$500 million is a staggering sum of money. It’s $43 million more than the winning Powerball jackpot ticket sold in March. It’s what the general manager of Metro, which serves the District, Maryland and Virginia, has said he needs annually to save the ailing transit system. It’s what the Chinese government is kicking in to a project in Indonesia that just so happens to include some Trump branding.
Yet, as the amount of money that Michigan State will pay in a settlement to 332 alleged victims of Larry Nassar, the former doctor for USA Gymnastics who was convicted of sexually assaulting women and girls under his care, $500 million shouldn’t actually seem like very much at all. Everything about the Nassar case is overwhelming. But if we can’t reckon with all of these numbers and the crimes behind them, we have no hope of grappling with the deeper brokenness of our sexual culture.
Nassar is hardly the first mass sexual predator in American history, or even this particular era. Instead, his crimes are all too similar to those of Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant coach for Penn State’s football team, who in 2012 was convicted on 45 counts of child sexual abuse. In both cases, powerful men used a prestigious athletic program to gain access to their victims. And at both schools, officials appear to have been negligent, if not worse, in handling abuse allegations against these men, allowing their depredations to continue for years.
Nassar’s offenses are compounded by the cultural expectations his victims faced. Even as he was allegedly abusing Olympians such as McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman and Jordyn Wieber, the gymnasts were expected to perform at an exceptionally high standard on an international stage and to be cheerful representatives of their country. American values and youthful innocence have always been more symbols than realities — and we’ve known for years that the lives of young athletes can take very grim turns — but Nassar’s crimes were still crimes against those ideals.
The temptation to classify Nassar as a monster, the scope of his crimes as a horrifying aberration, and Michigan State’s failures and the scale of this settlement as a hideous lesson is understandable. To believe all this was one awful exception would be to render the violation more contained, and more psychologically manageable. If this is one series of crimes that happened in one flawed institution in one state, we can reassure ourselves that it can’t happen here — that the world largely makes sense and functions as it should.
But the real lesson of the last eight months is that these comforting ideas are lies. There are many Larry Nassars, Jerry Sanduskys and Harvey Weinsteins, though not all of them are so ruthlessly effective at exploiting their positions of power to find new victims. There are many institutions such as Michigan State, and many people who were willing to do no more than issue vague warnings to the people in their immediate orbits. The combined costs of settlements and civil suits brought during the #MeToo era will climb higher and higher. And no matter how vertiginous the total gets, there will be something inadequate about any effort to assign a dollar figure to the violations that victims of sexual harassment, abuse and assault have experienced.
This is often the point at which social change bogs down. Comprehending the scale of the problem becomes too much for us to bear. Contemplating the nature of a true solution, which might require us to remake our institutions or our culture from the roots on up, seems to ask too much of us. These moments are measures of our broken culture, and our collective personal frailty. The only thing to do is to hope that $500 million is the beginning of a horrible tally.