USA Gymnastics president's rationale for why she wasn't abused by Larry Nassar sparks criticism

Host Danica Patrick appears with the winners of the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, at the ESPY Awards at the Microsoft Theater on Wednesday, July 18, 2018, in Los Angeles. More than 140 survivors of sexual abuse by a former team doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University joined hands on stage to be honored with the award. (Photo by Phil McCarten/Invision/AP)
The gymnasts who were assaulted by Larry Nassar won the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 2018 ESPY Awards. (Photo by Phil McCarten/Invision/AP)

Li Li Leung was appointed in February as USA Gymnastics’ fourth president and CEO in 23 months.

The organization is still reckoning with how to right itself after the Larry Nassar scandal and Leung provides experience in both business, previously serving as a vice president in the NBA, and gymnastics, a sport in which she competed from the youth to collegiate levels.

But a poor choice of words and clarification has brought criticism for Leung after comments made to the “Today” show.

Leung tells why she wasn’t abused

Leung was a member of the U.S. junior national training team, representing the country in the 1988 Junior Pan American Games, and went on to compete at the University of Michigan.

In a clip posted Tuesday night by “Today” as a tease for Wednesday’s morning show, Leung said she was seen by Nassar as a 16-year-old gymnast after a knee injury but was not abused by the physician.

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“The reason why I wasn’t abused by him is because my coach was by my side when he saw me,” she said in the full five-minute interview posted Wednesday. “I was seen by him in a public setting. So I understand what the setting needs to be like in order to ensure safety for our athletes.”

Criticism follows for wrong words

Leung was criticized on social media for her remarks, which some called a “slap in the face” to the survivors. Most noted that gymnasts had coaches or parents in the room with them when the assault happened.

“Quit perpetuating this myth that because someone is with you, you are safe,” one person wrote on Twitter.

“Li Li Leung was apparently a lucky one,” another person wrote. “So sorry that he abused my daughter and I WAS in the room and that seems inconvenient for you.”

Nassar was able to assault hundreds of women over decades due to cover ups at the organizational level as well as warnings that if a gymnast were to report she’d face “serious consequences.” Most consequential, as detailed in a November 2018 feature by The Cut, was his ability to deceive coaches, parents, fellow doctors, athletes, Olympic gatekeepers and law enforcement.

Leung apologies for not clarifying

Leung quote-tweeted the NBC News PR video with an apology Wednesday morning.

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Leung’s focus moving forward

Leung is in her first months leading the organization after working as the NBA’s vice president for global partnerships. When she was hired in February she said she planned to meet with survivors and current athletes, including superstar Simone Biles.

Leung told “Today” she hasn’t yet spoken with the athletes, but has talked with Biles’ mother while the gymnast was out competing. She also has yet to speak with Aly Raisman, who gave a short interview to the show in which she again stressed the gymnasts’ desire for a full independent investigation.

“You can’t say there has been changes until we really make sure all the people who covered it up are gone,” she said.

Leung said she can’t just contact the gymnasts while litigation is going on, but she has made the request through the council. The lawsuits from survivors remain at the top of her list.

"First and foremost my priority in terms of coming to a fair and full resolution with the survivors. That is my utmost priority,” she said.

Leung told “Today” her second focus is outreach to the community, including coaches and parents, to “understand their perspective.” USAG faces potential decertification from the U.S. Olympic Committee. It signaled it wasn’t concerned its governing status would be taken away by announcing the 2020 team trials Tuesday.

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