The sentencing of Larry Nassar to up to 175 years in prison for his serial abuse of USA gymnasts is just Step One. The second step is the one everyone wants to skip over, so they can go right to "policies" instead of looking at personal responsibility. But Step Two has to happen. It's the step in which names are called, and individual actions, or inaction, are assessed.
It's the step that former USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny and the United States Olympic Committee no doubt would like to leapfrog entirely. It's the step that Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) has called for, and which needs to happen, the step that includes subpoenaing the internal communications of the leaders and coaches at USA Gymnastics and the USOC, and compelling testimony under oath in public, in order to understand how they promoted a child molester for 30 years as a medical expert. How they could have required young girls to submit to the outrages of his ungloved pelvic manipulations masked as "treatments." How they could have so violated the most basic ethics and safety norms in caring for other people's children. And whether there was a coverup that exposed more victims.
What's needed is a Mitchell Report — something as comprehensive as former senator George Mitchell's inquiry into drug use in baseball in 2007 — only with real powers and the ability to compel cooperation.
As gold medalist and "Fierce Five" team captain Aly Raisman said of Nassar, "The authorities stood up for him over the survivors, for so long."
Somehow, enduring Nassar's abuse became the mandatory price of competing for USA Gymnastics. The cost of gold medal pursuit was signing medical policies that stripped athletes of the right to say no to him. How?
A few quiet resignations of USA Gymnastics board members and talk of "culture change" are insufficient. In sentencing Nassar, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina made a critical point. "Silence is indifference," she said. "There has to be massive investigation as to why there is inaction and why there was silence."
Thus far, the only "investigation" has been a highly generalized and predictably soft report self-commissioned by USA Gymnastics. Even that was issued only under pressure, after the Indianapolis Star's explosive series in September 2016 showed that they had sat on complaints of sexual abuse for years. USA Gymnastics' response, "Proposed Policy and Procedural Changes for the Protection of Young Athletes," focuses on abstractions: the location of rooms. The names of Penny or former national team coach John Geddert are nowhere in it. Coaches Marta and Bela Karolyi are mentioned just glancingly.
The real attitude of USA Gymnastics' leaders can be summed up by their reaction to the Senate hearings held in March 2017 to address the sexual abuse. They didn't even bother to show up. The hearings resulted in legislation, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), requiring governing bodies to report sexual abuse allegations to police. But should it really have taken a new law to make the coaches and officials understand their responsibilities to other people's daughters?
In fact, the evidence suggests that they did know their responsibilities, and simply didn't care to exercise them. That is why further investigation is needed. Shaheen has proposed a Senate select committee, with subpoena power to ascertain who knew what, who permitted what, who overlooked what. How is it that national team coaches preferred Nassar and recommended him to families? How is that his credentials and methods apparently went unquestioned for 30 years, as he rose from national team trainer to its head physician? How is it that he was given such power and imprimatur: As of 2014, Nassar was on the USOC's Medical Network Advisory Board, along with renowned physicians such as Dr. Richard Steadman, and Eric Heiden .
The only reason Raisman can figure is that Nassar "was always available and just very easy, and turned a blind eye to all kinds of other stuff."
Countless adults ignored the basic guidelines of protecting children from sexual abuse. We all know them. You don't undress anyone or touch them unnecessarily. You place treatment rooms in appropriate places. You advise patients and parents why an exam must be done, and what it consists of, and you most certainly don't make it mandatory. The athletes Nassar "treated" at USA Gymnastics camps and competitions enjoyed none of those precautions. No gloves, no explanations, no nurses, no supervision. Just a stack of towels, maybe, to mask what he was doing.
"He wouldn't explain the procedure," Raisman said. "It just kind of happened. He'd say, 'This will help you.' He never gave me any exercises to help heal an injury; it was always just this 'treatment.' That was his answer to everything."
The young gymnasts would talk among themselves about how awful it made them feel. But they assumed, because he was the vaunted team physician of USA Gymnastics, the treatments must be necessary. Everyone told them so, and they had no basis for comparison.
"He had been doing it for so long, and he had done it to so many of us, that we thought if it was really wrong he wouldn't be doing it," she said. "He was the 'Olympic doctor' and everyone praised him."
But maybe nothing sums up USA Gymnastics' attitude more than what Raisman experienced after Nassar was exposed. In 2016, as she was preparing for the Olympic trials, she wrote to Penny, who served federation president and CEO from 2005-2017, and understandably balked at submitting to any more required medical treatment from the federation. She told Penny that she wanted to bring her own trusted trainer to the competition to treat her, rather than be subjected to the hands of others. She asked that Penny assist in getting him approved and credentialed.
"I hope you understand that it would make me much more comfortable," she wrote, adding that she was "freaked out."
She was hesitant and nervous about asking.
"I was afraid to text him," she says. "They always made us so uncomfortable for asking for something."
Raisman showed me Penny's brusque response: "I am working on this. Can you please get your tour agreement signed."
Penny appeared more concerned with securing another one of those waivers-releases-agreements-indemnifications that granted USA Gymnastics the right to her body, and to use, license, assign, sell or otherwise use her name, likeness, voice or performances for broadcasts, recordings, webcasts, merchandising, posters, photos, prints and images, or companies that identified as an official sponsor or supplier. The one that had made her vulnerable to Nassar in the first place.
Raisman returned the agreement with her signature, because she had to. In exchange for which she didn't even get to choose her own medical care. Her trainer was granted only a limited access credential. He couldn't get in to the Olympic trials venue.
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