USA Gymnastics is the national gymnastics organization in America, and is comprised of male and female competitive gymnasts ranging from five years old, up to mid-twenties. This organization is made up of T&T (trampoline and tumbling) as well as acrobatic and rhythmic gymnastics (USA Gymnastics, n.d.). It includes amateurs, college-level, and elite-level gymnasts. This sport is an escape from reality for most athletes in the organization; you leave all outside problems at the door and go inside and focus solely on the sport.
Aside from the occasional injury from the sport, the gym where you train is supposed to be a safe space with responsible coaches and trainers. Unfortunately, this safe space has been breached by some coaches and doctors who are now being charged with counts of sexual abuse and/or child pornography. When problems like this arise, it is vital for the organization to speak openly and truthfully to the public to ensure that steps are being taken to make the sport safer and to limit these problems in the future. The improper and untimely use of crisis rhetoric through the exigence as well as the disproportionate power implications which left out the public all together, caused even more harm for the USA Gymnastics Organization.
In 2016, there were over 100 female gymnasts that came forward and claimed that Larry Nasser, the national team doctor, had sexually abused them on at least one occasion (The Guardian, 2016). There are several other coaches within the sport of gymnastics that have been charged with counts of sexual misconduct, one of which accumulated over 15 accusations since 1993, before being sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2013 (Indy Star, n.d.). USA Gymnastics has done very little to appease their audience and ensure that these issues will not happen again. At this time, USAG has the opportunity to strengthen their program and give guidance to those in the sport that may need it. They could take active steps to protect the gymnasts by starting with investigating all adult staff and making sure backgrounds are completely clean. Their rhetoric with the public should be positive and hopeful, and should come in a timely manner after incidents like this occur.
Aly Raisman, two-time Olympic gymnast, expressed how concerning it was that USAG did not step up and directly say how things were going to change within the program (The Guardian, 2016). She went on to suggest that the president of the organization that was given a one-million-dollar severance package should put that money towards therapy for the girls who have gone through this traumatic event. Instead, the only steps the program has taken is to put a hotline in use for athletes to call or email and has “Strengthened the safe sport program” (USA Gymnastics, n.d.). It took the organization several months to come out with a statement regarding Nassar, though they said they were advised by the police to not say anything. Their statement essentially specified that they were advised by police to not say anything, but had been doing investigations on Nassar since late 2015 and had fired him (USA Gymnastics, 2016).
Obviously, a problem like one involving sexual abuse is unanticipated. It is not entirely unheard of for adults who work with kids to unfortunately commit acts of sexual abuse towards the children they work with. However, this problem is so rare that employers, gymnasts, and parents do not anticipate or necessarily prepare for an incident like this. One hopes that the adult working for them or with their kids is one of good character who will not intentionally harm the children. It is practically impossible to anticipate this kind of issue considering it is so rare, and the fact that every case is different.
Sexual abuse allegations within the sport are undeniably negative for the organization. Considering there are coaches like Ray Adams that go two decades without being arrested and without USAG investigating the claims, and a doctor with over 100 gymnasts suing him for sexual misconduct, it creates a lack of trust. This lack of trust and not feeling safe around coaches that USAG employs can cause parents to pull their kids from gymnastics. It can harm the profit for the organization, and more importantly can cause emotional trauma to gymnasts exposed to employees like Adams or Nassar. What can make these allegations worse, is not handling them well. In this case, the exigence produced the rhetoric, but not much rhetoric was produced at all. It took months for USAG to come out with statements, and years to investigate coaches. When statements were finally put out they were vague and extremely short.
The primary audiences and stakeholders of USA Gymnastics, specifically within this case study, are parents, gymnasts, other coaches, and employers. The secondary audience would be anybody else that keeps up with what happens in the gymnastics world, or viewers who see this case on the news or in articles. Sponsors of the sport such as AT&T or Under Armour are stakeholders that may be harmed by these allegations. If the public does not like how this is handled and viewership of the sport decreases, then the sponsors will not get as much recognition as they would like or as their contract states. The lack of viewership means people may not be as inclined to go purchase their products, thus making the companies drop out of being sponsors for USAG. A lack of sponsors for the organization means they may not be properly funded and able to host the large meets and selection camps for team USA. Without these selection camps and meets, the USA Gymnastics program would not be able to function properly.
When dealing with an exigence, it is crucial that it is handled using the proper rhetorical strategies. In this case, the exigence is that there have been far too many sexual abuse allegations within USA Gymnastics; dozens of them pointing back to the national team doctor, Larry Nassar. To address this exigence, USA Gymnastics utilized crisis rhetoric. Since these series of events were unplanned and the organization could not prepare fully for the events that unfolded, the only rhetorical strategy the organization could utilize was crisis rhetoric.
There are multiple stages to every crisis. There is the pre-crisis stage, the crisis response stage, and the post-crisis stage (Hoffman & Ford, 2010). The pre-crisis stage is where an organization is able to prepare for a potential crisis to the best of their ability. The organization can make a conjecture as to what sort of crisis may happen given the current circumstances. In this case, USA Gymnastics could only prepare slightly for an event like this considering every sexual abuse allegation is different and needs to be handled carefully and thoroughly. The pre-crisis stage is also used to build and enhance relationships with customers, or gymnasts in this case. USA Gymnastics utilizes this stage to encourage a family-like atmosphere for gymnasts, coaches, and doctors. It is imperative for safety that there is a sense of trust between the gymnasts and the coaches, so USA Gymnastics encourages teammates and coaches to be more like a family.
The second stage is the crisis response stage. Since Larry Nassar was accused of sexual abuse by dozens of gymnasts, it was heard all throughout the sports world which made it difficult for the organization to keep the occurrence quiet. This resulted in USA Gymnastics having to go into crisis mode and try to save their reputation. When an organization is in the crisis response stage, they begin to relay messages to their audience to address and fix the issue at hand. USA Gymnastics did not respond to the allegations in a timely manner, which caused even more of an uproar with gymnasts and the rest of the gymnastics community. During the crisis response stage, it took USA Gymnastics multiple months to release a statement. When they did release a statement however, they explained that they were planning on putting stricter rules and regulations in place for employees of the organization.
The final stage to the crisis is the post-crisis stage. This is where the company determines how the crisis happened in the first place, and how to keep it from happening again. In this case, USA Gymnastics hired a former federal prosecutor, Deborah Daniels, to investigate the organization’s policies and procedures (Wojtys, 2017). Daniels came back with a 100-page report for the organization to help them better their company and to make USA Gymnastics a safe sport for male and female athletes alike. The main proposal she had was to change the culture of the sport. She told the organization that they need to be more focused on creating a safe and healthy environment rather than a winning environment (Daniels, 2017). She wants the organization to focus on implementing more regulations and stricter hiring procedures for all USA Gymnastics employees.
Sexual abuse occurs far too often, and in more occasions than just gymnastics. This exigence also occurred recently in USA Swimming. When the executive director of USA Swimming was voted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, women came forward and spoke out against him (Morton, 2016-2017). These women claimed that when he was given reports of coaches sexually abusing swimmers, that he just wrote it off and demanded that the complaints be kept quiet. While this organization also went into crisis mode, their rhetoric was better received by swimmers and the community alike. USA Swimming actively took steps to make swimming safer and they started by creating a public list of coached banned due to sexual abuse. They also removed the executive director and revoked his hall of fame nomination. The organization announced how important they found it for leaders to be protecting the victims and enforced a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to exigencies such as sexual abuse.
It is common for organizations who have such extreme exigencies like sexual abuse to have to use crisis rhetoric. Nobody wants to plan for what they should do in this situation since they hope it never happens to them or anyone they know. Since this is the case, the company or organization lacks preparation and has to go into crisis mode and use crisis rhetoric to clean up the mess. The USA Gymnastics case should have been handled a lot better. Their rhetoric was mediocre when they finally got around to making statements. Their post-crisis actions and rhetoric were what the public needed to hear and see. Making the public aware of the investigation into their policies and procedures was a good move on their end, whether they took the investigation results seriously or not.
It gave the public the idea that they were actively trying to better their organization to ensure that nothing like this happens again, or at least not to this degree. The organization should have acknowledged the allegations immediately and began a discussion with the public on how it was going to be taken care of. USA Swimming on the other hand, handled the situation quite well. It was solely the executive director that was keeping the sexual abuse allegations under wraps, not the entire organization. When the organization finally was made fully aware of the allegations of coaches sexually abusing their swimmers, they immediately removed the executive director from his position and sought to make changes within the organization.
The specific crisis rhetoric strategy utilized by the organization is apologia. It is important to note that this strategy does not necessarily admit fault or issue and apology. This strategy is used to give defense in an exigence where it is needed. USA Gymnastics utilized this strategy in a way to defend themselves from the public that was angered by the events that took place. The organization defended themselves and attempted to point the blame at the organization that does their background checks, by saying the checks were not thorough enough and were not the responsibility of USA Gymnastics.
Power is created in USA Gymnastics through organizational communication. It is through this communication that power is placed on the executives of the organization, as well as the coaches and the judges. The executives have the power over all of the gymnastics community by enforcing strict rules and regulations on the program as a whole. The power then filters down to the judges and coaches. The judges have an immense amount of power over the gymnasts and coaches by being able to deduct points on their routines for any flaws or imperfections they may see.
The coaches have power over the gymnasts and parents by being able to schedule practices and meets whenever is convenient for them, and by being able to push the gymnasts to extremes that may not always be safe. While the executives have power, it is clear that when enough community members speak out against an issue, the executives will be forced to listen. In this case, enough parents and gymnasts complained about the sexual abuse allegations that seemed to be contaminating the gymnastics community, that the President and CEO of USA Gymnastics, Steve Penny, was asked by the U.S. Olympic Committee to step down from his position (Armour & Axon, 2017).
In this exigence, it is clear that the speakers of the situation itself are the gymnasts. The girls that have bravely stepped up to address these concerns are the direct speakers of this situation. Along with the gymnasts, are the parents that have growing concerns over the safety of their kids who are pursuing a life in the sport of gymnastics. In this exigence, there is room for everyone to speak. Coaches and parents have spoken out wishing for tighter restrictions and better background checks during the hiring process. Other speakers that would have a right to speak during this exigence would be other athletes and parents of different sports, seeing as sexual abuse could happen in any sport.
USA Gymnastics as a whole cannot be a positive speaker unless they are actively speaking out against sexual abuse. However, they did not actively speak during this exigence, positively or negatively. It was not until months after the allegations began that a statement was issued and that the CEO and President of the organization was asked to step down. Everyone is able to be a speaker in this issue since sexual abuse is prevalent all over the world, and in every sport. Recently, parents of soccer kids have been pushing the United States Youth Soccer Association, Inc. to do mandatory background checks on coaches, and they claim that “it is the duty of the state to protect the children” (Kozlowski, 2017). This goes to show that sexual abuse allegations are wide spread, giving everyone that has concerns over this issue a platform to speak in this exigence.
What can be said about this issue within USA Gymnastics is that sexual abuse allegations are not taken seriously by the organization until it spins out of control. McKayla Maroney, 2012 Olympic Gymnast, was sexually abused by Dr. Larry Nassar beginning when she was 13, all the way until she was 17. Numerous gymnasts were sexually abused by Dr. Nassar, but they said all of their reports to the USA Gymnastics organization were ignored (Park, 2017). USAG failed to include the public in their discussion regarding the allegations with Dr. Nassar and how to handle it. It was not addressed with the public until months later, which did nothing but fuel the anger felt by the gymnasts, the parents, and even the public. The organization did come forward with new rules and regulations, and want their background check process to be fixed so that no other gymnasts are harmed by coaches and staff.
The source of the rhetoric in this exigence, is the organization itself, as well as the gymnasts. The gymnasts were the ones that originally came out and said what was happening to them with Dr. Nassar, and how long it had been going on. Once a couple girls came forward with their allegations, it was not long until about one-hundred other girls came forward with their allegations as well. Their intended audience for their rhetoric was to USAG in order to get change to happen within the gymnastics community. However, since the organization is known for failing to report these allegations like they are legally obligated to do (White, 2016), the gymnasts also aimed their rhetoric at the general public to get more attention on the subject, and get change to occur.
Once the public was aware of the scandal, the organization finally stepped up with rhetoric of their own. They ended up firing Nassar and beginning a process to implement new safety restrictions within the sport. USA Gymnastics did not encourage participation or feedback from their audience, as they did not want more attention than what was already there. Since they did not issue a statement for months, it is safe to assume that they were trying to keep this issue quiet, and to not get more people involved. Previous Olympic gymnasts have addressed their anger they have towards the organization for not helping the victims of sexual abuse, and only looking out for their organizations’ reputation.
While the organization did finally issue an apology and take responsibility for this issue (Macur, 2017), the public was upset with how long it had taken to do so. The only feedback they wanted was from the attorney that they hired to through their rules and regulations and help them fix their program. On the other hand, many of the gymnasts who came forward with the allegations were willing to do interviews, answer questions, and interact with the public in order to get the situation handled properly and in a timely manner. The audience of the organizations’ rhetoric was the general public and the gymnasts, though it was extremely limited rhetoric that was not intended to start dialogue.
Through the examination of the rhetoric used by USA Gymnastics, and the strategies used to cover up this issue as best as possible, it is clear that work needs to be done within this organization. Yes, in the end the organization made a statement and took steps (though very minimal) to bring positive changes to the sport, there was not enough rhetoric shared between the organization and the public. There was little rhetoric regarding the exigence in general from the organization, let alone rhetoric that was aimed at creating a positive and inclusive conversation between the organization and the public. The power implications should have included the public and been heard by the organization, and the rhetoric used should have shown the public how eager the organization is to ensure that an exigence like this never happens again.
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