Nassar Case Exposes Culture of Abuse and Silence in USA Olympic Organizations

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With sexual assault allegations dominating recent news cycles, Americans are further developing their figurative picture of what it’s like for a survivor of sexual assault to come forward with allegations against their abuser. When a survivor comes forward, they are subjected to scrutiny, libel/slander, and fierce criticism from private citizens like themselves about how they should have handled the situation. Knowing that, it’s not incomprehensible that rage continues to fester in the communities affected by the Larry Nassar investigation and the USA Olympic Gymnastics organization’s glacial response time to allegations against him.

Nassar is currently in federal prison serving a 60-year sentence for possession of child pornography, which is a blip compared to the sentences he received from the judges in Ingham and Eaton County, both ranging from 40 years to as long as 175 years. More than 330 women and girls have come forward claiming to be a survivor of Nassar’s abuse. His sentence came after Nassar pled guilty to possession of child pornography and sexual misconduct with the young gymnasts he treated at the famous Karolyi Ranch in Texas. Sarah Jantzi was Maggie Nichols’ coach at the time—Maggie’s allegations of abuse against Nassar are considered some of the first in the string of gymnasts who came forward after the Nassar investigations became public. Jantzi reported her concerns about Nassar to USAG after she overheard Maggie and another gymnast discussing whether Nassar’s practices were considered “normal.”  

Nassar treated Maggie for a knee injury, during which he insisted on examining her groin area. He did not wear gloves, and took pains to close the door and the blinds before beginning the examination. Jantzi also contacted Maggie’s mother, Gina Nichols, who told IndyStar, “It was nothing you’d expect in a million years. I mean, I’m sending my minor daughter the last four years, one week a month, down to the Ranch to train. So proud. She’s on the USA team. Working so hard. Our family making all these sacrifices. It’s just—you wouldn’t even think this is something that would have ever happened.”

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USA Gymnastics officials waited a jaw-dropping 41 days to report Nassar to police after the first hearing regarding Jantzis concerns. It’s a bad look, and to make matters worse, the organization did not inform Michigan State, where Nassar also worked with young athletes until late summer in 2016. The notoriety of some of the survivors drew a great deal of media attention when the investigation became public, and while much of the country currently associates mention of the USAG with sexual abuse allegations, the reality is this culture of silence and abuse is not unique to the USA gymnastics team. Katherine Starr, a former Olympic swimmer and abuse victim who founded Safe4Athletes, a nonprofit organization working to address and prevent abuse told the Chicago Tribune, “We’re hearing all about gymnastics, but the problems in gymnastics are equally as prevalent in every other sport…I think people are starting to understand the complexity of this, and how this stays in the system…It stays in the system because of governance, because of the people in charge.”

Just this week, two divers for the USA Diving team have filed lawsuits against their former coach, John Wingfield, claiming his academy ignored complaints against a coach under his supervision, Johel Ramirez Suarez. The divers claim the organization had knowledge of Suarez’s alleged predation prior to Suarez sexually assaulting them both. Suarez was eventually arrested in Hamilton County, Indiana in November of 2017 and was subsequently charged with 32 felony counts of child sexual abuse, earning him a spot on the USA Diving teams banned list. Even after USAG had reported Larry Nassar to the FBI (13 months after the initial hearing), they still did add his name to that list.

In a review of documents and data pertaining to the organizations governing the sports, the Washington Post revealed since 1982, there have been over 290 coaches and officials affiliated with American Olympic sports who have been accused of sexual misconduct. That number covers 15 different Olympic sports, and includes both individuals who have been convicted of their crimes and individuals who have never had to answer for the allegations made against them. The figure averages out to one official being accused of sexual misconduct every six weeks for over 35 years. If the Nassar case tells us anything about how Olympic organizations might have typically responded to abuse allegations, it’s not a mystery how a culture of abuse and silence was cultivated as many attempts to investigate the abuse were swept under the proverbial AstroTurf.

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Aly Raisman stares down Larry Nassar in court as she delivers her victim impact statement.

Survivors like Aly Raisman have called out USA Gymnastics, claiming that they were more concerned about guaranteeing gold medals that protecting their young athletes. “I don’t think that they cared at all. I think at first it was to ‘get him away,’ Nassar away from the Olympians, but when it was about a 10-year-old, or a 15-year-old, or a 20-year-old in Michigan they didn’t care,” Raisman told the Indy Star. That much is apparent from emails between Nassar’s legal counsel and USAG officials, in which the Olympic organization clearly took part in the effort to conceal the Nassar investigation from athletes and from the public. Aly Raisman also told IndyStar that she received a text message from the former USA Gymnastics President, Steve Penny in July of 2017, advising her that the first priority was keeping the investigation “quiet and confidential.” It would have saved many survivors like Kaylee Lorincz a great deal of pain if the organization had made allegations against Nassar public. While under investigation, Nassar treated Lorincz twice after Sarah Jantzi notified USAG about her concerns. Lorincz says that she was abused both times by the sports medicine “celebrity,” and lamented, “It could have saved many more if they could have just stopped him in 2015. It makes me angry and upset because it could have prevented so much.”

At this time, it’s difficult to determine the motives of the USOC and how they reacted to allegations against Nassar and other officials who have been accused of sexual misconduct with athletes. Did they do so out of ignorance or apathy? Or was this a focused effort to erode investigations into these allegations all together? A recent Washington Post article called for law enforcement and state attorneys to open investigations into other USA Olympic teams and organizations. John Manly, an attorney who represents many survivors of Nassar’s abuse told the publication:

“The most amazing thing about this evolution is that no one has executed a search warrant on USA Gymnastics and no one has executed one on the USOC…If anyone deserves a search warrant given the evidence to date, it’s them. If you believe these Olympic gold medalists, then [USA Gymnastics] violated the reporting laws in Indiana. I mean, why haven’t you done something?”

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