The latest chapter in the nation’s overdue examination of the abusive power and control men exercise over women came to a conclusion in a Michigan courtroom last week when former U.S. women’s gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison.
The repudiation of his repulsive behavior followed harrowing accounts by more than 150 girls and women who were sexually abused by Nassar. But putting Nassar away for the rest of his life, however satisfying, does not solve this festering problem.
It’s not just Nassar, it’s not just gymnastics, and it’s not just sports.
Sexual abuse scandals have shaken the arts, the media, government, business, the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts. But the problem in sports is particularly instructive.
Nearly 300 coaches and officials associated with the organizations that govern Olympic sports have been publicly accused of sex crimes since the early 1980s. More than 175 individuals have been convicted. More cases have likely gone unreported.
The spotlight on sports last glared this intently in 2012, when former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was found guilty on 45 counts of sexually abusing young boys. The case raised the question of who else, especially legendary head coach Joe Paterno, knew what was going on and failed to report it.
Nassar’s actions, too, were despicable. But he also wasn’t the only deplorable actor in this scandal. At least 14 officials at Michigan State University, where Nassar treated athletes from many sports as a faculty member, knew of allegations against him, some dating back to 1997. The U.S. Olympic Committee and the NCAA also were slow to respond to his misconduct.
USA Gymnastics, the sport’s national governing body, covered up accusations against Nassar and other officials and coaches and it pressured athletes to stay silent, allowing officials to move from one program to the next, much as the Catholic Church did with its priests. The Indianapolis Star found in August 2016 that 368 gymnasts over a 20-year period had alleged some kind of sexual abuse by coaches, gym owners or other adults involved in gymnastics and a month later revealed Nassar’s culpability. Despite those disclosures, USA Gymnastics tried to keep the cover-up going, requiring Olympian McKayla Maroney to not speak about her accusations against Nassar as part of a $1.25 million settlement. Whom were they protecting other than themselves?
Maroney even faced a $100,000 fine if she violated that, and was released from that agreement days ago only after model Chrissy Tiegen publicly offered to pay the fine for Maroney.
The abuse was horrific enough. The abandonment of these girls and young women by the individuals and institutions responsible for protecting them is disgusting. Nassar’s victims included some of America’s most renowned athletes — gold medal winners Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Jordan Wieber and Maroney. Raisman nailed it when she said that USA Gymnastics was more concerned with its reputation, the medals its young women can win, and the money it can make from those triumphs than with the welfare of its athletes.
Gymnastics is not unique in that way. The governing bodies in swimming, taekwondo, rhythmic gymnastics, speed skating and judo also have faced accusations of mishandling abuse complaints.
The lessons are clear. We need a universal code of ethics and conduct that requires institutions and organizations in the sports world and outside it to have clear, strong and tough policies for dealing with sexual abuse. It should be the duty of anyone in a supervisory role over a child to report claims of abuse to law enforcement. Internal disciplinary processes that result in sanctions must be made public. Confidential settlements should be prohibited. Each organization has a responsibility to educate all of its members, adults and children, about sexual abuse and how it can occur.
Bipartisan calls in Congress for an investigation into how USA Gymnastics allowed Nassar unsupervised access to its gymnasts are welcome. But don’t stop with gymnastics. Cast a wide net. Federal and state authorities must examine Michigan State’s shoddy oversight of Nassar, and the alleged suppression by several university departments of information about sexual assault allegations against the football and men’s basketball teams. And the House should pass legislation approved by the Senate in November that would require anyone affiliated with an amateur sports organization to report suspected sexual abuse to authorities within 24 hours.
Parents can learn, too. Many mothers and fathers of Nassar’s victims question how they missed what was happening to their daughters. Many were present during the treatments, as Nassar positioned his body to hide his abuse. Ask questions. Stay involved. And listen. Many athletes abused by Nassar did not feel empowered or comfortable enough to say what was happening to them, and some were not believed when they did speak up.
Sports is tough business, and unique in many ways. Athletes single-mindedly pursue winning. Coaches, trainers and doctors have great power over youngsters who desperately seek approval. Athletes are taught to tolerate pain and discomfort in silence. Training is long and isolated, especially in individual sports like gymnastics. Each of those factors is taken to extremes in the go-for-the-gold obsessiveness of Olympic sports. The unholy mix leaves children vulnerable to those in control.
The voices of the women abused for two decades by Larry Nassar should force all of us to ask and answer:
At what price success?
At what cost silence?