In 2017, former USA Gymnastics team doctor of 18 years, Larry Nassar, was convicted of molesting hundreds of young gymnasts. The real question is, how did this sexual abuse go unnoticed for so long? Why did it take over two decades for Nassar to be brought to justice?
I believe that the culture of USA Gymnastics is largely to blame.
There is no doubt that gymnastics is one of the most intense sports out there. Gymnasts are trained from a young age to obey authority figures at all costs. Talk back, and you are punished. Voice your opinion, and you are silenced. At least, this was my personal experience with the sport.
In Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman’s autobiography, “Fierce”, Raisman recalls one teammate who was reprimanded by her coach for simply stating, “Yes, I understand the correction.” The coach told her that she was being rude by “talking back”. This is the kind of culture that many gymnasts are raised under. Please keep in mind that not all coaches teach in such an abusive manner. I’ve had some really great coaches who were strict, but never abusive. But many coaches, not just in gymnastics, but in all competitive sports, can adopt an authoritarian mode of teaching, utilizing punishment and fear conditioning as ways to reinforce correct behavior and skills in athletes.
So put yourselves in these young girls’ shoes. They were taught from an early age to not talk back and to not question authority figures. After many years of being silenced, these girls make the elite level and begin to work with the team doctor, Nassar. Here is this physician with a University of Michigan education, tons of professional experience, and is well-established within the USA Gymnastics community. This man was trusted, highly capable, and outwardly charming and charismatic. Aly Raisman recounts Nassar coming into the girls’ hotel rooms during competitions and offering them bread– a luxury, for a gymnast. When they first encountered Nassar’s “sessions”, they must have sensed something was incredibly wrong with his unconventional methods of healing. But here was this doctor who had worked with dozens of Olympic gymnasts. He was the epitome of an expert and authority figure. And because gymnasts are taught to never question authority, they silently repressed their feelings of intense discomfort and submitted to Nassar’s continued abuse.
Again, I am simply assuming what must have been going on in these girls’ minds, based on personal experience with the oppressive culture that permeates USA Gymnastics. I could be wrong. There must have been other external factors that contributed to the decades of silence regarding Nassar’s abuse. But at the root of it, I truly believe, based on my experience as both an artistic and rhythmic gymnast, that the root of this scandal was the culture of gymnastics.
Larry Nassar was able to get away with his crimes for so long because gymnasts were deprived of their voice from the moment they began competitive training. They were told exactly what to do by their superiors and thus were not only deprived of a voice, but also rendered incapable of thinking for themselves.
Sexual abuse in itself is complex. Oftentimes, victims of abuse try to justify the actions of their abusers and convince themselves that what they experienced could not have been abuse. Because the reality of being a victim of sexual abuse is much too painful to face. When young girls are molested, they face a myriad of complex emotions. Confusion. Betrayal. Fear. Hurt. Violation. And instead of addressing these emotions, many people– especially athletes, who are conditioned to not show pain or weakness– find it easier to suppress such dark feelings and block it out of their memories, instead of confronting them head-on.
So, those are my thoughts on the Larry Nassar scandal and why it took so long for him to be convicted. It was only when a female gymnastics coach overheard a group of gymnasts talking about what happened to them, that action was taken for this monster of a man to be brought to justice.
If you have your own thoughts about the scandal, please feel free to share and leave a comment. If you yourself are a victim of abuse, please know that you are not alone. Know that it is NECESSARY for you to speak up for yourself when you feel even the slightest bit of violation. You have a VOICE. Don’t be afraid to use it, no matter who tells you otherwise.