Every six weeks: a cycle of abuse and dehumanization in USA Gymnastics

Locker Room Talk

USA Gymnastics, or USAG, creates a clear image for most — young girls in colorful leotards, with smiling faces and gold medals swinging from their necks.

There was the Magnificent Seven at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the Fierce Five at the 2012 London Olympics and the Final Five at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Now, there is the Forsaken 140 (and counting).

After a week of listening to more than 156 victim and family statements, including statements from notable Olympians Jordyn Wieber, Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney, it is evident that the smiles were indicative of dreams that hid years of abuse. The medals were ultimately blackened by the disgusting culture promoted by Michigan State University, USAG and the U.S. Olympic Committee, fostering a culture of physical and sexual exploitation of women’s bodies.

Beginning in 1986, Larry Nassar worked as an athletic trainer for USAG. In the late 1990s, Nassar became a team physician and assistant professor at MSU and national medical coordinator for USAG.

He used his prestige as a decorated sports doctor to access the young girls, manipulating their trust by providing an emotional space to which the stressed girls could feel at ease and offering presents from his Olympic adventures.

Nassar’s authority was derived from his idolized Olympic renown as the team doctor at the elite training gym Karolyi Ranch, which entailed traveling with the team to multiple Olympics. Nassar’s predation on vulnerable athletes is unfortunately a paradigm of sustained sexual harassment and abuse rampant among Olympic sports.

More than 290 coaches and officials associated with U.S. Olympic sports organizations across 15 different sports had been publicly accused of sexual assault since 1982, averaging about one accusation every six weeks for more than 36 years.

Hired by USAG to conduct an independent review in November 2016, Deborah J. Daniels emphasized the debilitating culture of competitiveness that fosters abuse and encourages suppression.

“Everything about this environment, while understandable in the context of a highly competitive Olympic sport, tends to suppress reporting of inappropriate activity,” said Daniels.

Thus, young girls’ identities and worth are defined not by their humanity and perseverance, but calculated by Olympic committees based on their ability to produce medals and earns sponsors. Eager to achieve their dreams, young women are coerced into unsafe circumstances to placate coaches and all surrounding staff, many of whom are often older men.

Nassar’s manipulation was coupled by negligence from MSU and USAG. It was reported that in the 1990s, four MSU athletes complained about Nassar’s advancements, and at least 14 MSU officials or representatives were aware of allegations made against Nassar in the past 20 years.

In 2014, MSU launched a Title IX investigation where the experts attending to the case were all affiliated with either the university or Nassar himself. The university concluded that the defendant had not understood the “nuanced difference” between sexual assault and appropriate medical treatment.

This is the danger in entrusting institutions as determinants of sexual assault. Women’s bodies are quantified in terms of external benefit from athletic performance over emotional and physical security. When the institution fails, there are no safeguards to protect women, leaving them vulnerable to predators such as Nassar.

A 2016 exposé in the Indianapolis Star about USAG reported more than 360 cases of failing to report allegations against coaches to authorities. After a coach overheard a team member complaining about an incident with Nassar in June 2015 and alerted top USAG members, the organization waited five weeks to contact law enforcement

USAG responded with deafening silence and shameful inaction while promising victims investigations. Both MSU and USAG failed to communicate with each other that Nassar was under investigation.

It is clear that young women are disposable unless they can earn medals. It is unclear if USAG can institute cultural changes to protect women. It is clear that Nassar will spend the rest of his life in prison. It is unclear if individuals at MSU, USAG or USOC will be held accountable for enabling abuse. It is clear that Nassar’s brave survivors are just beginning to find their voice.

Alicia Sadowski is a Daily Cal Sports staffer. Contact her at [email protected]