It’s a distressingly familiar tale: renowned asset of a school – star quarterback, prodigal team captain, esteemed professor, you name it – sexually abuses a student. The student complains to the administration. The administration launches an internal investigation on the assault. The student waits. And waits. And waits. And nothing ever comes of it.
To the governing body of the institution, the perks that the assaulter provides are more valuable than the dignity of the victim. Further, it seems that the waves the disciplinary process would make are perceived as being far more destructive than the psychological damage the victim has suffered.
This all-too-recognizable situation reflects the core of the Larry Nassar case; a sensationalized case involving more than 150 young, female athletes who were Nassar’s patients when he was the chief medical coordinator for USA Gymnastics and a faculty member at Michigan State University. While the USA Gymnastics board members have now resigned, this event signifies that atrocities such as this are not only the responsibility of the perpetrator – they are the responsibility of the system that allows this person to act in the first place.
Among the athletes assaulted by Nassar are students at Michigan State University, as well as Olympic champions, such as Aly Raisman and Simone Biles. Most recently, Nassar has been sentenced to 175 years in prison, with the judge declaring a statement that will surely reverberate for decades to come: “I have just signed your death warrant.”
Nassar’s sentencing was the spiritual sister to the entertainment industry’s powerful demonstration at the Golden Globes in the name of the “#MeToo” movement. Much like the women in the entertainment industry – who feared retribution if they reported their abuser – the athletes who were molested by Nassar knew exactly how pivotal he was to their success in the world of gymnastics. For gymnasts, the physical ability to perform is the absolute crux of their career. As a doctor who would help these girls recover from injury and strains, Nassar was painted as an invaluable figure. If girls refused to be treated by him, they would be perceived as difficult.
While the “#MeToo” movement at the Golden Globes and the beginning of the proceedings against Nassar occurred around the same time, the accusations against various figures in the entertainment realm attracted more media coverage than the accusations made by past and present MSU athletes and gymnasts in USA gymnastics. While all survivors of sexual assault should be listened to with equal respect, there was a stark discrepancy between the attention given to Hollywood as opposed to the world of athletics – even though all of the gymnasts and student athletes in the Nassar case were coming forward about the same individual.
Somehow swept under the rug, as well, has been the revelation of the deliberate disregard that USA Gymnastics and MSU displayed in regard to sexual harassment complaints about Nassar. In fact, when one student athlete filed a report stating that she was grotesquely molested by Nassar during a medical examination, MSU responded by telling her that she did not understand the nuances of his medical practice.
This occurred in 2014.
Both student athletes and young Olympic prospects in USA Gymnastics were encouraged by their institutions to trust Nassar absolutely. And these same institutions betrayed these women and girls by turning a blind eye to Nassar’s actions in favor of upholding a reputation. In a word, the people in positions of power are complicit. They are complicit to Larry Nassar’s actions and they are complicit in the silencing of the girls whose reports were disregarded.
Schools and organizations have a moral duty to protect the individuals that they are supposed to serve and they have a responsibility to take these vulnerable individuals seriously, without the assumption that they are crying wolf or attempting to undermine the institution. When reputation outweighs retribution, something has clearly gone horribly awry.
With over 150 girls coming forward with their experiences, it is miserably poetic that nearly each year in Nassar’s 175-year sentence could represent a different girl who he took advantage of.
Photo Credits: Olympic gymnasts, among over a hundred other female athletes, stun the sports world with their testimonies about Larry Nassar. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS