By Nancy Armour |
USA Gymnastics is turning to the NBA to save itself.
The beleaguered organization announced Tuesday it has hired Li Li Leung, the NBA’s vice president for global partnerships, as its new president and CEO. She will be USA Gymnastics’ fourth CEO in the past 23 months.
“I was in a great position at the NBA and I wasn’t looking to leave. Gymnastics has been a huge part of my life and, to this day, I’m still embedded in this sport,” Leung said on a conference call. “It really broke my heart to see where the sport was. It compelled me to step forward.
“We can do better for the community and the sport,” she added.
USA Gymnastics has struggled to move beyond the crisis sparked by the revelation that longtime team physician Larry Nassar had molested more than 350 girls and young women, including Olympic champions Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney, Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman. The federation has been criticized by survivors, federal lawmakers and independent investigators Ropes & Gray for fostering a culture that silenced athletes and allowed predators like Nassar to thrive.
It faces lawsuits from survivors as well as an effort by the U.S. Olympic Committee to decertify USA Gymnastics as the sport’s national governing body, and has lost all of its major sponsors. It filed for bankruptcy in December, bringing a halt to all legal proceedings, though Leung said one of her first priorities will be to reach a settlement with survivors.
She also said she’s already spoken with USOC CEO Sarah Hirshland, and said “both sides are committed to work closely to resolved decertification.”
In a statement, Hirshland expressed cautious optimism at Leung’s hiring.
“American gymnasts deserve the support of a world-class organization and securing top-level management is one of the most important aspects of USA Gymnastics’ way forward,” Hirshland said. “Li Li Lueng is an accomplished professional, a former gymnast herself, and committed to transforming the culture of the sport.
“I’m very hopeful that Li Li’s combination of experience and desire to lead will be a positive force for change in the lives of gymnasts all over the country.”
Said NBA commissioner Adam Silver, “While it’s a big loss for the NBA, we’re happy for Li Li. USA Gymnastics is gaining a passionate and skilled executive who’s ready for the challenge.”
Leung’s resume alone makes her a more promising choice than the last two CEOs, who were either in over their head (Kerry Perry) or tone deaf (Mary Bono). Leung was a competitive gymnast, part of the U.S. team for the Junior Pan American Games in 1988 and a Michigan team that won four Big Ten titles.
She coached while in graduate school at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, then worked in marketing for Helios Partners, including managing client service teams for sponsors at the Beijing Olympics. She joined the NBA in 2015, and has been responsible for helping grow the league’s corporate sponsors.
While Leung’s marketing experience will be key in luring sponsors back to a brand that has become toxic despite being one of the most popular Olympic sports, she said that won’t be her immediate focus. Her priorities when she starts next month will be settling the lawsuits, working with the USOC and implementing recommendations from the Deborah Daniels report.
She also plans to meet with survivors and current athletes. That includes Biles, who is both the federation’s most bankable star and most powerful critic. USA Gymnastics only stopped holding camps at the Karolyi ranch, where some of Nassar’s abuse occurred, after Biles said she did not want to go back there, and her criticisms of both Perry and Bono contributed to their downfalls.
“We need to get our house in order first,” Leung said. “Once we get our house in order, once we have a strong foundation, then we can start speaking with partners.”
While Perry and Bono talked of creating an “athlete-centric” organization, it always sounded more like a buzzword than a belief. But it sounds more sincere coming from Leung, given her background. She began gymnastics when she was 7, and trained for most of her elite career at North Stars Gymnastics Academy in Boonton, N.J.
As she read the Ropes & Gray report, which detailed the failures of both USA Gymnastics and the USOC to keep predators like Nassar out of the sport, Leung said she identified with the powerlessness expressed by the athletes.
“There was section in there about gymnasts having suffered silently, gymnasts having sacrificed their childhood, gymnasts competing on broken bones,” Leung said. “As I was reading that, I was actually feeling like I was reading my memoir.
“I too, to some degree, am a recovering gymnast.”
She spoke of the mental toughness the sport requires, and needing to find healthier ways to achieve it – especially because kids start the sport at such a young age.
“Athlete safety will be paramount to what we do,” Leung said. “When I say safety, I’m talking about emotional, physical and mental well-being. I’m talking about the whole package.”
Leung knows that righting USA Gymnastics will not be easy, calling it “a tall mountain.” But she believes in the sport, and believes her experience – both professionally and as an athlete – will enable her to do it.
“I wouldn’t have taken this job if didn’t think I could be successful in it,” Leung said.
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.