The tragedy of USA Gymnastics will not end when Larry Nassar goes to jail. In fact, the destruction of the organization’s reputation has just begun.
They now join the infamous ranks of VW, Penn State and Wells Fargo. What all of these reputation-killing crises have in common is what I’m calling “Blind Eye Syndrome.” They turned a blind eye to the abuses for years. The actions of those who created the crises are one thing; the organization’s responses to them (or lack thereof) are what makes these crimes close to impossible to forget.
A reputation doesn’t recover from those memories for decades. If ever. The stain goes on because it comes from the soul of the organization. It’s stitched into their culture.
Like those other crises, it speaks to who they are – what was permitted to keep them running. In USA Gymnastics’ case, they kept churning out champions. Like VW and Penn State their “products” looked like successes. So no one questioned how they made them.
Will USA Gymnastics’ reputation ever recover? Will parents entrust their children to the organization again? Perhaps. A kid’s dream of Olympic glory is tough to kill. Even a pervert like Larry Nassar can’t erase that. But what happens in the next few months will determine if the organization deserves to be the steward of those dreams. Right now their Blind Eye culture doesn’t deserve that honor.
To set themselves on the road to reputation recovery, USA Gymnastics will need to purge its very soul. That means going beyond the ritualistic firings. Yes, those at the top had to go. But that’s only the beginning. They need a formal investigation from a trusted outside source to find out why this happened.
Due to Nassar’s role as a trainer at Michigan State University, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has already announced that his office will conduct an “independent, thorough, transparent and prompt” investigation into what happened there. Soon after Nassar’s sentencing, Schutte said, “It is abundantly clear that a full and complete investigation of what happened at Michigan State University — from the president’s office down — is required.” What is USA Gymnastics waiting for? They need to launch their own unbiased investigation to get answers to questions like: Who knew? Who stayed silent? Why? What pressures did they face to do so? They can’t fix this without getting their own answers about why it happened.
Then, USA Gymnastics will need to rebuild their culture – to put in controls, sanctions and formal processes that allow anonymous reporting of anything that’s troubling. In companies practicing lean manufacturing, workers have the power to halt the production line if they spot quality issues. Why shouldn’t those whose “products” are high-achieving human beings have the same power?
Once that structure is created, it will be time to internalize the changes and demonstrate them to the world. To loudly and repeatedly showcase the transformation. And to ostentatiously live their new culture – over and over again.
Before any parent entrusts their child’s body and dreams to USA Gymnastics again, they will need to believe, in their hearts, that they are worthy custodians. That will take changes, actions and proof that they are a different organization in their soul.
Rebuilding a reputation that’s this tarnished takes soul-searching and work. USA Gymnastics has their work cut out for them. For many years.