19th April 2018

US Athletes criticise sport for not protecting them against sexual abuse

Four former athletes have told the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation that sport had failed to prevent and halt the sexual abuse carried out by Dr. Larry Nassar and other officials, in a hearing (video below) held in Washington DC yesterday. A written testimony was also accepted from London 2012 Olympic gold medal winner McKayla Maroney, who was not present at the hearing.

‘Nobody was protecting us from being taken advantage of’, wrote London 2012 Olympic gymnastics gold medalist Jordyn Wieber in her written statement to the Committee (PDF below). ‘Nobody was even concerned whether or not we were being sexually abused. I was not protected. My teammates were not protected. My parents trusted USA Gymnastics and Larry Nassar to take care of me and we were betrayed by both. And now, the lack of accountability from USAG, USOC, and Michigan State University, have caused me and many other girls to remain shameful, confused, and disappointed.’

‘To this day, I still don’t know how he could have been allowed to do this for so long’, continued Wieber. ‘We now know he abused my sister survivor and fellow Olympian Jamie Dantzscher twenty years ago. Women at Michigan State University reported his abuse even earlier and they were silenced and ignored. If these institutions had done their job, neither of us would be sitting here today.’

“Of particular concern to me are the reports that the USAG actively sought to silence Miss Maroney with a non-disclosure agreement in response to a lawsuit she filed against the USOC, USAG & Michigan State University”, said Senator Blumenthal in his opening address. “This non-disclosure agreement shows the hazards, and dangers and damage that can be caused by those kinds of enforced concealment agreements. It would impose a US$100,000 fine if the victim were to violate its confidentiality clause, by speaking out about the sexual abuse.”

In a February 9 letter (PDF below) to Senator Blumenthal, USAG admitted that as part of a settlement agreement with Maroney, she had signed a NDA. However, it also said that NDAs had not been used in connection with any of the other athletes abused by Dr. Larry Nassar.

Maroney outlined how Michigan State University, the USOC and USAG had ignored previous indications that Nassar’s treatment of women might put them at risk of sexual abuse. ‘When my story became public the US Olympic Committee said; “Each doctor working with our athletes undergoes background checks including an evaluation of medical licensure actions. Unfortunately, this predator was not identified by any organization during the time in question.”’, she writes in her written testimony (PDF below). ‘Reports in the Nation’s leading newspapers and media outlets document credible claims that Michigan State University trainers and coaches received complaints about Nassar going back to the late 1990s. These complaints were ignored.

‘In 2014, Nassar was the subject of a Michigan State University investigation based on additional complaints of sexual misconduct. This botched investigation concluded that Nassar’s actions, which he has now admitted were sexual assaults, were legitimate medical treatments. He was allowed to go back to work at Michigan State University and continue molesting girls. USA Gymnastics and the US Olympic Committee were never informed of this investigation.

‘When other Olympic and National Team athletes complained to USA Gymnastics about Larry Nassar in 2015 he was allowed to retire as the Olympic Team doctor and Michigan State University was never informed of the complaints against him. He returned to Michigan State University and allegedly continued to molest young girls until he was finally arrested nearly a year later.

‘A simple fact is this. If Michigan State University, USA Gymnastics and the US Olympic Committee had paid attention to any of the red flags in Larry Nassar’s behaviour I never would have met him, I never would have been “treated” by him, and I never would have been abused by him.’

Jamie Dantzscher, who won a bronze medal in gymnastics at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, highlighted how USAG’s failure to enforce its own policies enabled abuse to take place. ‘I now understand that through all of that time USA Gymnastics had policies that prohibited adults from being alone in hotel rooms with children but they didn’t enforce the policies’, she writes in her testimony (PDF below). ‘USA Gymnastics put out an immediate statement about my lawsuit. They said they found out about Dr. Nassar’s misconduct in 2015 and “immediately” contacted law enforcement. A few months later we found out that was a lie. USA Gymnastics has now admitted that they waited more than five weeks before contacting the FBI…and the FBI waited a year before contacting any of the survivors or their families.’

Speed skater Bridie Farrell, who suffered sexual abuse by her coach, Andy Gabel, argued that the USOC is culpable for the sexual abuse that she and gymnasts suffered by failing to take action against the perpetrators. ‘Scott Blackmun [former USOC CEO who resigned for health reasons following revelations that athletes had been sexually abused] knew that Dr Larry Nassar was a monster’, she writes in her testimony (PDF below). ‘Yet, Scott Blackmun still fed young girls in leotards through a door knowing full well there was a hungry lion on the other side. Over 250 women have come forward. People have died. Families have been torn apart. Lives have been largely ruined. Hundreds of women have PTSD, depression, anxiety, trust challenges, to name a few. The CEO that looks the other way or strategically wears earmuffs is just as much a kingpin in the game as the one committing the crime.’

Figure skater Craig Maurizi said it had taken almost 20 years for his abuser to be suspended. ‘In my case, the abuse began nearly 40 years ago when I was 13, I reported it to my sport’s governing body, The US Figure Skating Association, nearly 20 years ago’, he writes in his testimony (PDF below). ‘And my abuser was suspended from coaching less than two months ago’.

Next steps

In total, over 260 athletes have alleged that they were abused by Dr. Larry Nassar. The testimony of athletes from other sports, outlined above, indicates that this issue is not confined to Nassar’s abuse within gymnastics. At last year’s Play The Game conference, it was outlined that 37% of athletes have experience of sexual violence. Karen M. Leach spoke about how her mother had committed suicide due to not being able to protect her from sexual abuse carried out by coach Derry O’Rourke.

Senator Jerry Moran, Chairman of the Senate Committee, has said that another hearing will take place on 22 May, and has notified USAG, USOC and Michigan State that it would like them to participate. All three bodies face numerous lawsuits alleging that they did not do enough to protect athletes from the sexual abuse carried out by Dr. Nassar. USA Gymnastics has launched legal action (PDF below) against seven of its insurers, seeking to maximise the funds it can claim to defend itself against ‘at least nine’ lawsuits connected to the actions of Dr. Nassar.

USAG has admitted that it waited five weeks before reporting allegations of sexual abuse to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), while it conducted its own investigation. In a statement, it said that the FBI had said that USAG had ‘handled the matter correctly’. Yet Texas law requires anyone suspecting child abuse to report the matter immediately.

Nobody has attempted to calculate the total damages bill that USAG might face. Sponsors such as Under Armour, AT&T, Kellogg, Proctor & Gamble, and Hershey have dropped their support of USAG. It appears unlikely that USAG would be able to financially survive all of the lawsuits launched against it, if they are all successful.

It has been suggested that installing some of the victims as board members of USAG and USOC might offer a path towards initiating change. On 22 May, it will be interesting to see what recommendations the Senate Committee has as to the next steps that should be taken to rebuild trust in sport’s duty of care to young people.

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