The Sex-Abuse Victims America Ignored
The Penn State – Joe Paterno situation immediately grabbed public attention. But it took way too long for the Michigan State University gymnastics scandal to capture the country’s attention. Here’s why.
From Alex Putterman, writing for The Atlantic:
It was an arresting moment, even on a day full of them. The Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman stood in front of a courtroom last Friday and addressed Larry Nassar, the former Michigan State University doctor who’s been accused by upwards of 150 women of sexually abusing them over more than two decades. “Larry,” she said from the podium in the Lansing, Michigan, courtroom, “you do realize now that we, this group of women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time, are now a force, and you are nothing.”
By the time Raisman’s 13-minute testimony ended, she had castigated not only Nassar but also everyone who she contended had enabled and protected him, including the leadership at USA Gymnastics. A video clip of Raisman giving her statement was disseminated across social media and aired on television. The New York Times transcribed her words and printed them in full. Finally, more than a year after Nassar was first publicly accused of molesting two young gymnasts, America had woken up to what is being described as the largest sexual-abuse scandal in U.S. sports history.
For Raisman and the scores of other women gymnasts who say Nassar sexually molested them when they were children, that reckoning was long overdue. The sports medicine “guru“—whose abuse included a “special treatment” that involved him sticking his fingers in his patients’ vaginas, sometimes with his bare hands for extended amounts of time—pled guilty to 10 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct last November. In December, he was sentenced to 60 years in federal prison for child-pornography charges, and on Wednesday—after seven days of impact statements from survivors—he was sentenced to 40 to 175 years for sexual abuse. These court developments are the culmination of complaints about Nassar that, according to lawsuits, victims and their family members started voicing back in the mid-1990s.
Until that point, the case had gotten relatively little national attention. After 16 months of near-silence from national news outlets, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News had devoted fewer than 20 minutes total
to the story in the four days prior to Raisman’s statement, according to the watchdog organization Media Matters. Meanwhile, USA Gymnastics—the sport’s governing body—had largely evaded consequences for its failure to respond quickly and appropriately to Nassar’s abuse. Steve Penny, its former president, had resigned last March (and according to The Wall Street Journal walked away
with $1 million in severance), but the rest of the organization essentially remained intact. Then, on Monday, as more of Nassar’s victims joined the dozens who had already testified at his sentencing hearing, USA Gymnastics (USAG) announced
that three board members, including its chairman, had “tendered their resignations,” effective immediately. That a reckoning arrived as soon as the story reached the mainstream consciousness did not seem like a coincidence.
But the women who spoke out in court, along with their supporters, asserted that they were victimized by others, too—that Nassar’s abuse, of gymnasts and other young athletes alike, could not have flourished without a network of enablers. According to the women, these enablers were authority figures at USAG, Michigan State University (MSU), the United States Olympic Committee, and the Twistars Gymnastics training center, among other entities, who repeatedly ignored, downplayed, or disregarded allegations against him. Despite Monday’s resignations at USAG, very few of these authority figures have faced formal repercussions.
The apparent lack of accountability is particularly stark at Michigan State, where Nassar worked from 1997 through 2016 as a team physician and assistant professor. Numerous women gymnasts contend they reported Nassar’s behaviorto athletic trainers or coaches, only to be met with skepticism and insistence that they continue seeing him. In the spring of 2014, Nassar was briefly suspended while the school’s Title IX department investigated a complaint by a student who alleged he’d sexually abused her, but was reinstated after a panel of medical experts, all of whom had close ties to the sports doctor, said there was nothing sexual about Nassar’s treatments. He continued to see—and, according to police reports, continued to abuse—patients at MSU despite remaining under criminal investigation for the same allegation that sparked the Title IX probe.
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