USA Gymnastics names NBA marketing vet its 4th president in 2 years

Athletes like Morgan Hurd – shown here competing in the 2018 World Championships  – need a strong leader at the top of USA Gymnastics after years of scandal tied to the Larry Nassar abuse cases. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)

As USA Gymnastics continues to search for stability amid the fallout from the Larry Nassar scandal, the organization has named its fourth president and CEO in two years.

Former NBA Vice President Li Li Leung, who competed as a collegiate gymnast at the University of Michigan and worked for USA Basketball and in the NBA, will start officially on March 8.

USAG is in shambles in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal, and Leung is the latest tasked with leading the rebuilding effort, but many believe this move is not much of a departure from the others who preceded Leung.

“Li Li’s unique combination of business skills, management experience and passion for gymnastics make her perfectly suited to lead our organization at this important time in our history,” Kathryn Carson, USA Gymnastics Board chair, said in a statement.

Leung will be tasked with bridging a growing divide between the organization and the athletes who were victims of Nassar’s sexual crimes and with continuing to clean house within a governing body that did little to stamp out Nassar’s behavior while he was the USAG national team doctor and an osteopathic physician at Michigan State University.

“Like everyone, I was upset and angry to learn about the abuse and the institutions that let the athletes down,” Leung said in the statement. “I admire the courage and strength of the survivors, and I will make it a priority to see that their claims are resolved.”

Former director Steve Penny, who ran USAG since 2005, resigned in March 2017 as his knowledge of Nassar’s criminal sexual misconduct came to light. By the summer of 2018, Penny pleaded not guilty to charges of tampering with evidence — which prosecutors said was likely the removal of gymnasts’ medical records — regarding misconduct that took place at Karolyi Ranch. The Texas home of Bela and Martha Karolyi, the Karolyi Ranch served as USA Gymnastics National Team Training Center. Nassar took advantage of the spartan surroundings and lack of oversight to prey on young female gymnasts. Penny was released on $20,000 bail less than two weeks later. That case has not reached a resolution.

Early in 2018, Kerry Perry was selected as Penny’s replacement by the USAG board. Perry arrived from Learfield Communications, where she served as a vice president. Her appointment was met with criticism from the victim gymnasts who believed the move was a public relations ploy.

“You’d think when you have literally hundreds of little girls and boys who have been molested, you would pick somebody with not only a successful record in business but a successful public record in protecting athletes or protecting people,” said John Manly, an attorney for many of the victims, at the time of Perry’s appointment.

Perry was forced out because of her inability to back up her public comments with changes within the institution. She hired a Nassar supporter for a high-level role within USAG and failed to make the sweeping changes the victims and other detractors within the industry demanded.

Perry’s replacement, Mary Bono, a former U.S. Representative from California, lasted two months after her involvement with the law firm that defended Nassar was uncovered. USAG also declared bankruptcy shortly after Bono’s resignation as it attempted to settle with victims.

Now, Leung will be tasked with picking up the pieces of a situation made worse by the lack of clear organization at the top of USAG since Penny was ousted. The response to her appointment has been no more positive.

While USAG board chair Kathryn Carson believes Leung’s business and management skills, coupled with her passion for the sport, will serve her well, many see this as another move based upon cleaning up the image of the institution.

“This is deeply disappointing, but it gives us even more clarity that nothing is going to change at USAG and USOC,” Sarah Klein, who is believed to be one of the first gymnasts abused by Nassar, told the Indianapolis Star, whose investigative work has uncovered many of the core allegations in this case.

In a letter sent directly to the parents and members of USAG, Leung said, “My priorities when I first start are to listen and learn from current and former athletes, coaches, club owners, meet directors, judges and the entire community by traveling around the country to get to know as many people as possible.

“I also plan to build an experienced management team who can help create and implement a new vision for USA Gymnastics that puts athletes first,” she added. “I will work to see that we reach a fair and equitable resolution with the survivors not only because it is the right thing to do, but also with the hope they will work with us to make the fundamental changes that are necessary.”

This fits the tone of a proper teardown, which many have clamored for in the years since the scandal erupted. But as the connections between Leung and other marketing and PR professionals who have been put in power since Nassar’s abuses came out, Leung will have to fight an uphill battle to show she is different from her predecessors and the right person to fix what was once one of America’s most successful and famed athletic institutions.

Brendon Kleen is a senior journalism student at Arizona State University. 

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