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Law firm concerns factor in Bono’s USA Gymnastics departure

October 17, 2018

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 growing up.

The connection lasted all of four days, and critics cited her involvement with a law firm as a factor driving opposition to her appointment.

Bono stepped down from her post 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. But also criticized was her employment with Faegre Baker Daniels, the firm that had represented USAG during a period when gymnasts were accusing former Dr. Larry Nassar of sexual misconduct. Nassar was later accused of molesting at least 250 young girls and women and sentenced in multiple cases to likely spend the rest of his life in prison.

Bono’s appointment as interim president drew swift negative reactions. Six-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman, herself a Nassar survivor, tweeted, "My teammates & I reported Nassar's abuse to USAG in 2015. We now know USOC & lawyers at Faegre Baker Daniels (Mary Bono's firm) were also told then, yet Nassar continued to abuse children for 13 months!? Why hire someone associated with the firm that helped cover up our abuse?”

In resigning, Bono cited the “personal attacks” in response to her tweet about Kaepernick but also defended her selection to lead USAG and her work with the law firm.

“I proudly stand behind my body of work a Faegre Baker Daniels, and appreciated how much the law firm supported my devoting considerable time to the cause of addition prevention, treatment and recovery,” she said.

After almost 15 years as a member of Congress, Bono joined Faegre Baker Daniels LLP in Washington in March 2013 as a principal and also worked for FaegreBD Consulting, according to her LinkedIn page. That page also lists her as "Semi Retired" as of this month and makes no reference to her brief tenure with USA Gymnastics.

Faegre had removed Bono's profile page as of Wednesday. A firm spokeswoman said Bono resigned her position with Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting in order to assume her new position with USA Gymnastics, and "Her return to the firm is not under discussion at this time." 

USA Gymnastics’ board in a statement said Bono’s resignation was accepted in the best interests of the organization. “We, as a Board, are committed to taking action when we believe a change of course is necessary and to being responsive to our gymnastics community.”

But Bono devoted most of her resignation statement to reaction to a picture she posted 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 “Believe 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 and 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: “*mouth drop* 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.

Raisman 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. She 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.

USA Gymnastics is now 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 Dec. 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.

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