“Little girls don’t stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world.”
Those words, spoken by sexual-abuse survivor Kyle Stephens to her tormentor, Larry Nassar, likely chilled the hearts of every parent in America. Nassar, who rose to prominence while working with USA Gymnastics, began abusing Stephens when she was 6 years old. She reported the abuse when she was 12, only to find that her parents didn’t believe her.
During the recent sentencing phase of Nassar’s prosecution on seven counts of criminal sexual conduct, three of the counts for sexually abusing girls under 13, 105 young women will give victim impact statements, detailing Nassar’s abuse and telling a Michigan judge how it affected their lives. Nassar, once a highly sought-after doctor who worked primarily with USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, was previously sentenced to 60 years in prison for his collection of child pornography. To date, more than 150 young women, including some of America’s most decorated gymnasts, have alleged sexual abuse by Nassar.
The horror stories surrounding Nassar are stomach-churning, and all the more tragic for how easily many of them could have been avoided. For years, young women reported Nassar’s abuse to parents, police and school staff, only to have their reports ignored. The seemingly endless litany of missed opportunities to stop Nassar and prevent other children from abuse has left many wondering: How does a sports parent know when a trusted coach, trainer or doctor is behaving inappropriately with their child?
Gymnasts, in particular, become used to being touched, held, thrown, caught, bent and stretched by coaches at an early age, sometimes blurring the lines between “good touch” and “bad touch” for small children. Given the competitive nature of parents involved in youth sports, a coach taking a special interest in a young athlete is as likely to be attributed to a child’s superior athletic genes as grooming for sexual abuse. So what can sports parents do to protect their child from becoming prey to predators like Nassar?
Few parents are as competitive as those who think they have a superstar athlete on their hands, which can make spotting inappropriate behavior by coaches and trainers difficult. But no matter how much talent, if a coach is taking a special interest in a child, parents must ask themselves why. If a coach stresses the need to be alone with the child, in the gym or outside it, parents should see it as the inappropriate request that it is, rather than giving in to the flattery of a coach’s attention.
Former Olympian Nancy Hogshead-Makar, now a civil rights lawyer and chief executive of the legal advocacy group Champion Women, says it’s crucial to begin talking to children about “good, ethical” coaches at an early age, with age-appropriate language. “Parents have to teach kids that they have bodily autonomy, to know what’s theirs, and to trust their inner gut. We don’t want parents telling their kids ‘Do whatever the coach says,’ ” she said. “Athletes have to be empowered to say no to coaches, doctors, and trainers at an early age, or we’re setting them up for failure. Athletes and coaches should not be in an authoritarian relationship.”
Parents should tell their young children, for example, that a good, ethical coach will never need to be alone with the child. “You will always be in an area that can be observed by other people,” is something to say to your child, Hogshead-Makar said. “You can tell an 8-year old that a good, ethical coach will never text just you. He or she will never contact just you on social media. Everything should be in group texts or social media posts. A good, ethical coach will never give only you a gift. A good, ethical coach doesn’t play favorites.”
As children approach their teen years (10-12), parents can begin wading into a discussion of inappropriate romantic and sexual relationships with coaches, telling young athletes, “Coaches should not have romantic or sexual relationships with the athletes they coach regardless of age or consent,” Hogshead-Makar said. “We have rules about teachers, doctors and lawyers having relationships with their students, patients and clients.” And coaches need to be a part of that list.
The reasons for these rules, says Hogshead-Makar, are numerous. First, young athletes must understand that coaches who enter into relationships with the athletes they coach abuse the position of power they hold over the athlete. Further, watching older teammates enter into romantic relationships can skew the judgment of a young athlete. “When an 18-year-old is dating a coach, a 12-year old getting kissed is lulled into the idea of true love.”
Hogshead-Makar says a coach who takes a special interest in a young athlete also upsets the team dynamic. Athletes who are shown favoritism by their coach get more playing time, are introduced to more college coaches, and have numerous other opportunities not available to all team members. For example, speedskater Eva Rodansky was infamously kept off the Olympic team because the national team coach was sleeping with her rival.
In an era when athletes start training with club coaches and taking private lessons at younger and younger ages, Hogshead-Makar says parents should strive to have their children in an authoritative relationship with their coach, which stresses teaching and guidance over an authoritarian relationship, where a coach exerts control through power and coercion.
And while the coach may be the expert in their chosen field, parents must feel free to disagree and give their input. “If a parent doesn’t feel like they can speak out, you’d better believe a kid doesn’t believe they can speak out, either,” Hogshead-Makar said.
Currently, Hogshead-Makar is pushing for the passage of Senate Bill 534, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), which requires amateur athletics governing bodies, like USA Gymnastics, to immediately report sex-abuse allegations to local or federal law enforcement, or a child-welfare agency designated by the Justice Department. The bill was created in response to recent allegations of sexual abuse in USA Swimming and USA Taekwondo, as well as USA Gymnastics. Voting the bill into law feels all the more urgent following reports that more than a dozen staffers at Michigan State University were told of Nassar’s abuse of young women, but failed to act.
Meanwhile, the heart-wrenching parade of victims continues in Michigan, where Nassar asked the judge to halt the victim impact statements, claiming they were detrimental to his mental health.
His request was denied.