“Predators aren’t just strangers. They can be highly educated. They can be very well-respected in the community. It could be a family member, it could be a family friend” (Aly Raisman, Olympic gold medalist, CBS).
Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman knows all too well that pedophiles can be dressed up as professionals. Early this year, as the country looked on with disbelief, Larry Nassar, USA Gymnastics team doctor and Michigan State University physician, spent days in court listening to heartbreaking victim impact testimony from over 100 female athletes claiming he sexually abused them.
Nassar recently pleaded guilty to multiple counts of criminal sexual conduct, for which he received a 40- to 175-year sentence. (He is already serving a 60-year sentence for child pornography crimes.) For two decades, reports suggest, Nassar exploited his position as a high-level physician at both organizations to abuse 150 women and girls.
This case raises the question: Did anyone know about the abuse? It turns out the answer is yes, but incredibly there is no evidence that USA Gymnastics or MSU took decisive action to stop it. Nassar admitted to molesting girls as early as 1998, but when girls complained to coaches and administrators, their accusations were not treated seriously. Reportedly, USA Gymnastics kept a file cabinet containing complaint dossiers on 50 coaches, but they gathered dust for years.
In addition to the horror this serial abuse evokes, there are two aspects of this case that are especially concerning: The institutions required by law to protect children failed, and their reputation appeared to be more important to leadership than the well-being of the athletes. How many victims does it take to convince USA Gymnastics that its people are more important than its reputation? Fifty? One hundred? How many victims are enough to tip the scales toward action?
In the victim impact testimony she delivered at Larry Nassar’s sentencing, Raisman got to the crux of the problem—lack of accountability by institutions seeking to protect their assets and their image instead of their athletes’ safety.
Raisman is especially angered by the lack of action on the part of the US Olympic Committee, which she said did nothing to address Nassar’s crimes: “They have been quick to capitalize on my success,” she said. “But did they reach out when I came forward? No.” (CNN)
One of the most valuable lessons we can learn from the Nassar case is that all organizations should have comprehensive procedures for investigating and reporting every sexual assault claim. Not after the 10th report, or the 100th report, but with the first report. Preventable tragedies like this are a strong argument for an investment in overhaul and better oversight to keep people like Larry Nassar accountable and children safe from predators.
USA Gymnastics is apparently heeding the call for action. The organization recently agreed to a broad slate of recommendations designed to create “a complete cultural change” and “take action to ensure that this change in culture also is fully embraced” by member clubs.
Commonsense policy change will include thorough abuse prevention training, a disciplinary process for code-of-conduct violations, an expansion of required background checks, and mandatory reporting of all allegations. Changes of this scale will eliminate the file cabinets loaded with complaint dossiers and provide the protection our young athletes deserve.