Former U.S. Olympic and national team coach Maggie Haney was suspended by USA Gymnastics on Wednesday for eight years for verbal and emotional abuse following two months of hearings in which Olympic gold medalist Laurie Hernandez testified against her longtime coach and world champion Riley McCusker wrote a letter critical of Haney to the hearing panel, three people familiar with the ruling told the Southern California News Group.
The suspension comes nearly four years after Hernandez first filed a complaint against Haney with a top USA Gymnastics official and marks a dramatic fall from grace for one of the international sport’s brightest coaching stars.
Haney, according to the hearing panel, failed “to provide a safe, positive and healthy environment with a culture of trust and empowerment.”
Haney was stripped of her coaching privileges and USA Gymnastics for eight years. She is prohibited from contacting any of the claimants and cannot attend USA Gymnastics events other than to accompany or watch her daughter compete. She can apply for reinstatement after eight years. If reinstated she will be placed on two years probation.
The hearing panel also found that Haney “engaged in severe aggressive behavior toward a minor that included teasing and ridiculing that was intended to control and diminish another person.”
“USA Gymnastics can confirm that the Safe Sport Hearing related to Maggie Haney has concluded,” USA Gymnastics said in a statement to SCNG. “The independent hearing panel – comprised of three members of the gymnastics community, including an attorney, a club owner, and a former national team athlete – found that Ms. Haney violated the USA Gymnastics Code of Ethical Conduct, Safe Sport Policy, and other policies. As a result, the hearing panel determined that Ms. Haney is suspended from membership, and any coaching of USA Gymnastics athletes or in member clubs, for a period of eight years, effective immediately, followed by a two year probationary period. After the suspension concludes, Ms. Haney may reapply for membership after submitting proof of completing certain specified Safe Sport courses.”
The ruling shows, said Judie Saunders, an attorney for Hernandez and several other alleged victims, “that these are children, even if they’re an elite athlete and the coach doesn’t possess the athlete, they’re not something to be controlled by the coach.
“USA Gymnastics with this decision has made a micro step, nothing more. Look at Simone Biles, they still won’t open the files,” Saunders continued referring to the Olympic champion who has asked USA Gymnastics release files on the Larry Nassar sexual abuse case. Am I celebrating? I would have liked this case to have been handled with the other (sexual, physical and emotional) abuse cases” before USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Center for Safe Sport “so it’s a micro step in the right direction.
Haney is expected to appeal the decision.
“The ruling is regrettable but in no way surprising considering the heavy handed nature of the investigative and hearing process,” said Russell Prince, Haney’s attorney. “There is no fundamental fairness to the manner in which these matters are resolved. Clearly, I would anticipate an arbitration.”
Haney has not responded to multiple requests for comment from SCNG.
The Haney case raised further questions about a generation of American coaches that came of age in the so called Karolyi Era, a period through the late 1990s to 2016 that saw both unprecedented U.S. Olympic and World Championships success under national team directors Bela and Martha Karolyi and the creation of a culture abuse that left young gymnasts vulnerable to predatory coaches, physicians and officials.
Haney, 42, considered one of the world’s top technical coaches, came to global prominence for coaching Hernandez and McCusker at MG Elite Gymnastics in suburban Monmouth Junction, N.J., 45 miles from New York City. But Hernandez and McCusker joined at least a half-dozen families in filing complaints against Haney with USA Gymnastics.
Haney is alleged to have screamed, sworn at, threatened, bullied, and harassed gymnasts on a regular basis, according to USA Gymnastics documents and interviews with six people familiar with the national governing body’s investigation. Haney has also told injured gymnasts to remove boot casts and other protective devices to continue training and competing, according to USA Gymnastics documents and interviews.
Haney supporters, including several NCAA Division I gymnasts, former U.S. national team coaches, and MG Elite athletes and their parents, maintain that she is a tough and demanding coacn, at times abrasive, but not abusive.
Yet even some of Haney’s supporters, while insisting her behavior did not merit a suspension, privately acknowledge some of her coaching methods are no longer acceptable.
USA Gymnastics’ handling of the Haney case also further fueled widespread criticism in the wake of the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal that the organization, driven by Olympic and international success and corporate sponsorship, is more concerned about protecting the reputation of high-profile coaches, officials and the organization than young athletes.
The case also raised questions about the competency of USA Gymnastics under CEO Li Li Leung, the former NBA marketing executive. USA Gymnastics general counsel Mark Busby last week apologized to both sides in the case, acknowledging that the organization made a mistake when it told participants the hearing panel would have ruling on April 22. Officials actually meant April 29 but misread the calendar.
The ruling Wednesday came on the same day as a Facebook Live appearance by Leung and Kim Kranz, USA Gymnastics vice president for athlete health and wellness, with the Positive Coaching Alliance, a national non-profit that promotes creating positive environments in youth sports.The purpose of the event, USA Gymnastics said was “to discuss how we’re working together to improve the gymnastics experience for everyone.”
“I think our sport is very much a growth mindset sport which then allows our athletes to develop in a lot of ways not just specifically mentally as well but it is about embracing that it’s OK to make mistakes, it’s okay to fall down because you get back up and you’ll be stronger for it,” Leung said during the Facebook session in which audience members were encouraged to submit questions.
Marti Reed, a Positive Coaching marketing manager and moderator of the session, did not ask Leung a question submitted about Haney..
USA Gymnastics placed Haney on interim suspension pending the outcome of the hearing during the first hour of the first of 13 days of hearings, February. 3..Under the terms of the measure, Haney was prohibited from “Suspended from All Contact with Minors,” according to USA Gymnastics.
Hernandez reported complaints against Haney to Rhonda Faehn, then-USA Gymnastics senior vice president for the women’s program, shortly after the 2016 Olympic Games. The verbal and emotional abuse by Haney and other coaches at MG Elite continued, according to documents obtained by SCNG and interviews. At least a dozen gymnasts said they were verbally and/or emotionally abused by Haney after Hernandez first complained to USA Gymnastics in 2016.
Gymnasts, some as young 10, were regularly screamed at when they made a mistake in practice or struggled to learn a new skill, according to MG Elite parents. Parents also said they witnessed Haney “fat shame” young girls. Other times gymnasts were kicked out of practice when they disappointed Haney, parents said. Gymnasts who were injured and unable to train or compete were humiliated and bullied by Haney, according to documents and parents.
Some gymnasts were so concerned about being screamed at, bullied or humiliated in front other girls that they suffered anxiety attacks. On one occasion, a young gymnast was so nervous performing an uneven bars routine in front of Haney and Victoria Levine, a coach and co-owner of MG Elite, that she began shaking uncontrollably, according to a parent
“Do you have Tourette’s?” Levine joked, the parent recalled.
Haney and Levine then began laughing at the girl, the parent said.
Levine was placed on an interim suspension by USA Gymnastics last month and prohibited from having any unsupervised contact with minor-age athletes while the organization investigates allegations of verbal and emotional abuse against her.
The Levine investigation was prompted by allegations made by parents of MG Elite gymnasts as well as testimony from USA Gymnastics’ on-going hearing on verbal and emotional abuses against Haney. Levine did not respond to a request for comment.
Under the U.S. Center for SafeSport code it is a “violation for a Participant to engage in emotionaland/or physical misconduct, when that misconduct occurs within a context that is reasonably related to sport, which includes, without limitation: 1. Emotional Misconduct, 2. Physical Misconduct, 3. Bullying Behaviors, 4. Hazing, 5. Harassment.”
Emotional abuse, according to the code, includes “(a) Verbal Acts, (b) Physical Acts, (c) Acts that Deny Attention or Support, (d) Criminal Conduct, and/or (e) Stalking. Emotional Misconduct is determined by the objective behaviors,”
Verbal acts are defined as “Repeatedly and excessively verbally assaulting or attacking someone personally in a manner that serves no productive training or motivational purpose.”
The verbal and emotional abuse and the bullying left gymnasts despondent, depressed, even suicidal, parents said. At least two gymnasts told their parents they hated themselves.
Other parents said Haney herself threatened to commit suicide if their high-profile daughters left MG Elite.
Hernandez won a gold medal in the team competition at the 2016 Olympic Games and added a silver medal on the balance beam. She took more than a year off after the Rio de Janeiro Games, appearing on “Dancing With the Stars.”
She returned to gymnastics in 2018 and is training at Gym-Max in Costa Mesa.. Hernandez has participated in at least two U.S. national team training camps in recent months in which Haney has been present. She was invited but declined to attend a national team selection camp in February after the Haney hearing began.
McCusker won a gold medal with the U.S. squad in the team competition at the 2018 World Championships and is considered a contender for multiple medals at next summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.
McCusker’s relationship with Haney began unraveling during the FIG World Cup individual all-around March 23, 2019, in Birmingham, England.
Haney allegedly berated McCusker for a poor performance on the vault, according to two people familiar with the investigation. McCusker finished second to Russia’s Aliya Mustafina despite finishing ahead of Mustafina in three of the four events. But McCusker’s vault score of 13.133 was 1.233 less than the Russian’s and was the difference in the final standings.
McCusker’s parents repeatedly raised concerns about Haney with Tom Forster, USA Gymnastics women’s national team coordinator, and Annie Heffernon, the organization’s vice president for women’s gymnastics. Forster has been aware of concerns McCusker’s had since at least the spring of 2019 and had intervened on behalf of McCusker during interactions with Haney at U.S. national team camps, according to documents obtained by SCNG.
McCusker, however, continued to train with Haney. She missed the World Championships last fall because of a muscle ailment frequently linked to overtraining.
McCusker recovered and resumed training with Haney but left MG Elite shortly after Haney’s interim suspension. She is currently training at Arizona Sunrays in Phoenix, where she is coached by Brian Carey, father of multiple World Championships medalist Jade Carey.