On Thursday, serial sexual predator Larry Nassar, a former trainer with USA Gymnastics and doctor at Michigan State University, was sentenced to 60 years in federal prison on child pornography charges. This is essentially a life sentence for the 54-year-old, especially considering he has two remaining sentencing hearings in Michigan state courts next month pertaining to his guilty pleas to 10 counts of sexual assault.
But what should have been a rare moment of relief and celebration for his more than 150 victims was instead another moment of frustration, as they fought once again to have their voices heard, and to remind the public of how many more people still need to be held accountable for Nassar’s decades of abuse.
Though the judge in the case denied the victims an opportunity to confront Nassar in court, some of his victims, including former olympic gold-medal winning gymnasts Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney, made sure their victim’s impact statements were made public. Others spoke at a press conference afterwards. And while the details of the abuse—and the devastation they experienced because of it—was harrowing, the overarching theme of these letters and statements was how much of the fight still lies ahead.
“I fear that there are still people working at these organizations who put money, medals and reputation above the safety of athletes.”
While Steve Penny, the former President of USA Gymnastics, resigned earlier this year amidst growing criticism of his mishandling of the scandal, nobody else involved with USA Gymnastics has been held accountable for a man who repeatedly abused girls under the guise of providing medical treatment at training camps, on the road, and during elite competitions. And at Michigan State, former gymnastics coach Kathy Klages, who was directly told about Nassar’s abuse more than 20 years ago and silenced the victims, is the only prominent faculty member no longer employed at the university — and only after she was allowed to retire with her full pension, one day after a temporary suspension.
The lack of accountability, in the face of the biggest sex abuse scandal in the history of U.S. sports, is staggering. No representative from USA Gymnastics or MSU was at the hearing on Thursday, and the mediation phase in civil suits between the victims and the institutions expired on Wednesday without a resolution.
“A simple fact is this. If Michigan State University, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee had paid attention to any of the red flags in Larry Nassar’s behavior, I never would have met him, I never would have been ‘treated’ by him and I never would have been abused by him,” Maroney wrote in her letter, as reported by ESPN.
“[Nassar] is not the only one that allowed this to happen,” Jessica Smith, who said Nassar assaulted her when she was 17, told reporters after the stentence was announced. “Where is the justice being served for everyone that allowed that to happen?”
Rachael Denhollander, the first Nassar victim to go public more than one year ago, echoed Maroney’s sentiment in a press conference after the closed sentencing hearing.
“Officials repeatedly state their belief that no law was broken, as if committing a crime is the only way one can enable a sexual predator,” Denhollander said.
In a piece on the Players’ Tribune in which she shared her victim’s statement in full, two-time Olympian Aly Raisman recounted how the abuse from Nassar impacted every aspect of her life, from how safe she feels while traveling, to her relationships with her parents and close friends, to her feelings about the sport that she dedicated her life to. She, too, urged everyone to look at the bigger picture.
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.
Maroney’s mother, Erin, also wrote a letter that was submitted to the judge, and which ESPN obtained a copy of. In that letter, she focuses in on the failures of the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics, who repeatedly reassured her and her husband that McKayla and the other gymnasts were safe in their care.
“No one from the USOC has ever reached out to me or my husband or my daughter to inquire about her well being. Not once. No one has apologized,” Maroney wrote. “After McKayla spoke with an investigator with USA Gymnastics in July 2015, USA Gymnastics and the USOC kept the knowledge of [Nassar’s] status as a child molester secret from Michigan State University after 2015 and even said nothing when he ran for school board in his local school district!”
While Nassar awaits further sentencing hearings, the victims will continue to fight for justice. With the failure of mediation, the civil cases will prepare for trial, and there’s hope that enough public pressure will convince Michigan State to make its internal investigation into its handling of Nassar’s abuse public.
“Enabling looks like deliberate indifference. It looks like extreme negligence. It looks like silencing the victims.”
Denhollander, who first led this charge 15 months ago, knows that taking down these systems of enablement is just as important as taking down the criminals themselves.
“[E]nabling doesn’t usually look like someone saying, ‘Oh, you’re a rapist and rape is okay, so we’re gonna let you keep on raping,’” Denhollander told ThinkProgress in an interview for the podcast Burn It All Down last week. “That’s not what enabling looks like. Enabling looks like deliberate indifference. It looks like extreme negligence. It looks like silencing the victims. It looks like an immediate presumption of innocence toward the perpetrator. It looks like everything you saw at MSU, and they have absolutely refused to acknowledge any of that.”
Nassar won’t be able to abuse any more girls or women, and that is a victory. But, unfortunately, until there is a cultural shift, there will continue to be more Nassars roaming free.
“[T]he people who are surrounding the abuser in that community, they’re the ones that are most able to make a difference,” Denhollander said. “They’re the ones that are most able to stop a predator. They’re the ones who are close enough to see the warning signs, and to support the victims, and yet they’re the ones least likely to do it.”