Larry Nassar and Sexual Abuse in Gymnastics
Content Warning: This article deals with the high profile case of a man molesting a significant number of girls. Please read with discretion.
For gymnasts, coaches, sexual assault advocates, and a large portion of the general population, December 13th was a crucial day of closure. In the Southern District of Indiana, the widely observed sexual assault case of Larry Nassar, team doctor of the US women’s gymnastics team and convicted molester, reached a settlement after years of court proceedings. The settlement included $380 million given to the survivors of his sexual abuse, the amount each girl getting was according to how long they had sustained abuse and severity. There were more than 500 girls abused, including many prominent gymnasts like Simone Biles and Aly Raisman.
This settlement would be paid out by insurers of both USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympics and Paralympics Committee (USOPC), the latter of which is also paying an additional $34 million as well as giving USA Gymnastics $6 million in loans. It was originally supposed to be a $425 million settlement, but this higher amount was modified when disagreements with insurance companies arose. Included in the settlement are also some non-monetary restitutions, such as the mandate that at least one survivor of Nassar’s assault would need to be on the board of directors for handling future cases, as well “independent accounting of what went wrong in the Nassar case, and how it went wrong” (qtd in Macur 2).
The first major settlement payout is from an incident that happened in 2018 at Michigan State University. One of his first locations of practice was also a place where he sexually assaulted many women. This led to $500 million being allocated to survivors of his abuse at Michigan. This money will be given to compensate not just for the assaults, but for the effects of them, as many women have reported suffering from severe PTSD and other trauma-induced illnesses as a result of their experience. This case is in tandem with the USA Gymnastics bankruptcy case, meaning that the organization, which had filed for bankruptcy after the controversy in 2018 due to many major sponsors pulling out, is predicted to recover. Nassar has already been sentenced to up to 175 years in jail by Judge Rosemarie Aquilina back in the 2018 hearings.
While the settlement was reached just at the end of 2021, Nassar’s first recorded assault was actually back in 1992 when he was still working as a trainer for USA Gymnastics. The first recorded complaints against him were documented in 1997, which youth gymnastics coach John Geddart refused to look into. In fact, for many asking “How was he able to get away with it for so long?” this may be part of the answer: USA Gymnastics has come under fire from both gymnasts and news outlets for allegedly covering up and dismissing sexual harassment complaints about Nassar and others.
“There is no other sport in which this could have happened but gymnastics. These girls are groomed from an incredibly young age to deny their own experience. Your knee hurts? You’re being lazy. You’re hungry? No, you’re fat and greedy.”
Another part of the reason may be the culture surrounding gymnastics itself: “There is no other sport in which this could have happened but gymnastics. These girls are groomed from an incredibly young age to deny their own experience. Your knee hurts? You’re being lazy. You’re hungry? No, you’re fat and greedy. They are trained to doubt their own feelings, and that’s why this could happen to over 150 of them,” explains Joan Ryan, author of the 1995 book Pretty Girls in Little Boxes on some of the more toxic parts of the gymnastics community she has witnessed. When asked for a quote by The Guardian, former gymnast and US Champion Jennifer Sey talked about how sexual abuse was a bit of an open secret in the gymnastics community. Gymnasts did not speak up for fear of not making the team or even getting blackballed by the industry, which did happen to some of the gymnasts that spoke up against Nassar.
Both the CEO of USA Gymnastics and USOPC released separate public apologies to the women on their Twitter accounts, commending them for their bravery and promising to do better. Indeed, there is speculation that this case will lead to at least a slight shift in the gymnastics community, as more victims are empowered to speak out and more authorities realize they could be held liable for their actions.