Larry Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in prison last Wednesday. He was sentenced to seven counts of criminal sexual misconduct, but the scope of the trial made it obvious that his crimes went far beyond those seven counts. At the trial, almost 200 women and girls gave victim impact statements about Nassar’s crimes and how they were affected by them. One of the most striking and painful aspects of their testimony was the fact that many, if not most, of these girls told an adult about Nassar’s conduct. The adults didn’t listen.
The three main institutions that employed Nassar were USA Gymnastics (USAG), Michigan State University (MSU) and Twistars, a gymnastics club in Michigan. At these three institutions, Nassar continued to abuse girls for decades. The first reports of his abuse begin in the 1990s. At Twistars, athletes were too terrified of their violent head coach, John Geddert, to report Nassar’s abuse. At MSU and USAG, girls had been reporting Nassar for years. The administrations of MSU and USAG ignored the girls’ reports. The girls were told that they were immature to be bothered by the fact that a sports therapist was touching them, and that they were ungrateful to criticize the care of a top-tier doctor.
Despite the intense publicity of the Nassar case, the issue of athlete disempowerment and sexual abuse is not exclusive to gymnastics. It’s a problem with youth sports in general. Youth sports, especially when young athletes compete at the highest level, have an institutional culture that promotes athlete disempowerment and discourages athletes from reporting abuse.
In high-caliber youth sports like gymnastics, where women are eligible to compete at the Olympic level the year they turn sixteen, adult coaches and sports business-owners make money off the success of children. Coaches use the accolades and fame of their athletes to attract children to their gyms. As minors, the athletes either don’t make any money from the sport, or all their money is controlled by their parents and athletic governing organization. As major financial beneficiaries of their athlete’s success, coaches and athletic administrators are encouraged to push their athletes to succeed despite all obstacles. In some cases, this attitude fosters discipline and grit, but in others, it creates an atmosphere of hyper-obedience and disempowerment that attracts abusers.
There are many ways that sporting institutions can counteract this culture of disempowerment. One is to make athletic administrators and coaches mandated reporters. This means that, if an athlete reports a case of sexual abuse to a coach or administrator, they are legally required to report that abuse to law enforcement immediately. There is a bill in the Senate, called the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act (S.534), that would require employees of athletic organizations be mandated reporters. This bill would have been massively helpful to Nassar survivors under USAG, since in 2015 USAG conducted a five-week independent investigation into Nassar before reporting him to the FBI. If S.534 were passed before 2015, the USAG administrators involved in the independent investigation could be criminally prosecuted.
But even if coaches and administrators are mandated reporters, athletes might still be discouraged from reporting for fear of retaliation. Survivors of Nassar said that they were afraid to report his abuse because they thought that USAG and MSU would ban them from competition.
One of the most powerful ways to fight fear of retaliation is through unionization. If every single high-level athlete in a sport is a member of the same union, the organization cannot retaliate against that union, as they would lose all their athletes. In the case of youth sports, any union would have to be led to both students and parents, who would work together to craft demands that improve reporting procedures and discourage abuse. If the union is large enough, the athletic organization would have to implement all of the demands.
To stop sexual abuse in youth sports, athletes have to be either as powerful or more powerful than their coaches and governing organizations. Additionally, the law must change so that authority figures who look the other way when athletes are being abused can be easily charged with a crime. The survivors of Larry Nassar, as well as abuse survivors in any sport, have been let down by weak child abuse laws and disempowering athletic organizations. If athletes were encouraged to unionize and athletic authority figures were forced to report abuse, Larry Nassar might never have abused young girls.