical scenario where a Safe Sport policy and an Athlete Wellness policy may conflict is nutrition. Whereas Athlete Wellness would encourage athletes to manage their food intake to reduce weight and thereby gain a competitive advantage, Safe Sport could have objections to such methods being used on a child athlete. Hence the reason I have such grave concerns that the USAG power structure puts an administrator overseeing Safe Sport as being lower in the hierarchy and must report to the administrator overseeing athlete wellness.

There is nothing wrong with working in athlete wellness or being a sports doctor in a high pressure environment such as the Olympics. The problem with these roles is it becomes difficult for these officials to choose between serving sports vs serving medicine. When an injured athlete wants to return to the game, it becomes an ethical dilemma for these administrators.

They can serve sports by helping an injured athlete return to the game and risk further injury, or they can serve medicine by refusing to allow someone to inflict further harm on themselves. Sometimes the dilemmas are nowhere near that simple. Hence the reason Safe Sport needs to oversee these roles, but USAG has a power structure that is very much the opposite.

At best this is an innocent mistake. But even then that innocent mistake means both USAG and the audit made a rookie level error. It reeks of incompetence for a 2021 audit to not understand the difference between athlete wellness and Safe Sport. Even USAG seems to understand this difference as they never mentioned Safe Sport in their hiring announcement of Chief of Athlete Wellness Kim Kranz. But what if this wasn’t an innocent mistake, but an intentional act of bad faith?

It has long been a concern that various national governing bodies can exploit the term “athlete wellness” as a concept that covers safeguarding athletes from sexual abuse when it does not. Preying on the casual observer who may not realize that two terms which sound similar, actually cover two fundamentally different concepts. Allowing these organizations to present a false narrative that they are properly addressing Safe Sport issues by pointing to the growing strength/size of their athlete wellness programs.

To understand just how different the scope of these two terms are, USA Gymnastics first began an Athlete Wellness program back in 1972 whereas the term “Safe Sport” first emerged on a trademark filed by USOC in November of 2011. “Athlete Wellness” predates our modern emphasis of combating the prevalence of sexual abuse within the Olympic sports by decades.

For these reasons, I don’t see the 2021 audit as accidentally linking these two terms together, but the sad conclusion where something I was speculating might happen, ended up happening. What remains to be determined is whether this was a mistake or intentional. I do want to say that many of the recommendations are truly being satisfied, but most of them are rather straight forward.

USAG has had little difficulty following guidelines stating “change a bylaw here” or “change a procedure there.” USAG has had no trouble following guidelines that are clear cut. But when it comes to the broader recommendations, USAG has gone out of its way to undertake only minimal steps, if not resort to creative exploits to limit the impact these recommendations are intended to have. Unfortunately, it is the guidelines pertaining to child protection that have had the greatest exposure to this problem.

Countless times in the past Nassar-survivors and gymnastics fans have accused USAG of only pretending to care. Often times it was said merely in the figurative sense. But on this occasion, I don’t see how it can get any more literal than faking an attempt to abide by child protection recommendations and exploiting convoluted terms to give a false impression of how much progress is actually being made.

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