The Larry Nassar case should fuel serious discussion about how to stop sexual abuse
Dr. Larry Nassar has been called “a monster.” No objections here.
More than 80 girls and women have accused Nassar of sexual abuse. The alleged crimes occurred when Nassar treated young, female athletes who competed for USA Gymnastics, Michigan State University, and Twistars youth gymnastics club. It’s possible Nassar sexually abused at least one gymnast on every US Olympic team from 1996 through 2016. Equally horrifying, the alleged abuse occurred under the guise of medical treatments.
On Thursday, USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny resigned, in large part, because of how poorly his organization dealt with Nassar. USA Gymnastics is a defendant in a federal lawsuit alleging that Nassar repeatedly sexually assaulted 18 women and that USA Gymnastics, Michigan State, and Twistars negligently allowed the abuse to happen.
Multiple women who competed in the USA Gymnastics system have shared their stories of sexual abuse. Jamie Dantzscher was a member of the bronze medal-winning US gymnastics team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In a recent “60 Minutes” interview, she said Nassar “would put his fingers inside of me and move my leg around, he would tell me I was going to feel a pop, and that that would put my hips back and help my back pain.”
Other women have described similar experiences, recalling vaginal or anal penetration without consent and without Nassar wearing gloves. The so-called treatments reportedly lasted for 20 to 40 minutes.
It’s easy to become overwhelmed and distracted by the monstrous details of the allegations against Nassar. It’s also easy to put Nassar in the category of former Penn State assistant football coach and convicted serial child molester Jerry Sandusky. It’s hard to turn away and remember the problem goes far beyond one doctor or one coach who victimized dozens over decades.
But attention paid to Nassar shouldn’t narrow the conversation about sexual abuse and sports to extreme cases. The shock and disgust over how Nassar allegedly treated female athletes should fuel serious discussion about how to stop it. If the shock and disgust prompts action by sports governing bodies, university athletic departments, youth teams, concerned parents, and state attorneys general, even better.
“This is an opportunity to put in place better practices, better policies, and better education about the problem,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, whose Michigan counterpart is taking on Nassar. “Sandusky and Nassar were enabled and supported. They operated within a broader context. And we’ve got to pay attention to the broader context.”
Exactly. The sexual abuse of young athletes is a systemic issue that sport organizations, teams, and universities are ill-equipped to handle. More than that, they offer environments attractive to sexual abusers with naïve, eager-to-please athletes and adults blinded by wins or national team affiliations or profits or prestige or all of the above. While sexual abuse is a societal issue not exclusively a sports issue, road trips for games, remote training camps, medical treatments, and private coaching sessions provide conditions ripe for abuse.
How widespread is the sexual abuse of young athletes? Since many victims don’t want to talk about it or don’t recognize abuse for what it is, it’s hard to know. Initially, women digitally penetrated by Nassar thought they had received medically necessary treatments. And complaints by athletes and parents were met with reassurances that Nassar’s methods constituted legitimate medical techniques. That’s also the doctor’s defense as he faces multiple sex crimes-related criminal charges and civil lawsuits.
So, what to do? Let’s start with better education about sexual abuse, especially since coaches and doctors can become trusted mentors, sometimes even friends and confidants. Nassar often played the role of empathetic friend to teenagers immersed in the high-pressure, hypercompetitive world of elite gymnastics
More often than not, coaches, doctors, and athletic trainers have the best of intentions. But sometimes they clearly don’t. Young athletes need to learn how to recognize the difference and how to combat the power dynamics that sexual predators exploit. Above all, they need to feel comfortable speaking up.
Kayla Harrison, a two-time Olympic judo gold medalist and child sexual abuse survivor, believes better education is critical. Before she started training in Wakefield, she was abused by a former coach. The abuse started when Harrison was 13 years old and continued for three years. “There’s all this material on stranger danger and saying no to drugs and safe sex and bullying,” she said. “But when I was in school there was no educational material on what you do if someone close to you tries to take advantage of you.”
Using her own story as an educational tool, Harrison hopes to change that and added, “We’re going to explain, ‘This is what grooming looks like. This is where you can get help. This is who you should talk to.’ ”
The educational outreach and awareness raising should also include parents, coaches, school administrators, and others involved in youth athletics. They help create what Healey calls the “broader context.” By helping people in the broader context better understand and better handle sexual abuse, hopefully you change the culture that left complaints against Nassar largely ignored and that allowed Nassar to allegedly prey on victims for 20 years.
Female athletes need to feel empowered, not dismissed, when it comes to reporting sexual abuse. In the Nassar case, they were the opposite of empowered.
According to lawsuits, in the late 1990s there were complaints against Nassar from the parent of a Twistars gymnast, as well as a softball player and a field hockey player at Michigan State. In response, the lawsuits say, there was no follow-up with the parent and the players were told Nassar was a renowned doctor who knew how to properly treat patients. And it wasn’t until earlier this month, six months after the start of a criminal investigation, that the Michigan State athletic director wrote to female student-athletes who attended the university while Nassar worked there. The athletic director’s letter urged female athletes to report “any suspected wrongdoing.”
It’s painful to imagine what might have happened if the culture around sexual abuse was different, if Michigan State and others who enabled and supported Nassar had given more consideration to the earliest complaints.
Maybe a special database of coaches and athletic trainers might help. It would be a place where athletes and their parents could file complaints about inappropriate behavior when it was dismissed or ignored elsewhere. Healey called such a database “an interesting idea,” though legally tricky to establish. Complaints would need to be vetted. One vengeful parent or athlete upset about playing time could ruin the database for everyone by making false claims.
Perhaps the most effective way to change the culture around sports and sexual abuse, especially at universities and other insular organizations, is going after people who mishandle complaints. Former Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and onetime Penn State vice president Gary Schultz recently pleaded guilty to mishandling the allegations against Sandusky. They could be sentenced to five years in prison for misdemeanor child endangerment.
If that doesn’t strike fear in everyone responsible for the safety and well-being of young athletes and prompt better practices, better policies, and better education, we need to find other strategies that will. Pushing aside the problem for decades isn’t an option. And it never should have been.
Fair Play is a regular column that explores the challenges girls and women face in today’s sports world, as well as their athletic accomplishments. Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.