It was a delicacy of every Summer Olympics, from Barcelona to Atlanta to Beijing, sitting inside a packed arena and covering women’s gymnastics. The performances were inspiring. The atmosphere was magical. The TV coverage was mesmerizing, they’d say back home.
There even was some post-Cold War conflict to it all — our way versus their way, our hugs against their snarls. Me? Weary of the bats-and-balls routine in testosterone-drowned Chicago sports, I was only happy to write columns in these far-flung places, even as male colleagues chided the sport at the late-night hospitality bar.
Now, looking back, how could something so fun and uniquely American turn out so sick?
If the trial and conviction of Dr. Larry Nassar brought unspeakable stories of predatory behavior, no one could be ready for what came next. The coach of the 2012 U.S. Olympic women’s team, John Geddert, was hit Thursday morning with 24 felony charges — including sexual assault and human trafficking — all associated with his hellhole of a training gym outside Lansing, Mich., where Nassar would stand at a table and sexually abuse young female athletes while believing in his warped mind that he was medically examining them.
By mid-afternoon, Geddert had killed himself, his body found in a rest area along Interstate 96, not far from the Twistars USA Gymnastics complex in Dimondale. “This is a tragic end to a tragic story for everyone involved,” said Dana Nessel, the Michigan attorney general.
If Geddert had chosen to live and fight the charges, his attorneys probably would have defended him as a 63-year-old man from the old school of coaching. It is the very world, twisted and savage, that the 21st century is dedicated to purging forever, thank God. What he viewed as authoritarian instruction and tough love actually was human abuse of the worst kind, recruiting female aspirants to his building and charging high prices to make them suffer. He was partners in slime with Nassar, loyal to a fault for more than a quarter-century, lying that he had no knowledge of Nassar’s crimes when police say otherwise.
In 2017, Geddert went on the record with that claim, telling the Wall Street Journal, “I would have immediately acted on any suggestion that any of our gymnasts were being — or had been — abused by anyone.” But in Thursday’s court documents, Geddert was accused of digitally penetrating a girl between ages 13 and 16 in January 2012, during his time as the Olympic coach. Guilt by association sometimes isn’t fair or accurate, but in this case, prosecutors had no choice but to pursue Geddert. The entire culture of USA Gymnastics was corrupt, including the cover-up attempts of former CEO Steve Penny, and the illness wasn’t restricted to Nassar.
Human trafficking might sound overly prosecutorial and out of place. In the context of Geddert operating his horrid business for decades, then cashing in with a prestigious Olympic assignment in London that led to gold medals for the legendary Fierce Five, it’s a proper definition by today’s sensibilities. “We think of it predominantly as affecting people of color or those without means to protect themselves … but honestly it can happen to anyone, anywhere,” Nessel said in court hours before Geddert’s suicide. “Young, impressionable women may at times be vulnerable and open to trafficking crimes, regardless of their stature in the community or the financial well-being of their families.
“It is alleged that John Geddert used force, fraud and coercion against the young athletes that came to him for gymnastics training, for financial benefit for him. The victims suffer from disordered eating, including bulimia and anorexia, suicide attempts and attempts at self harm, excessive physical conditioning, repeatedly being forced to perform even when injured, extreme emotional abuse and physical abuse, including sexual assault. Many of these victims still carry these scars from this behavior to this day.”
That, we know. It was apparent during an unforgettable courtroom scene in 2018, when Nassar’s victims addressed him, one by one, before he was locked away for life in a Florida federal prison. Geddert, too, thought he was doing nothing wrong, telling the Journal then, “I am known and respected for my high expectations and high standards. I am a passionate coach who wants our gymnasts to realize their potential. There are times, in any competitive sport, when the intensity proves challenging — sometimes for the gymnasts, sometimes for the adults, and sometimes for both.”
One man’s intensity is a victim’s terror. Suicide only rips open the wounds.
What’s heartening is that already, after all the tears and nightmares, there is light. The American dreamers have carried on. The Final Five, led by superstar Simone Biles, successfully defended the team title at the 2016 Games in Brazil. Just before the pandemic, Biles made headlines after USA Gymnastics celebrated her 23rd birthday, tweeting, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY to the most decorated gymnast of all time, @simonebiles! We know you will only continue to amaze us and make history!” Her response was a perfect 10.
“How about you amaze me and do the right thing… have an independent investigation,” Biles clapped back.
Instead, there were 24 felony charges. And one dead man at a rest stop. “His suicide is an admission of guilt that the entire world can see,” said Sarah Klein, a longtime student of Geddert who was assaulted by Nassar, in an Associated Press interview.
We only can hope for the sport’s sake that Biles, pandemic permitting, will compete with her teammates this summer in Tokyo. Without Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, she is the face of the Games with four Olympic gold. “She’s just above anything else that we have seen in the sport,” the legendary Nadia Comaneci said.
“Gymnastics,” IOC president Thomas Bach said, “has all the ingredients to be … a top Olympic event in Tokyo.”
Yet, nearing her 24th birthday, she likely won’t have another Olympic shot if the 2020/2021 Games are canceled. Said Biles, in a recent NBC interview: “Hopefully the Olympics can still be put on, even if it means we’re in a bubble. I’ll basically do anything at this moment. It just is a matter of time until we hear what the Olympic Committee has to say and what their precautions are going to be going forward. But whatever they say they want us to do, I’m in 100 percent.”
At least there is hope that closure is near. For now, many published stories about John Geddert’s death are accompanied by a cautionary note. This piece will end with the same note.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or is in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Asking The Right Questions Helps Create Interesting Content
Asking questions that can get a subject to talk about their feelings is a much better way to get an interesting answer.
When ESPN’s Mike Greenberg interviewed Paolo Banchero in the lead-up to the NBA lottery on Tuesday, he asked what I’ve concluded is the single most maddening question that can be asked of any athlete preparing for any draft.
“Why do you believe you should be No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft?” Greenberg said.
Before I point out exactly why I have such a visceral reaction to such a harmless question, I want to point out the positives because Greenberg’s question avoids some of the most common pitfalls:
1) It is an actual question. That’s not as automatic as you think given the number of poor souls who are handed a microphone and say to their subject, “Talk about (whatever issue they want a quote or a sound bite on).” This is the mark of an amateur, creating the opening for an uncooperative subject to slam the door by saying, “What do you want me to say?”
2) Greenberg’s question can not be answered with a yes or a no. Questions that start with the word “Can you …” or “Did you …” may sound like they’re tough questions for the subject, but they’re actually fairly easy if the subject wants to offer an answer. Now, most interview subjects won’t take that one-word exit, but some will in a touchy situation.
The problem with Greenberg’s question has to do with the result. Why do we ask questions of the athletes we cover? Seriously. That’s not rhetorical. What’s the goal? It’s to get interesting answers. At least that’s the hope whether it’s for a quote that will be included in a story, a sound bite to be replayed later or — like in this situation — during an interview that is airing live. The question should be engineered to elicit interesting content, and there was very little chance that the question Greenberg asked Banchero was going to produce anything close to that.
I know that because I have heard some version of this question asked hundreds of times. That’s not an exaggeration. I attended the NFL scouting combine annually for a number of years, and if a player wasn’t asked why he should be the first overall pick, he’d get asked why he should be a first-round pick or why he should be one of the first players chosen at his position. Never — in all that time — have I ever heard what would be considered an interesting or informative answer. In my experience, players tend to talk in incredibly general terms about their own abilities and then seek to compliment their peers in an effort to avoid coming off as cocky.
Here’s how Banchero answered Greenberg’s question: “Yeah, thank you all for having me, first off., I feel like I’m the number one pick in the draft because I’m the best overall player. I feel like I check all the boxes whether it’s being a great teammate, being the star player or doing whatever the coach needs. I’ve been a winner my whole life. Won everywhere I’ve went, and when I get to the NBA, that’s going to be the same goal for me. So just combining all those things, and knowing what I have to work on to be better is a formula for me.”
There’s nothing wrong with answer just as there was nothing wrong with the question. It’s just that both are really, really forgettable. ESPN did put a clip on YouTube with the headline “Paolo Banchero: I’m the best overall player in the NBA Draft | NBA Countdown” but I think I’m the only who will remember it and that’s only because I’m flapping my arms and squawking not because there was anything bad per se, but because there was nothing really good, either.
First of all, I’m not sure why it matters if Banchero thinks he should be the number one overall pick. He’s not going to be making that decision. The team that holds the top draft pick — in this case Orlando — is. Here’s a much better question: “How important is it for you to be the number one overall pick?” This would actually give an idea of the stakes for Banchero. What does this actually mean to him? Asking him why he should go number one is asking Banchero to tell us how others should see him. Asking Banchero how important it would be go number one is asking him to tell us about his feelings, something that’s much more likely to produce an interesting answer.
The point here isn’t to question Greenberg’s overall competence because I don’t. He’s as versatile a host as there is in the game, and anyone else in the industry has something to learn from the way he teases ahead to content. What I want to point out not just how we fail to maximize opportunities to generate interesting content, but why. Interviews are a staple of the sports-media industry. We rely on these interviews as both primary content that will be consumed directly, and as the genesis for our own opinions and reaction yet for all that importance we spend very little time thinking about the kind of answer this question is likely to produce.
The Client Just Said YES, Now What?
We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES.
One of the most significant moments in radio sales is when the client agrees to your proposal and says YES. But, when they do say YES, do you know what’s next? We better have an answer!
We spend a lot of time getting ready for clients with research, spec spots (thank you, radio sales trainer Chris Lytle-go to 22:30), proposals, and meetings. All of our focus is on getting the client to say YES. We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES. For example, getting newer sales reps to sell annual advertising contracts would be ideal for building a list. They would have less pressure, more job security, and could spend more time making the advertising work for their clients. But, since most newer reps don’t know the business yet, they don’t bite off more than they can chew and sell a package of the month.
When a client says yes to the weight loss promotion, it’s pretty clear how to write the ads, what the promos will say, etc. BUT, if a newer sales rep starts selling annual contracts to a direct local client who needs a resource, how will that work? Let’s make sure we paint the picture right upfront. More experienced reps know that they need to assume the client will say YES to the weight loss promo and have a plan accordingly.
They have the next steps to building copy and promos, a credit app or credit card payment form, and any other detail the client must provide. But, when we ask a direct local client for an annual advertising contract, watch out! You have just made a partnership. Why not lay out, upfront, what that will look like. And I understand not every local client needs the same level of service.
A car dealer has the factories pushing quarterly promotions, agencies producing ads, and in-house marketing directors pulling it all together sometimes. Other clients need your help in promotions, copywriting, or idea generation. Make a plan upfront with your client about when you will meet to discuss the next quarter’s ad program. Include your station’s promotions or inventory for football and basketball season, a summer NTR event, digital testimonials with on-air talent, etc., in your annual proposal. Go out as far as you can and show what you have to offer to the client and how you can execute it. This exercise is good for you and, once mastered, guides the client on how you will take care of them after the sale. It also opens your eyes to what it takes to have a successful client partnership inside and outside the station.
Media Noise – Episode 74
This week, Demetri is joined by Ian Casselberry and Ryan Brown. Demetri talks about the NBA Draft getting an ABC simulcast, Ian talks about Patrick Beverley’s breakout week on TV, and Ryan reminds us that Tom Brady may be the star, but Kevin Burkhardt is the story we shouldn’t forget.