If you pay attention to the news at all, I’m sure you’ve seen something about Larry Nasser over the past couple of years. You may even be fairly familiar with the story. If so, the Netflix documentary Athlete A might not offer a lot of things you don’t know to some extent or other. But, you may want to watch it anyway, even though watching it and hearing the stories will be difficult. I did a couple of nights ago, and had a couple of thoughts about it, in no real order of importance.
- Even though I knew a lot about the Nasser story, I didn’t really know much about the training process for the US National Team. Seeing the Karolyi’s ranch and hearing parents talk about how the girls would go down there for training, away from any distractions, including parents, who weren’t allowed, and have everything dictated to them and questioned/ridiculed for their weight, faking injuries, etc. makes me realize how easy it would be to do what Nasser did in that environment. Everything was done in pursuit of winning, period. Nothing else mattered, and that created a perfect atmosphere for a pedophile.
- Maggie Nichols, the gymnast who was identified as Athlete A, was the first one to officially report Nasser to USA Gymnastics, in 2015. USAG did not report it to law enforcement for 5 months while they did their own investigation, and even after reporting it to the FBI, it doesn’t appear as though anything was done, other than Maggie finding herself not on the Olympic team. Nasser at that point, had already been part of USAG, and abusing girls, for years. You may ask yourself why no one had reported it before? See my previous point, you do what you’re told in pursuit of winning. Complaining, about anything, is weakness.
- Even when the Indy Star reporters published the story about the culture at USAG, they didn’t know about Nasser until former gymnasts started calling in to tell them. Some from USAG, some just from local gyms in Michigan. Rachel Denhollander was, by her own admission, not US Team level good, but she loved the sport and enjoyed the competition. She existed outside of that win at all costs culture, but still didn’t report until years later. Her quote that has stuck with me
“I didn’t know much at 15, but I knew abuse victims weren’t treated well”.
I suspect that will be my lasting memory of the documentary, because it’s a deep truth we don’t often like to admit. Yes, we can put mandatory reporting laws on the books, but even then, this show makes clear that we need to make sure people are actually following the law in that regard, and we can put more oversight into training environments, and even work to change the win at all culture that doesn’t protect teenagers from being forced to play injured, or controlled at every turn, but if we don’t change that simple fact, across all of society, victims will still not come forward. This isn’t just a sports thing. I’ve seen story after story of people who didn’t come forward because their school, church, family, group, etc. seemed more interested in keeping the status quo than believing a victim. That’s a problem, a problem we all own.
If your first instinct when hearing about sexual abuse, even as a rumor, is to think to yourself “that person wouldn’t do that”, you are part of the problem. No one thought that nice, charming, doctor working with the gymnasts was a predator, and here we are now, learning there were hundreds of victims. So I have to ask, if someone told you a nice teacher, of any gender, or coach, neighbor, or even relative, was abusing children, would your first instinct be to believe the child and seek an investigation, or remind yourself of how nice the adult is?
If it’s the latter, you have your answer for why victims don’t come forward.