The trial and sentencing of Larry Nassar, a former sports physician who treated America’s top female gymnasts, was a rare moment of catharsis in the fight against sexual assault. Nassar pleaded guilty to seven counts of criminal sexual conduct on Jan. 24 after over 150 women and girls recounted their harrowing stories of sexual abuse at his hand.
Although justice was served in the courtroom and the victims’ voices were heard, the Nassar case remains a reminder of the dark underbelly of elite athletics. USC, a school that prides itself on NCAA dominance and Olympic-level athletes, should remember the horrors that can be enabled by a competitive sports culture and take active steps to prevent them.
The most striking detail of the Nassar case is the sheer number of women who testified against him. Nassar began treating Team USA gymnasts in 1986 and Michigan State University gymnasts in 1997, and he worked at multiple youth gymnastics clubs as well. He was given unfettered access to adolescent athletes and, according to reports, passed off overtly sexual acts as legitimate medical treatments.
The first formal accusation of Nassar came in 1997. After another formal complaint in 2014, the university conducted an internal investigation of Nassar. He was cleared and continued to prey on young women in his practice. Later that year, the school failed to turn over its file on Nassar when the Department of Education requested it in an unrelated Title IX investigation.
By 2016, when the Indianapolis Star began reporting on the issue, Ingham County officials said they had received about 50 complaints of sexual abuse over a 20 year period. With these allegations, why did multiple institutions allow him to continue seeing patients one-on-one?
It seems that Nassar’s monstrosity was enabled, or at least ignored, by a whole network of administrators, medical professionals and even parents.
It is possible that Nassar was simply a master manipulator and effectively hid this systematic abuse, but what seems more likely is that his associations with USA Gymnastics, multiple Olympic medalists and a nationally ranked collegiate team caused supervisors to turn a blind eye on misconduct.
Nassar is destined to spend the rest of his life in prison, but what punishment should be given to the bystanders and enablers at MSU and U.S.A. Gymnastics? Already, the president of the University has stepped down and so has the chairman of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation. The federal Department of Education has opened an investigation of Michigan State’s involvement, and the state’s legislators have demanded full transparency from the school.
As these investigations continue, we should expect more disturbing stories of the willful negligence that allowed Nassar to harm two decades’ worth of female athletes.
Abuse in sports, especially at the elite levels, is more prevalent than many care to consider. A Washington Post report found more than 290 coaches and officials associated with U.S. Olympic teams have been accused of sexual misconduct in the last 36 years. Overtraining and psychological stress are common in elite sports, and young athletes can also be subjected to emotional manipulation, improper injury treatment and unreasonable expectations.
There is nothing wrong with athletes training to push the limits of human performance, but it must be acknowledged that disturbed, power-hungry adults can take advantage of this extreme athletic environment. The drive to achieve can easily cause athletes to push through physical and emotional pain, and abusers like Larry Nassar take advantage of that silence.
It is the responsibility of law enforcement, sports federations and schools to listen to athletes when they say they are being abused. Another win is not worth the price of an athlete’s mental or physical health. As much as we want to see Larry Nassar as an aberration, we have to work as a community to prevent actions like his.
Emotional, physical and sexual abuse are the extreme end point of an athletic culture that values winning over everything and sees the bodies of young athletes as pawns in the pursuit of medals and rankings. The sickening story of Larry Nassar may be the story of a monster, but it is also the story of dozens of administrators who overlooked the red flags waving in their faces, preferring to focus on the golden podium in the distance.