On Jan. 24, Lawrence Nassar, the USA Gymnastics national team doctor convicted of serial child molestation, was handed a state prison sentence of 40 to 175 years. During the trial, more than 150 adult women and young girls evidenced how Nassar sexually assaulted them under the guise of treating them. Victims recounted how they, over the years, turned to the authorities of the organization for help but received none. Several others recounted how USA Gymnastics did not come to the aid of victims but instead came to Nassar’s defense by offering the victims money for their silence. Of course, Nassar is responsible for his crimes, but from a wider perspective, he is just one of many factors that contributed to the continued abuse. The authorities, for neglecting victims and defending the perpetrator, are perhaps at greater fault for the continued abuse of these gymnasts.
The systematic failure of USA Gymnastics to take action deserves more scrutiny than what it currently receives. Of course, claiming that the organization shares the blame is not an argument to say Nassar is any less guilty. However, in the undeniable reality where criminals exist, authorities like USA Gymnastics must take action against perpetrators and actively protect the victims. USA Gymnastics failed to do so and must take steps to prevent the failure from repeating.
In an interview with Outside the Lines, gymnast Aly Raisman made clear that the organization prioritized reputation more than the individual athletes. In a situation where the organization should have undoubtedly helped the victims, USA Gymnastics chose to save the perpetrator instead.
The first wrongdoing of USA Gymnastics was the negligence of victims. The organization failed to respond immediately and swiftly to accusations of sexual abuse. According to an investigation by The Indianapolis Star, the board governing the national gymnastics team turned a blind eye to Nassar’s abuse for several years despite numerous concerns raised by athletes and their parents. Even in the midst of recent concerns, it took the organization five weeks to contact the FBI in 2015. Nassar was relieved of his duties two days after the FBI got involved but continued to see more than 40 pre-scheduled athletes until 2016. According to the New York Times, the board members of USA Gymnastics apparently told victims that they were resolving the issue, but it was later revealed in court that USA Gymnastics did not contact any law enforcement until much later.
As if negligence was not enough, USA Gymnastics actively helped Nassar escape publicity by paying or pressuring victims to keep silence. Multiple gymnasts said in the trial that USA Gymnastics asked gymnasts and parents to refrain from contacting local authorities themselves. Gymnast McKayla Maroney was silenced with a confidential $1.25 million settlement with a $100,000 fine for breaching the non-disclosure clause at the trial. Steve Penny, the chairman at that time, called the mother of another gymnast, Maggie Nichols, to dissuade her from reporting Nassar to the local officials. On multiple occasions, Penny asked Nichols’ mother to remain quiet and reassured her that the organization was already working with law enforcement, only to contact law enforcement months later. USA Gymnastics’ active participation in defending Larry Nassar clearly depicts that it supported the perpetrator in efforts to protect the organization’s reputation rather than making reparations for the victims.
The organization should take certain actions to stop its members from repeating what it did in Nassar’s case. Board members who chose not to investigate Nassar despite having full knowledge of accusations must be identified. Several board members have already resigned, but victims have identified more people who have ignored their accusations. These board members, who let Nassar’s abuse continue, should also be penalized. The beginning of Nassar’s abuse may be entirely Nassar’s fault; however, the continued abuse is the fault of USA Gymnastics, who had the full capability to stop the abuse in its beginning stages. USA Gymnastics attempted to save its reputation by sacrificing the victims but in the end burned both their reputation and ties with hundreds of hardworking athletes.