Suburban gymnastics club owner banned by SafeSport from participating in any US Olympic sport

ByBarb Markoff, Christine Tressel, Tom Jones, Maggie Green and Adriana Aguilar and Chuck Goudie WLS logo
Thursday, May 23, 2024
Suburban gymnastics club owner banned by SafeSport from participating in any US Olympic sport
A suburban man was banned for life by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, but he remains listed as an owner of a popular USA Gymnastics member club.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Congress created the U.S. Center for SafeSport after Olympic gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was convicted of sexually abusing athletes for decades. The agency's mission is to prevent abuse and hold those under the U.S. Olympic sports umbrella accountable. A north suburban man was banned for life by SafeSport. Despite the group's disciplinary action against him, Tony Whitaker remains listed as an owner of a popular USA Gymnastics member club in Itasca.

Lindsay says she was 7 years old when Whitaker started abusing her when he was a coach at the now defunct Northern Illinois Academy of Gymnastics in Sycamore.

At her request, we are only using her first name.

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"Tony, who was my coach, would call me in his office...he would take me into the closet where nobody could see. And it just started with like touching over the clothes, and then it would be under the clothes, and then it was even more than that," Lindsay told the I-Team.

Decades later, the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal involving Olympic and Michigan State team doctor, Larry Nassar, broke in 2016. SafeSport was created soon after, with the goal of ending abuse of Olympic affiliated athletes. The Safe Sport Authorization Act was signed into law the following year.

"I think probably one of the most important things that it provided us with the ability to do is to take exclusive jurisdiction over sexual abuse and misconduct, investigate allegations of abuse within an Olympic sport, and ultimately ban or sanction and remove people who were causing harm," said Ju'Riese Colon, U.S. Center for SafeSport CEO.

A Sycamore Police investigation report obtained by the I-Team through a freedom of information request shows SafeSport contacted Lindsay in 2019 about Whitaker.

"Then I gave like the whole story. And then they said, well, they needed to get Sycamore police department involved. The police department reached out to me, I went in, they did a recording of everything that happened," said Lindsay.

SafeSport was formed to eliminate sexual and emotional abuse in amateur sport and hold those under the U.S. Olympic umbrella accountable for their abuse. The I-Team looked at SafeSport's data, that shows complaints have soared-and the group's website reveals disciplinary action taken against offenders.

The police documents show DCFS and the Itasca Police Department were also contacted, and detectives interviewed numerous people.

The DeKalb County State's Attorney's office did not charge Whitaker.

"I believe that prosecuting sexual assault is the single hardest type of case and child sexual assault within that is absolutely the most difficult. So, there is benefit to disclosing what happened to police, even if it's not something that can be charged," said Elizabeth Payne, Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation Legal Director

SafeSport continued to investigate.

According to a USA Gymnastics spokesperson, in February of last year, SafeSport suspended Whitaker from having any affiliation with organizations under the U.S. Olympic umbrella, which includes USA Gymnastics. Soon after, SafeSport deemed him permanently ineligible due to sexual misconduct involving minors. He was added to this searchable public disciplinary database last May.

SafeSport says is uses the "preponderance of evidence" standard, which is met when it is more likely than not that a claim is true, as the burden of proof in its investigations. This differs from the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard used in criminal cases.

GymStars ETC is in Itasca. The website shows Whitaker and his wife listed as co-owners.

According to SafeSport, a permanently ineligible person may not participate in any way with a USA Gymnastics club, which GymStars is a member of. That's because USA Gymnastics is under the Olympic sports umbrella.

Whitaker has not responded to the I-Team's requests for an interview, and did not answer the door at his northwest suburban home after returning from an errand.

Ju'Riese Colon is the CEO of SafeSport. She says the organization has limitations.

"We only have jurisdiction over the Olympic and Paralympic movement and there are a lot of other youth sports organizations out there who don't necessarily fall under our jurisdiction," said Colon. "Parents really need to ask more questions...and understand like who are the people you're leaving your kids with? Have they received the right education around abuse prevention?"

Lindsay says she has struggled for decades but says she hopes sharing her experience will encourage parents to check the database and be more cautious.

"If I can keep somebody else safe, that's my ultimate goal. And if I have to go through some discomfort and some triggers and stuff to do that, then it's totally worth it," said Lindsay.

SafeSport tells the I-Team they do not comment on individual investigations.

Some have criticized the organization for not having enough investigators to carry out its mission, and for not following up to make sure those who have been deemed ineligible are abiding by the ban. SafeSport says once it imposes sanctions, it is the responsibility of the National Governing Bodies (NGBs) and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) to enforce the Center's suspensions and/or sanctions.

The organization says it received about 300 reports of abuse its first year. They are expecting 10,000 this year.