It is the case that has shaken the American public to its very core. Sports physician Larry Nassar, a man once entrusted to protect the well-being of athletes at USA Gymnastics and Michigan State, has been convicted of sexually abusing at least 265 women and young girls. Over the course of two decades, Nassar molested victims in what he categorized as standard “treatment” for injuries. He will serve two sentences of 45 to 125 years in prison (NBC, “Larry Nassar gets another 45 to 125 years,” 02.05.2018).
The Nassar case is harrowing and extremely difficult to digest. Many people have never fathomed that sexual abuse could take such a form. The grave extent of the manipulation, and the systemic complacency of so many, adds layers of complexity to this story. What we must do is offer our fullest support to the victims and their loved ones, applaud the bravery of those who have spoken out and stand by those who have chosen not to step forward. We must, then, broach a conversation that our society should have begun a long time ago.
One of the most shocking aspects of the case is that Nassar was able to utilize the cultural fabric as his greatest protector, to support and conceal his abusiveness. The high-pressure, competitive atmosphere of gymnastics created the ideal breeding ground for his behavior.
At the peak of their careers, most gymnasts are still only children or teenagers. In children’s sports, it can be difficult to draw a line between tough love and harmful coaching. Athletes are taught that a certain amount of grit, perseverance and “playing through the pain” are necessary to excel. Competitive sports require extraordinary levels of effort and strength. That said, there are times when a coach’s harsh words or unwillingness to acknowledge pain can be injurious. There is a culture of expecting children to take the physical and mental strain of competition in stride and to let nothing affect their performance. In an interview with the GymCastic podcast, he himself acknowledged that the mental health of athletes is often grossly overlooked (Deadspin, “In One Interview, Larry Nassar Laid Out Exactly How He Gained Gymnasts’ Trust,” 05.01.2017). This expectation of excellence at all costs often begins very young, and as athletes grow up and persevere in their sport, these demands become the norm. As a result, Nassar’s victims were groomed not to speak out, and were judged and criticized when they did.
This is unacceptable. The culture of youth sports has so often fostered a sense that winning and surviving is more important than well-being, and we should question this underlying dogma. Athletes are conditioned from a young age to believe that it does not matter if they are hurt, stressed or tired, as long as they can physically continue; if they do not push themselves, they will not excel. In team sports, there is a pressure not to let down your teammates; in solo sports, the athlete is often loath to disappoint their coach or parents.
The harmful dichotomy between athlete and coach is only heightened in gymnastics. Coaches at the highest levels are often older men with long tenures in the sport. What is fostered is a very limited personal relationship. At the same time, the physical relationship is intense. Coaches work extremely closely to their gymnasts, correcting their stances, analyzing their bodies and directing countless repetitions for hours on end.
Female athletes are particularly encouraged to relinquish some control over their own bodies, so it follows that these young competitors would not recognize—or at least not question— abuse (Slate, “How Larry Nassar Got Away With It,” 11.29.2017). Nassar, as a doctor, a profession that is already culturally profiled as an unquestionable figure of authority and trustworthiness, was able to successfully navigate this environment. Physicians are supposed to be the trustworthy, the ones that are working without competitive interest, with the sole objective of protecting the health of the athlete. Unfortunately, the Nassar case shows how deeply flawed this assumption is and has been.
This abuse of power does in no way stop at Nassar. From coaches all the way up to top administrators, complicity has been the norm. For decades, Michigan State and USA Gymnastics officials ignored the warning signs, or even dismissed and silenced Nassar’s victims (The New York Times, “It’s Time for Michigan State to Clean House,” 01.31.2018). Clearly, administrators valued their positions and status over the people that they had sworn to protect. This becomes all the more clear in the defense statements many have pushed in the wake of allegations of mismanagement. The Nassar case has shown that little has been learned from Penn State, and that abuse of this systemic magnitude does not begin or end with Nassar. It makes us stop and think that these abuses may indeed be more common than we are led to believe. As much as we can assign blame and call for the firing of those directly responsible for abuse, many of those whom were complacent, and continue to be complacent, will never face justice.
Blame-shifting is too easy of a solution that does not even scratch the surface of the problem. This knee-jerk reaction has resulted in unfair judgement of the parents of the victims. As this case develops, more parents are admitting that they were in the room while the abuse occurred, or that their child told them what had happened and they did not believe it. While we do not suggest in any way that the parents were complicit in Nassar’s atrocious actions, they were likely guilty of feeding into the “suck it up” attitude that goes along with raising a competitive athlete. We at The Miscellany News call upon parents and other adults involved in youth athletics to listen to and support their children, and to choose their words, methods of encouragement and discipline with a mind to the health and safety of young athletes above all else. The reputation of a coach, doctor or other adult in charge of caring for and interacting closely with children must not take precedence over the experience of the child.
Although this particular case manifested itself in the realm of sports, the problems behind it pervade society at large. Every instance of abuse is absolutely the fault of the abuser. That person made the decision to violate the rights and autonomy of another. However, the volume, extremity and prevalence of abuse in this country is made possible by a culture of willful negligence. Oppression of minority groups and discreditation of underrepresented voices is a vicious cycle that keeps certain people down and lifts others ever higher. People have fought this injustice for decades, if not longer, yet in an age of social media and instant information, people can unite and disseminate messages faster and more effectively than ever. The #MeToo movement is one influential part of this shift in thought, encouraging survivors of sexual abuse and harassment to share their experiences and out their abusers. Giving agency to victims, accepting their stories and removing abusers from positions of prestige and power are all ways to dismantle this toxic culture.
We must have the bravery to question authority figures who we believe are in the wrong, no matter the consequences. We must listen to our loved ones and people we trust and believe them when they confide in us. We must support people who speak out about abuse and harassment and never shame those who cannot or do not want to speak. Shifting a cultural paradigm that has seeped deeply into the cracks of our society must continue to be a monumental team effort. There is strength and solidarity in numbers.
—The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of The Miscellany News Editorial Board.