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Why Did So Many Adults Minimize the Abuse in US Gymnastics?

Last week I’m sure many of you either read about or have seen the testimony that was given by Simon Biles, Mckayla Moroney, Maggie Nichols, and Aly Raisman about the FBI “investigation” into abuse allegations against Larry Nassar. And, of course, the obvious question that comes to mind is how the investigators could spend so much time minimizing what the girls were saying at the time, and how the adults all around them in the gymnastics program could continue to just not really do anything about it.

It all seems so shocking, and yet, if you spend much time with other sexual abuse survivors, it also seems so common.

How many of us tried to tell someone what was happening only to be shut down? Yes, we can, and should, be appalled that a professional investigator would do such a thing, but how often does it happen that parents, teachers, neighbors, etc. have a child indicate that something horrible is happening, and the adult immediately starts to consider the other adults involved. Surely that nice doctor, or parent, or Little League coach, or tutor, or just friendly neighbor, wouldn’t do that, would they? Would I want to ruin their lives by listening to this child and acting on it? Maybe the child just didn’t understand what was happening, etc.

Or, my personal favorite (not), even if it is happening, they’re young, they’ll surely put it behind them, kids are resilient. (We’ll come back to this monstrosity of stupidity later.)

The reality of the US gymnastics program during this time is that it had been remarkably successful at the one thing we ask athletic programs to do, winning. We finally had a program that consistently beat the Eastern Europeans and Chinese teams. The US was dominant, the young ladies were heroes, athletic role models for the next generation of gymnasts, the popularity of the sport was growing by leaps and bounds. Every little girl wanted to be the “next” gold medalist, and all in all, things were going great. Why mess that up with investigating something that might not even be true?

In an opinion piece, Lynn Stuart Parramore describes it this way:

Over and over, the world-class but still very young athletes were told that their view of Nassar’s actions was wrong. He was the respected adult. They were the children and should accept the adult viewpoint.


The gymnasts’ testimony painted a disturbing picture of officials more focused on how their own reputations were burnished by these prize-winning athletes than on protecting and nurturing the growing human beings in their care. The girls’ perceptions were continually deemed inferior to those of adults — and their right to have crimes against them addressed was consistently violated.

As I read that though, I’m reminded, again, of how many parents and others have said essentially the same thing to other children when confronted with what is happening. Again, consider how many children are told they must have misunderstood, or they are overreacting, that the adult in question is a good person, and wouldn’t do that. That is what we want to believe. It feels safer to us to consider sexual abuse as something that happens “out there”, with strangers who abduct children from mall parking lots and playgrounds. Not the nice people in our own circles, circles that are safe, secure, and do not have to deal with this kind of drama. Circles we would like to keep that way, at almost any cost.

I have written about this before, but it very much reminds me of a conversation over coffee I had with the former director of Prevent Child Abuse Louisiana after they closed up shop a few years back. I asked her specifically why it was such a struggle to fundraise, and her answer was revealing to me. People didn’t want to donate money to such a depressing cause. People complained about public education campaigns for being too disturbing, too upsetting. Businesses wanted to tout their sponsorship of positive programs in their community, not be known as the sponsor of a topic like abuse, even if the actual goal was to prevent it. There was too much negativity around it to want to be involved.

In short, talking about child abuse, especially sexual abuse, is just such a downer. Who wants to do that?

So, when I look at a highly successful program like US gymnastics, like Penn State football, like USA Swimming, like English Youth Football, etc. I think we can clearly see this. Why be such a downer, don’t you see how much good this program, and the people in it, are doing? It’s probably nothing, just some misunderstanding by over-imaginative kids. Nothing to worry about, look at the success we are having in the field, gym, or water. That’s what this is all about. That’s the important thing. The rest of this will pass.

Except in the case of US Gymnastics, these ladies, and dozens of others, have not simply let it pass. They have remained steadfast in talking about it, making sure they can do everything they can to make sure it doesn’t happen to the next generation and reminding all of us that winning at all costs, is not worth the damage that is done to children who are sexually abused.

They are truly resilient, like many of us who have survived sexual abuse, and gone on to talk about it, share our own stories, and live our adult lives. But never confuse that resiliency with how hard it really is to do. Never look at a survivor who has appeared to overcome their abuse, and assume that it’s ok to diminish what happened to them. It’s never easy, and for each one who might appear to have overcome, I’ll show you 5 who are still struggling every single day. You’ll find many of them in prison, or mental health care centers. Still dealing with the aftermath of their childhood trauma without access to the same support and resources that we lucky few have had the privilege to have. Yet they are all human beings, and they were all children once, children who had to suffer at the hands of adults who were more interested in their own pleasures, comfort, and place in their society than they were to consider the damage being done to these children.

Don’t be one of those adults. There are many ways to abuse a child. Larry Nassar did and is paying for his crimes, finally. But there were a whole lot of other adults who abused these girls, by not taking it seriously, not investigating, and not caring enough about them as human beings to protect them. Make no mistake about that.

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