Democracy Dies in Darkness

Olympics | Perspective

USA Gymnastics allowed Larry Nassar to prey upon innocent victims. Congress must investigate.

By Sally Jenkins

January 24, 2018 at 2:39 PM

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A courtroom full of Larry Nassar's victims and accusers cheered and hugged one another after the disgraced former USA Gymnastics team physician was sentenced up to 175 years in a Michigan state prison on Jan. 24. (Reuters)

A national organization with the initials USA on it forced young girls to submit to pelvic exams by a child molester. Literally hundreds of them were isolated in mandatory "camps" and were repeatedly assaulted by a barehanded pedophile for years on end, while nobody cared to notice that no decent doctor would perform such an exam on young girls, much less ungloved. Where in the fresh red hell is an independent investigation into USA Gymnastics, and why isn't Congress threatening to smash the U.S. Olympic Committee's charter into pieces with a gavel over this?

It's only the worst sex abuse scandal in the history of sports — and maybe in the history of this country. USA Gymnastics not only allowed serial pedophile Larry Nassar unsupervised access to the scores of girls in its charge over 30 years, it required them to submit to him and his utterly unjustifiable vaginal examinations. There was no saying, "I don't like this doctor. I want my own." The organizations systematically deprived them of any right to say no, to ask for alternate treatment. It makes the Hollywood rapes look principled.

"I don't think people understand just how bad this was," gold medalist Aly Raisman said in a phone interview Wednesday morning, just before Nassar was sentenced up to 175 years. "I don't think they have all the pieces and understand how USA Gymnastics and the USOC created the perfect environment for this monster."

Let's put those pieces together — and understand why Nassar's trial should be just the start of the investigation and not an end. His years of criminal sexual assaults on gymnasts could have happened only with the assistance of U.S. sports officials and coaches, such as Martha and Bela Karolyi and John Geddert, who let Nassar violate basic medical norms on their watch. It could have happened only because they were willfully blind to his "pelvic adjustments" on young women athletes, for which there was no good reason. It could have happened only because they failed to exercise the most basic, common, fundamental good sense in protecting children, allowing him to probe girls ungloved and sequester himself with them without any nurse present. Here is how negligent they were: The girls were required to see him in their hotel and dorm rooms at night. Alone. On their beds.

"The only way he had access to us was in our rooms; that's where we were instructed to get therapy from him," Raisman says. "You were told, 'This is where you have to get therapy.' . . . When you're a kid, you aren't thinking, 'I'm alone with a man, and this isn't right.' An adult would have said, 'No way, we need a separate room with massage tables and a door open.' An adult would have said, 'That's messed up, I'm not doing this.' "

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Former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison Jan. 24 for sexually abusing more than 150 girls and women. (Reuters)

Related: [When will abuse in Olympic sports end?]

The adults who should have said it didn't. They never said that it was unacceptable to treat girls anywhere but in a proper setting on an examination table. Instead, they told the girls it was unacceptable to turn him down, to refuse to answer his knock or let him shove his hands into them. "I had to see him. There was no choice," Raisman says, "because if you didn't, then it would be reported that we didn't see him — and if you had a bad practice the next day, we'd get in trouble for not being 'disciplined' and not getting treatment from him."

At least Hollywood actresses are adults with mature judgment with which to defend themselves. At least they have some small power of self-determination. The girls and young women who were abused by Nassar under the roof of USA Gymnastics and Michigan State had none of those. I didn't truly understand this until Raisman sat in that courtroom and fixed her gaze on Nassar, with an anger that could have set the air on fire. Only then did it hit home just how powerless they had felt all those years in the grip of USA Gymnastics. The price to be an Olympian was to submit to abuse — there was no other option. It was that or be cut from the program, abandon your talent, surrender your genius.

So it's not enough that Nassar is going to jail for the rest of his life. It is not nearly enough. If a major U.S. airline has an accident that injures hundreds of people, there is an investigation so the problem can be fixed. When the U.S. military has a scandal that harms its people, there are after-action reports and hearings so the problem can be fixed.

This was a national organization that had charge of other people's children, under a charter approved by Congress. There must be a neutral independent investigation.

One thing such an investigation will reveal is the sick culture of obedience at USA Gymnastics that provided such a hothouse for an abuser. Other organizations recognized decades ago that boundaries and decencies must be observed when going anywhere near the pelvises and breasts of young women. Not USA Gymnastics. Why not? And who is responsible for not enforcing those decencies?

Camps were mandatory. Treatment was mandatory. Physical exams were mandatory. They were required to sign waivers, releases, agreements, indemnifications, a pile of paperwork that ceded their bodies to the control of others. "They always made us feel like if we ever said anything or complained we were being dramatic or high-maintenance or difficult," Raisman says. "When you only have five girls who make the Olympic team — we were just conditioned from a young age not to say anything."

Aly Raisman gives her victim impact statement at the Nassar sentencing hearing in Lansing, Mich., last week. (Dale G Young/AP)

They were pulled away from their homes for weeks or a month at a time at these camps, isolated from their parents, discouraged from communicating with agents or lawyers. They were not allowed to have visitors. But Nassar could visit.

Related: [Nassar sentenced for sex crimes]

To read that paperwork now is nauseating. The National Team Agreement required them to "submit to all reasonable requests for examination or evaluation by medical personnel retained by USA Gymnastics."

The chief medical officer was Larry Nassar.

Physical therapy was mandatory "to maximize your performance."

The head trainer for USA gymnastics was Larry Nassar.

A 2000 memo at a national training camp for girls as young as 9 instructed them that if they had a problem at night in the hotel they were to call a list of three people. The first name on the list? Larry Nassar. The memo also instructed them, "Please do not call your personal coach."

It's still dawning on Raisman just how shoddy the training camps were and how fundamentally strange Nassar's conduct was, how much was "extremely unprofessional, I now realize," she says, and should have been flagged by adults. "He was so incredibly immature and giggly and weird with us." But the rules said anyone who protested, who refused "verification of her illness or injury by a physician (or medical staff) approved by USA Gymnastics . . . may be removed." She'd be off the team. To speak up meant losing everything.

"When we would finish practice sometimes, I'd be so beyond exhausted or in tears," Raisman says. "And then you'd go to treatment. Which makes it all the more disgusting and manipulative. . . . I can't even fathom how he lived with himself, but then to take advantage when you were . . ." She pauses.

You can finish the sentence for her. Hurting. When you were hurting. "We didn't have a voice," she continues. "And were just desperate to feel better, and he was the only access to getting treatment. Any time you had an injury, you had to report it to him."

Submit, submit, submit. Not until 2015 did USA Gymnastics acknowledge that Nassar was a horrific problem — and then tried to squelch it with a confidential settlement to McKayla Maroney. Another piece of paper, another girl's submission.

Without a full, meaningful investigation of how Nassar was shielded by these institutions for 30 years despite the most obvious medical misconduct, the testimony of the more than 160 women over the last week will be for nothing. Otherwise there only will be another abuser after him. The USOC and USA Gymnastics and their persistent cultures of evasion and avoidance and enforced silence have to be torn down. The people in charge of this horror chamber must be exposed and punished. And replaced by real leaders. And it's probably going to take the pressure of a Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) or a Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to do it, to remind the USOC and USA Gymnastics that they exist solely by virtue of an act of Congress. Here's why:

When Raisman showed up in that courtroom last week to give her victim impact statement, "I was so terrified at first," she says. Think about that. A two-time Olympic gold medalist, captain of the 2012 "Fierce Five" and the 2016 "Final Five," renowned for her competitive courage, was terrified of the coaches and administrators of USA Gymnastics. "I was terrified at first because I was so used to them having control," she says. "But I realize we're fixing things for the next generation."

Let's be sure it really is fixed this time. Don't waste her bravery.

"Inaction is inaction. Silence is indifference. Justice requires a voice," Judge Rosemarie Aquilina told the courtroom Wednesday. "There has to be a massive investigation as to why there was inaction. Why there was silence. Justice requires more than what I can do on this bench."

For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.

Read more:

Related: Perspective: USA Gymnastics needs a total overhaul

Related: Testimony during Nassar trial was a parade of horrors

Related: Analysis: Judge Rosemarie Aquilina was a media master in Nassar case


Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. She began her second stint at The Washington Post in 2000 after spending the previous decade working as a book author and as a magazine writer.

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Olympics | Perspective

USA Gymnastics allowed Larry Nassar to prey upon innocent victims. Congress must investigate.

By Sally Jenkins

January 24, 2018 at 2:39 PM

Watch more!
A courtroom full of Larry Nassar's victims and accusers cheered and hugged one another after the disgraced former USA Gymnastics team physician was sentenced up to 175 years in a Michigan state prison on Jan. 24. (Reuters)

A national organization with the initials USA on it forced young girls to submit to pelvic exams by a child molester. Literally hundreds of them were isolated in mandatory "camps" and were repeatedly assaulted by a barehanded pedophile for years on end, while nobody cared to notice that no decent doctor would perform such an exam on young girls, much less ungloved. Where in the fresh red hell is an independent investigation into USA Gymnastics, and why isn't Congress threatening to smash the U.S. Olympic Committee's charter into pieces with a gavel over this?

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