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Heroes and Villains

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The controversy over the years of sexual abuse against young women meted out by now disgraced and incarcerated USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar has emboldened the newest generation of Olympic athletes to speak out vocally and powerfully to protect their friends and teammates from similar abuse.


Lately, Olympian gold medal winners Simone Biles and Aly Raisman came out forcefully against the very official who was hired to clean up the mess left in the wake of the Nassar debacle. When the dust cleared from the ensuing twitter shootout, interim USA Gymnastics President Mary Bono was forced to step down from her position, merely four days into the job.

Here's the post-mortem: Mary Bono, former wife of Sonny Bono, who was one half of the Sonny & Cher duo, was a Republican California congresswoman for over 12 years. She was defeated in 2012 and as a result, left Congress to join a Washington public affairs firm, where she is now a principal. That firm, Faegre Baker Daniels, represented Larry Nassar on behalf of USA Gymnastics. Since then, the firm is alleged to have either covered up or downplayed the extent of Nassar's rampant sexual abuse of dozens of female USA Gymnastics athletes over a period spanning at least 20 years. There was even evidence that because of the firm's actions, parents in the sport were not warned sooner of the potential dangers of allowing their children to be around Nassar, and evidence that as a result, Nassar subsequently abused even more children.

But oddly enough, Mary Bono's representation of Nassar apparently never crossed the minds of the USA Gymnastics board of directors as a reason why her candidacy to lead the organization might raise red flags. In fact, it wasn't until five-time Olympic gold medalist and five-time U.S. Nationals winner Simone Byles criticized Bono on twitter for another matter entirely that the potential impropriety of hiring Mary Bono came to light.


In a single Tweet, Simone Biles revealed Mary Bono's lack of sensitivity when it came to her opinion of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick, whose national anthem protest against police brutality ultimately got him kicked out of the NFL, nonetheless became a media darling. He was eventually rewarded with a major Nike ad campaign: "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything."

Mary Bono, whose relatives and close friends have served and continue to serve in the military and, unlike Kaepernick, have made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives in service of the country, objected to Nike's promotion of Kaepernick for behavior (kneeling during the national anthem). She and many others in the military and law enforcement communities took his actions as a slap in the face to the ultimate sacrifice that soldiers make.

Even though Nassar himself was convicted and sentenced to 175 years in prison for his crimes, the organization was still in need of a villain. To expiate its guilt, USA Gymnastics needed to be doing everything in its power to distance itself from the wreckage that Nassar had wrought, even if it meant that a supremely competent woman executive, who herself had overcome abuse as a gymnast and was deeply concerned about the organization, had to be sacrificed at the altar.


The sport also needed a hero: Olympian Aly Raisman was one of the first of Nassar's victims to speak out publicly. She has since retired from competition, and right now the most visible symbol in the sport is undoubtedly Simone Biles. She is the most medaled female gymnast in U.S. history. Coming off of her fifth overall win of the U.S. Nationals, she is on her way to the Gymnastics World Championships this month.

Like Kaepernick, Biles is African-American and a Nike-sponsored athlete. She is also a victim of Nassar's abuse -- the trifecta. So when she wrote the tweet that reverberated around the sport, it had a stunning and lasting effect on all involved. As the sport's best athlete and its best hope for vindication, a sexual assault survivor and an African-American woman who is represented by Nike, Biles is in a uniquely powerful position to exert her will on the entire sport. And she has shown every willingness to do so when necessary.

It goes without saying that this improbable confluence of events would not have been possible had one thing not been true: Simone Biles has earned her power through her unrivaled excellence in her craft. In that respect, whether one likes her stance on various issues or not, she is a force that must be reckoned with. Bono, as a former Congresswoman and a Washington power player with plenty of experience playing high-stakes political chess, should have known this. The fact that she got caught in such a public showdown with the sport's most powerful athlete (both literally and figuratively) is a strong indication that she is not ready for the job of righting the ship at USA Gymnastics.


The sport is going to probably going to have to search beyond the ranks of gymnastics or even sports to find an executive who can bring the right mix of media savvy, sensitivity and perhaps a bit of levity to the job. It will have to choose as a leader a subtler hero who cannot easily be cast as a villain.

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