INDIANAPOLIS — When former California congresswoman Mary Bono took over as the interim president for USA Gymnastics last week, she pointed to the opportunity to “reconnect” with a sport she loved while she was growing up.
The connection lasted all of four days.
Bono stepped down on Tuesday, saying she felt her affiliation with the embattled organization would be a “liability” after a social media post by Bono criticizing Nike and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick drew widespread scrutiny within the gymnastics community.
She posted a picture on Twitter in September of herself drawing over a Nike logo on a golf shoe. Bono, who was at a golf tournament for families who have lost members of the armed services at the time, called the tweet “an emotional reaction” to Nike’s use of the phrase “believing in something even if it means sacrificing everything.”
“I regret that at the time I didn’t better clarify my feelings,” Bono said in a statement.
Bono defended her right to express her beliefs, though she later deleted the tweet and the USA Gymnastics board of directors expressed its disappointment while pledging its support.
Not everyone, however, was won over by the surprise decision to hire Bono to help USA Gymnastics navigate its way through the fallout of the Larry Nassar scandal. More than 200 women have come forward over the last two years claiming they were sexually abused by Nassar under the guise of treatment during the former doctor’s time at USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, including current or former members of the organization’s elite program.
Olympic champion Simone Biles, who is among Nassar survivors, quote-tweeted Bono’s photo concerning Kaepernick on Saturday and wrote: “(asterisk)mouth drop(asterisk) don’t worry, it’s not like we needed a smarter usa gymnastics president or any sponsors or anything.”
Biles, a Nike-sponsored athlete who will compete at the 2018 world championships in Qatar next week, said on Monday she felt compelled to speak up.
“Being a Nike athlete, you have to stand up for your brand,” Biles said.
Six-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman, herself a Nassar survivor, has been a strident critic of USA Gymnastics for what she considers to be its continually tone deaf response to herself and other victims of abuse. Shortly after Bono was brought on, she questioned Bono’s association with a law firm that advised the organization on how to handle portions of the Nassar scandal.
Raisman tweeted Tuesday night her objection to Bono was not “personal.”
“The stakes are high in our sport right now, (and) it’s essential new leadership be disconnected from the influences that allowed these terrible things to happen,” Raisman posted.
Bono appeared ready to weather the initial storm, stressing she looked forward to “telling my gymnastics story, my vision for the future of the sport and why I wanted the job.”
It never came close to getting that far, leaving USA Gymnastics on the search for its fourth president in the last 18 months. Steve Penny resigned under pressure from the United States Olympic Committee in March, 2017. Penny’s replacement, Kerry Perry, took over December 1, 2017 but stepped away in September after USOC president Sarah Hirshland said the organization “is struggling to manage its obligations effectively and it is time to consider making adjustments in the leadership.”
USA Gymnastics is facing dozens of civil lawsuits filed by Nassar victims and its long-term viability is uncertain. The board of directors, however, said it is committed to continuing its search for a permanent president.
“We remain steadfast in our efforts to fundamentally transform the organization at all levels to ensure athlete safety and well-being is at the heart of everything we do,” the board said in a statement. “We are also committed to making sure that the focus remains on the athletes.”
Bono said she wanted to be part of the solution. She pointed to her own experiences as a young gymnast, when she says she witnessed “assaulting behavior” by a coach, as a way to help facilitate the change USA Gymnastics is looking for.
“I would have brought a fire in the belly to ensure that no one as taken as I was with gymnastics at that age should have to choose between abuse or ambition, or between properly speaking out and promoting personal success,” Bono said.
The mission ended before it began and USA Gymnastics finds itself leaderless and rudderless once more.