[A further update can be found at part four]
Before we start, I want to provide a little context as to why I felt it necessary to continue this series of posts.
With all of the survivors coming forward during the #metoo campaign, many people have been asking how sexual abuse can happen not only so frequently, but also in seemingly every aspect of American society. Whether at the governmental level, in the workplace, in Hollywood, in sports, survivors have been sharing their stories of abuse over the past few months.
Some people are shocked, many of us aren’t. “But how can this happen? Why has it taken so long for people to come forward?” Because we’ve been scared. We have been living and working in a culture that promotes these systems of abuse, that place blame and responsibility on the victim, rather than the perpetrator. Because sometimes we don’t know if what we experienced was actual abuse or just “normal.” In many instances, because the ways in which institutions are designed–whether it be for-profit, non-profit, in a family setting, in higher education–do not include protocols in place to recognize abuse and support survivors in a way that protects them enough to feel comfortable coming forward.
“Wherever there is a position of power, there seems to be potential for abuse.”
-McKayla Maroney in her Victim Impact Statement
Over 140 survivors have come forward with allegations of abuse against USA Gymnastics and Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar. “How can this happen?” Because these institutions–responsible for protecting the athletes they profit from–silenced victims while continuously supporting the perpetrator. The institutions themselves chose to honor a pedophile while placing blame on their athletes. Today, it was released that USA Gymnastics paid Olympic gold and silver medalist McKayla Maroney $1.25 million dollars to remain silent on her abuse to the public.
“Why has it taken so long for people to come forward?”
Let’s back up here.
Coming Forward: Three Olympians Share their Story
In October, Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney–known best for her “not impressed” face after winning the silver medal on vault–released a statement as a part of the #metoo movement that detailed Nassar’s abuse. Nassar began molesting Maroney at age 13 in the official USAG Olympic Training Center (owned by the Karolyi’s) until her retirement following the 2013 World Championships.
“For me, the scariest night of my life happened when I was 15 years old,” Maroney wrote in her Twitter post. “… He’d given me a sleeping pill for the flight, and the next thing I know, I was all alone with him in his hotel room getting a ‘treatment.’ I thought I was going to die that night.”
Following McKayla, two-time Olympian Aly Raisman also came forward with allegations against Nassar. In her book and through social media, Raisman noted that USAG not only allowed Nassar to conduct examinations alone and without a chaperone, but also in the girls’ personal rooms at the National Training Center. The “master manipulator” groomed the girls for abuse by earning their trust. In her book, Fierce, Aly notes that she didn’t understand that Nassar was abusing the gymnasts until USAG sent an investigator to her home to interview her personally on the doctor’s treatments. After realizing the extent of her abuse, Raisman called USAG to provide more information but was told to keep quiet about the abuse while they conducted their investigation.
Asked if she thought she was receiving medical treatment, Raisman said, “I didn’t know anything differently. We were told he’s the best doctor, he’s the United States Olympic doctor and the USA Gymnastics doctor and we were very lucky we were able to see him.”
Why are we looking at why didn’t the girls speak up? Why not look at what about the culture? What did USA Gymnastics do, and Larry Nassar do, to manipulate these girls so much that they are so afraid to speak up?” (via 60 Minutes)
A few days following Aly’s statement, teammate and three-time gold medalist Gabby Douglas also released a post on Instagram stating she too was abused by Nassar. Prior to her statement, Douglas was accused of victim-shaming for stating on social media that women should “dress modestly” in order to avoid assault. Following her apology, she posted her story on Instagram where she details the culture that forced the gymnasts to remain quiet:
Nassar Trial and Victim Statements
While Nassar originally claimed innocence in the charges brought against him, he decided to plead guilty to federal child pornography charges in July (officers found more than 37,000 images in his home, including photos of infants). Then, in December, he also pleaded guilty to ten first-degree criminal sexual misconduct charges. Prosecutors pushed for Nassar to be given the full punishment–sixty years in prison–and hoped to allow the survivors to read their statements during his sentencing hearing.
On December 7th, the U.S. District Court dismissed the motion to allow the women (Maroney and Raisman included) to read their statements in person. Judge Janet T. Neff stated that the hearing was not the “proper forum” for victim impact statements against Nassar; Judge Neff did allow statements read in court by parents and lawyers of the gymnasts. Maroney’s mother stated:
“I … learned a few weeks ago from my daughter that at the world championships in Tokyo, [Nassar] drugged her, made her lay nude on a treatment table, straddled her and digitally penetrated her while rubbing his erect penis against her…She was only 15 years old. She said to me, ‘Mom I thought I was going to die.’
This experience has shattered McKayla. She has transformed from a bubbly, positive, loving, world class athlete into a young adult who was deeply depressed, at times suicidal. At times, I was unsure whether I would open her bedroom door and find her dead.”
Maroney’s own words:
“Because the National Team training camps did not allow parents to be present, my mom and dad were unable to observe what Nassar was doing, and this has imposed a terrible and undeserved burden of guilt on my loving family.
Larry Nassar deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison. Not only because of what he did to me, my teammates and so many other little girls – He needs to be behind bars so he will never prey upon another child. I urge you to impose the maximum sentence upon him.”…People should know that sexual abuse of children is not just happening in Hollywood, in the media or in the halls of Congress. This is happening everywhere. Wherever there is a position of power, there seems to be potential for abuse. I had a dream to go to the Olympics, and the things that I had to endure to get there, were unnecessary, and disgusting. I was deeply saddened by the stories of my fellow Olympic teammates that suffered as I did at the hands of Larry Nassar. More than 140 women and girls had to say, ‘#MeToo’ to Nassar’s sexual assaults and hundreds more were victimized to create the pornographic images that fueled his evil desires.” A question that has been asked over and over is: How could have Larry Nassar been allowed to assault so many women and girls for more than two decades? The answer to that question lies in the failure of not one, but three major institutions to stop him — Michigan State University, USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee…”
Raisman, also hoping to read her statement in court, published her full letter to The Players’ Tribune. I strongly encourage every single person to read her statement.
“I am not a victim. I am a survivor. The abuse does not define me, or anyone else who has been abused. This does not define the millions of those who’ve suffered sexual abuse. They are not victims, either. They are survivors. They are strong, they are brave, they are changing things so the next generation never has to go through what they did. There have been so many people who’ve come forward in the last few months. They have inspired me, and I hope, together, we inspire countless more. Surviving means that you’re strong. You’re strong because you came out on the other side, and that makes you brave and courageous.
Now, we need to change the cycle of abuse. We need to change the systems that embolden sexual abusers. We must look at the organizations that protected Nassar for years and years: USA Gymnastics, the U.S. Olympic committee and Michigan State University. Until we understand the flaws in their systems, we can’t be sure something like this won’t happen again. This problem is bigger than Larry Nassar. Those who looked the other way need to be held accountable too. I fear that there are still people working at these organizations who put money, medals and reputation above the safety of athletes. And we need to change how we support those who’ve been abused. I want to change the way we talk about sexual abuse and I want to change the way we support survivors of any kind of abuse.”
In her letter, Raisman details the struggles she has had with not only understanding the abuse that was done to her, but also the consequences of those acts. Depression, anxiety, and an inability to trust are just a few of the lasting effects this had on these survivors.
Nassar was sentenced to sixty years in prison for child pornography, which he appealed. His additional charges have not yet been sentenced.
Response from USA Gymnastics
The federal charges against Larry Nassar are only a portion of the legal actions being pursued by the survivors of his abuse. USA Gymnastics, the U.S. Olympic Committee, Twistars (a Michigan club), Michigan State University, and the Karolyis are all being sued in federal civil court. Maroney’s lawsuit includes the claim that Nassar took photos of her without permission (and as a minor) that could have been potentially shared with other pedophiles.
While the other defendants are important, it is the response of USAG that I want to discuss further. As THE governing body for the sport in the United States, USAG runs all of the programming, events, and travel for both the National Team and developmental programs. Earlier this year, CEO Steve Penny and 1984 Olympic Champion Mary Lou Retton approached Senator Feinstein to convince the legislator not to pass a bill that would immediately require organizations to report sexual abuse allegations to authorities (it is important to note that USAG did not report Nassar to the FBI for five weeks).
The Bill passed. Under pressure, Penny was fired and provided with a $1 million severance package.
The same day as Nassar’s sentencing, USAG filed a motion to dismiss the Denhollander et al v. Michigan State et al civil case. USAG stated:
The full motion can be read here. Not only does USA Gymnastics state that they have no obligation to protect athletes (including minors) from an assault at their official training camps (required for all National Team gymnasts to attend), events, and travel, but they also note that they believe they do not have the responsibility of warning other institutions about potential perpetrators. USAG did not notify Michigan State University about the allegations made against Nassar before MSU hired him.
“Their response has been heartbreaking because it has reminded me time and time again that our voices do not matter,” said Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast who was the first person to publicly accuse Nassar. (via the Lansing State Journal)
On December 21st, 2017, it was released that USAG paid McKayla Maroney over $1.25 million dollars in exchange for her silence against the abuse she suffered at the hands of Nassar at USA Gymnastics events and training camps.
“I want people to understand that this kid had no choice. She couldn’t function. She couldn’t work,” Manly said. “They [USAG] were willing to sacrifice the health and well-being of one of the most famous gymnasts in the world because they didn’t want the world to know they were protecting a pedophile doctor.”
USAG responded to the report that the agreement was Maroney’s attorney’s idea and the gymnast signed the document in 2016:
Maroney could potentially face a counter-suit by USAG for publishing her story and violating the terms of the agreement.
Last week corporate sponsors P&G, Kellog’s, Under Armour, and Hershey’s dropped their contracts with USA Gymnastics.
It is also important to note that even though he was under investigation for abuse, MSU still allowed Nassar to treat patients during all of 2015. The president of MSU has yet to resign. Three of their employees (including a woman who, upon Nassar’s request, removed data from his computer) were allowed to quietly leave the institution.
The Training Center where Larry Nassar abused gymnasts is still used by USA Gymnastics as the official gym for the National Team; gymnasts attended training camp as recently as last month. These athletes train and sleep in the same locations where Nassar sexually assaulted their friends and teammates.
“But how can this happen? Why has it taken so long for people to come forward?”
My response to these questions is power and fear. We live in a society that produces systems of oppression that maintain power for those who hold it. It’s institutional. It’s taught to us at a young age. It’s being told to carry pepper spray when statistically you’re more likely to be assaulted by a white male and someone you know: your family member, your friend, boyfriend, teacher, doctor. We don’t institutionally teach signs of abuse, whether it is unwanted contact, verbal misogyny, or sexual assault. We punish students for wearing short skirts but don’t teach consent. We tell gymnasts that they are “lucky” to have such an amazing doctor treating them, then pressure athletes to keep quiet.
Fear of the backlash: what will my family think of me? Was it my fault? Will I not be selected for the national team? A former student told me last week that fear is the strength in holding power. I couldn’t agree more. What now? I believe the cases against USAG, Michigan State, and other institutions will continue to develop. Clearly, even after the assault that occurred at Penn State, American culture has not changed. Will it change as these allegations continue to come forward? Will it change after the #metoo campaign no longer makes headlines?
As Maroney said:
“Our silence has given the wrong people power for too long, and it’s time to take our power back.”