The Proactive Side

How Deborah Daniels set new athlete-protection standards for USA Gymnastics

Published in 2020 Indiana Super Lawyers Magazine

In late 2016, Deborah Daniels was attending a public event when the then-president of USA Gymnastics, Steve Penny, approached her. On Sept. 12, The Indianapolis Star had published its explosive report chronicling the abuse allegations against national team doctor Larry Nassar, and more athletes were coming forward every day. Penny’s question for Daniels: Would she help the organization improve its practices?

She had one condition: “I specifically did not want to get involved in the lawsuits that had been filed against them,” says Daniels, a partner at Krieg DeVault who primarily handles internal investigations and corporate compliance. “I said, ‘You have your reactive side and you have lawyers to do that. What I will do is the proactive side.’”

Daniels had advocated for children and sexual abuse victims as a deputy Marion County prosecutor, U.S. attorney, U.S. assistant attorney general, and as the nation’s first Amber Alert coordinator. She was more than prepared for this moment.

After delving into the longstanding USA Gymnastics policies, procedures and bylaws, Daniels wanted to know how the written guidelines played out in real life. Partnering with Praesidium, a boots-on-the-ground research firm that specializes in preventing sexual abuse in youth organizations, she conducted more than 160 interviews across the country. “We visited some meets,” she says. “We visited the then-national training center to observe how that operated. We talked to coaches, gym owners, athletes, parents of athletes, advocates in the safe sport arena.”

Daniels’ team also dug deep into the history of competitive gymnastics and the multiple conditions that for years created a set of circumstances ripe for abuse: pressure on young female gymnasts to excel and please their coaches; training regimens that isolated them from family and friends; physical contact that was not only permitted but required—all of which tended to discourage victims from reporting abuse.

“The focus was more on the medals than it was on protection of the athletes. And that just cannot be the case,” Daniels says.

“I got the sense, almost from the outset, that they didn’t fully understand the leverage that they had to enforce protective measures,” she adds. “And then as we got further into it, we realized that they just had to start with a complete cultural shift. They had to fully understand what their mission needed to be, and athletes needed to be at the forefront.”

Daniels distilled her findings into 70 recommendations and officially presented them to the governing body in June 2017, along with a firm stance on the overarching goal. “USA Gymnastics needs to undergo a complete cultural change, permeating the entire organization and communicated to the field in all its actions,” she wrote in the overview. “The culture that needs to be adopted is that USA Gymnastics’ top priority is the safety and wellbeing of its athletes, not just their success on the field of play.”

The group’s board of directors unanimously accepted her report. In an online update one year later, USA Gymnastics said that 86% of the recommendations had either been implemented or were in the works. “From what I can gather, they’re really focused on making the changes, but it’s going to take some time,” Daniels says. “And it’s going to be pretty difficult.”

She is currently wrapping up a similar review for USA Track & Field and advising higher education institutions on how to comply with new Title IX regulations. “One of the great things about practicing law is that, if you’re lucky, you have the opportunity to master whole new areas, substantive areas, and then recommend changes,” she says. “I’ve been able to do that in the course of my career.”

She points to the USA Gymnastics project as the “capstone” of those efforts. 

“You’re dealing with tens of thousands of human beings all around the country. It’s a very far-flung organization. It’s very difficult for them to enforce even good policies out in the field. It’s difficult to communicate what needs to be done, and it’s very difficult to reach the real intended audience, which is the athletes themselves, and encourage them to have the courage to step forward if someone abuses them.

“I was never a gymnast myself, but I feel gratified that I’ve had multiple gymnasts since say to me, ‘You really captured the nature of the problem.’”

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