The gymnasts’ parable

Doug Samuelson

The office conversation about the Super Bowl, played the previous day, was finally winding down. As usual, there were a few complaints about allegedly incorrect officiating and odd play calls. This year, though, there was also some discussion of the league’s - and other authorities’ - apparent tendency to understate the risks of injury to players.

“There’s a foundation, led by former players, lobbying to get tackle football banned for kids under 13,” Joe pointed out, “but even school districts don’t seem to want to do it. How many more of these CTE cases do they need? The NFL and the big-time college conferences check players for concussions, but nobody checks players, especially young kids, for possible damage from repeated less violent hits. That’s true even though now there’s research indicating that the number of hits is more important than the severity. And it has a worse effect on younger people.”

“At least the NFL is doing something,” Sheila countered. “Where are the policy changes from the NHL, the boxing federations, Mixed Martial Arts and NASCAR? And how about the way USA Gymnastics protected that doctor who was sexually abusing young girl gymnasts? Doesn’t any organization take responsibility for endangering its people?”

Barry smiled a bit sourly. “Not all that often, I’d say. But I suspect the former gymnasts will end up owning USA Gymnastics by the time the court cases are done,” he said. “I don’t imagine that association has anywhere near enough liability insurance. Then we’ll see whether the women protect their younger colleagues. I’m not sure which way I’d bet.”

Sheila was indignant. “Why wouldn’t they?” she demanded.

Barry replied, “Remember ‘Animal Farm’? Lots of organizations start out with equality and cooperation, but they evolve into self-protection for the top managers. And when you think about how it happens, it’s logical, and hard to prevent. People get invested in the reputation of the organization and want to protect it from any kind of harm, including legal problems and bad publicity. And besides, they believe that what the organization does is mostly good, so they have a hard time accepting that it did or condoned something bad.”

“But why didn’t the parents do more to force the issue?” Sheila insisted. “Don’t you think families would be more involved from now on?”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Barry shrugged. “You have to remember that these athletes, like a lot of young top-level athletes, get to the top by immersing themselves in a ‘hothouse’ training environment, away from their families, away from most friends, away from most activities. They get used to doing whatever their coaches and trainers tell them.

“And,” Barry added, “you don’t get to succeed at that level of sports, any sports, without a really high pain tolerance. Remember Kerri Strug, the girl who landed the vault that won the team gold medal for the U.S. in 1996? How she landed it on one foot, after a bad injury on her first vault?”

The others nodded.

Barry said, “She was on ‘The Tonight Show’ shortly after the Olympics. Jay Leno asked her, ‘I heard or read somewhere that you heard this loud crack from your ankle when you landed that first vault. Didn’t that tell you something serious was wrong?’ And Kerri Strug, calm as could be, replied, ‘Gymnasts hear pops and cracks all the time.’ Now she’s out on the circuit as a motivational speaker, encouraging people to work through adversity to pursue their passions. I’m guessing the parents mostly bought into this approach, too.

“My daughter took years of ballet,” Barry continued. “I remember one of her doctors telling her, ‘Look, let’s be realistic. Dance careers usually end in injury. Major dance careers end in major injury. If you just have to dance, you keep doing it working through pain until you simply can’t any more. Look at the great retired dancers who appear at awards ceremonies and such events. Most of them need canes to walk. Get the picture?’ And that, by the way, is why eventually my daughter and I had a sad conversation in which she decided, with my strong encouragement, to give up competitive dancing.”

“Sounds like a good choice,” Sheila acknowledged. “You have to balance attaining your goals against new information about what that might cost.”

“Yeah,” Barry smiled, a bit more grimly. “Now let’s try telling that to our political leaders. With all due respects to Vince Lombardi, who’s famous quote, ‘Winning is the only thing,’ might be a good value to build a football team around, but in a professional association or community group, excessive competition and defensive management can be fatal, with lots of bad consequences for people in the organization. And it’s a really harmful core value when you’re trying to run a whole society and leaders decide ‘my group simply has to win.’ How many times do we have to see it before we recognize the pattern?”

“But what can we do about it?” Joe asked.

“I’m not entirely sure,” Barry replied somberly, “but I’d start with what the experts on domestic abuse I know have told me: The first step to opposing abuse is to be quite sure that it really is abuse, and you really don’t deserve it. Get out of there, any way you can! If you can’t get out, enlist allies and organize resistance. Don’t let yourself get talked into believing you somehow asked for it. And when you’re in a situation where you have the power, don’t do unto others what you didn’t like having done to you! And if people complain about how they’re being treated, pay attention!”  ORMS

Doug Samuelson ( is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc., a small R&D and consulting company in Annandale, Va.