We have lived this story before. And yet, here we are
By Yvonne Abraham
January 24, 2018
Because nobody who currently runs the world of elite gymnastics can be trusted. Nobody in that world would protect Larry Nassar’s victims from his horrific sexual abuse. The days of testimony in a Michigan courtroom, which culminated in the doctor’s sentencing Wednesday, have laid bare the utter and cataclysmic failures of officials at USA Gymnastics, at Michigan State, and elsewhere, to keep the children in their care from harm.
Time and again, victims were doubted, their allegations ignored. Winning was everything.
“Your abuse started 30 years ago,” said Needham native and gold medalist Aly Raisman, testifying at the sentencing hearing on Friday. “If over these many years just one adult listened and had the courage and character to act . . . I and so many others would have never, ever met you.”
We have lived this story before. It has been 16 years since the Globe and others exposed the rampant, decades-long plague of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. And yet here we are, as if none of it — nor any of the ensuing sexual scandals in other hallowed institutions — ever happened.
For decades, with the help of officials who required gymnasts to submit to his treatment, Nassar preyed on defenseless girls made more vulnerable by their dreams of winning gold medals in a sport that demanded perfection, and absolute compliance. So far, 150 women have come forward to say he molested them.
The world of elite gymnastics, whose facade began to crack with the 2016 Indianapolis Star stories that first exposed the abuse, is every bit as messed up as it seems when you’re watching those painfully over-trained kids pushing themselves through injuries and mind-bending pressure every four years.
Gymnast Mattie Larson singled out the Texas training compound run by Bela and Marta Karolyi. Isolated, with no cell service, and no parents allowed, the place was rife with abuse, she said on Tuesday; hours of nonstop practice, without breaks for food and water, where gymnasts were expected to push through injuries and keep their weight down however they could. Coaches there broke girls, and Nassar preyed on them as he pretended to put them back together.
Women abused at Twistars Gym in Michigan, where Nassar also worked, told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” the owner there, John Geddert, who coached the women’s 2012 Olympics team, was also verbally abusive. Nassar played the good cop to his bad, they said, grooming victims by offering them comfort and contraband treats. Parents would wait for hours on Monday nights for Nassar to treat their children, according to the report. Sometimes they were even in the room when he abused their daughters — putting his fingers inside them, but hiding his crimes beneath a towel. And, of course, a medical degree, an Olympic imprimatur.
Even these poor, unwitting parents couldn’t protect them. Not even after they realized what was happening and tried to stop it. The Indianapolis Star and ESPN laid bare an entire ecosystem that enabled abusers and concealed their misdeeds.
USA Gymnastics head Steve Penny was concerned primarily with containing the allegations and protecting the reputation of the sport, victims said. His organization settled with gymnast McKayla Maroney over Nassar’s sexual assaults, but required her to stay silent about the abuse or pay a $100,000 fine. Penny was allowed to resign last year, with a $1 million parachute.
Multiple victims said coaches at Michigan State were also dismissive when they reported Nassar’s abuse in the late 1990s, a monumental failure by the university, which could have saved so many more women from harm.
Some on the board of USA Gymnastics have resigned. The organization has severed ties with the Karolyi training facility. More heads could roll. But it won’t be enough to change just the people who run elite gymnastics in this country. What we need here is a conflagration, a complete do-over.
At long last, the well-being of these kids has to be more important than the medals they might win.