USA Gymnastics’ ‘Darwinian System’

How a culture embedded in USA Gymnastics enabled Larry Nassar’s abuse

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

The summer of 2016 brought to light the worst sports sex abuse scandal in history. Two hundred sixty-five people, mostly women and girls, were abused by USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, a number exceeding the sum of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby’s victims combined. The victims’ testimonies contained information about the horrible “medical procedures” Nassar put them through, which involved ungloved intravaginal exams. With this enormous number of victims, coupled with the several accusations against Larry Nassar from gymnasts and other athletes over the past two decades, a question arises: How was this abuse able to continue for so long?

Bone-chilling stories came to light at Nassar’s trial in January. One of the most distinguished athletes in the gymnastics community, McKayla Maroney, shared the horrors she underwent, one of which happened on a flight to Tokyo. Aboard the plane, Nassar gave Maroney a sleeping pill. She woke up in his hotel room while he was performing one of his “medical procedures,” and she stated, “I thought I was going to die that night.” Along with Maroney, other elite gymnasts shared their stories of abuse as well, such as Aly Raisman and Jordyn Wieber.

Nassar’s victims go beyond Olympians and national team members. He also abused athletes at the institute where he held his practice: Michigan State University. In 1997, Larissa Boyce, a gymnast who participated in a camp at MSU, first reported a case of sexual assault involving Nassar. When she reported this to her coach, her coach interrogated her and relayed the information to Nassar, who then explained himself out of it to Boyce at their next appointment. Boyce was ultimately pressured to apologize to Nassar. Two decades of abuse could have potentially been avoided had Boyce been taken seriously. Another MSU athlete, runner Christie Achenbach, experienced the same assault in 1999 and reported it to her coach, who, like Boyce’s, pressured her into believing that Nassar’s treatments should be trusted. Several other MSU athletes reported their sexual abuse to coaches before 2002 and were told the same thing over and over again: that Nassar was a respected doctor and that they should trust him.

Stephens stated in her testimony that she believes the guilt her father felt led his subsequent suicide.

Another striking testimony from Nassar’s trial was that of Kyle Stephens. Stephens was sexually abused by Nassar, a family friend, from when she was 6 years old until she was 12. Stephens said during the trial: “Let me remind you of the interests of a 6-year-old girl. My favorite TV show was Clifford the Big Red Dog. I could not do a multiplication problem, and I still had not lost all my baby teeth. I think we can all agree that someone of this maturity level should not be sexually active, but I was.” When she told her psychologist at age 12, he set up a meeting with Nassar and Stephens’ parents instead of notifying the police. During this meeting, Nassar convinced Stephens’ parents that the abuse was not happening, and Stephens’ parents chose to believe Nassar over their daughter. Stephens stated in her testimony that she believes the guilt her father felt led to his subsequent suicide.

This sort of abuse went on for over two decades, as the first case of Nassar’s abuse was reported in 1997. Coaches and members of USA Gymnastics ignored complaints from gymnasts, often telling them that Nassar was a highly esteemed doctor who worked with elite athletes and should therefore be trusted and respected. Parents were told that if their daughters received treatment from Nassar, it was a sign of their destined greatness. Nassar also played the role of the nice guy, the antithesis to the girls’ harsh coaches and their intense, regimented schedule.

Larry Nassar is not the first case of sexual abuse within women’s gymnastics. Journalist Scott Reid investigated USA Gymnastics and called the organization a “Darwinian system.” Reid completed an investigative report on several coaches in 2004. Reid discovered that 1984 Olympic coach Don Peters had had sex with three of his teenage gymnasts at his gym. Doug Boger, a coach in California during the ‘70s and ‘80s, had abused a series of young gymnasts and was named USA Gymnastics Coach of the Year in 2009 while he was the national team coach despite being under investigation.

It is clear that the scandal of Larry Nassar is not an isolated issue. The problems are rooted in the culture of women’s gymnastics. Joan Ryan at NBC news, who wrote about the systemic child abuse happening in women’s gymnastics in 1995, wrote in response to Nassar’s case: “In the warped culture of elite gymnastics, girls are made to believe they have no say over their own bodies. Their hunger is dismissed. Their pain is dismissed. Their fear is dismissed. When they do speak up, coaches and officials convince them they’re mistaken. You don’t understand that pain, hunger and fear are the normal price you pay for greatness, they say. And: You don’t understand the difference between sexual abuse and a medical exam.”

Coaches and members of USA Gymnastics ignored complaints from gymnasts, often telling them that Nassar was a highly esteemed doctor who worked with elite athletes and should therefore be trusted and respected.

Larry Nassar was first sentenced to 60 years in federal prison for possession of child pornography. Then, at his trial at the Ingham County Circuit Court in Lansing, Michigan, he was sentenced to 175 years following the 165 victim testimonials. On Feb. 5, in his third and final criminal case, Nassar was sentenced to another 40 to 125 years after 60 more women testified against him. The minimum amount of jail time Nassar will serve is 125 years because his two sentences in Michigan are served concurrently.

The U.S. Olympic Committee responded to this scandal by forcing the USA Gymnastics board of directors to resign. In a letter requesting the board’s en masse resignation, the USOC reflected on its failure to protect its athletes. Michigan State’s president, Lou Anna Simon, resigned Jan. 24, and the resignation of Mark Hollis, the athletic director, followed two days later.

This case has understandably placed USA Gymnastics under intense scrutiny. Corporate sponsors are revoking their donations and elite athletes, such as Aly Raisman, are demanding reforms. USA Gymnastics has to be as transparent as it can in light of its potential criminal charges. However, the organization cannot release an admission of guilt due to its several lawsuits in Georgia, California, and Michigan for putting its athletes at risk. This makes regaining the public’s trust extremely difficult. While the USOC forced USA Gymnastics’ board of directors to resign, it was careful not to blame USAG for failing to protect its athletes. USA Gymnastics will have to remake itself and address the issues that are rooted in the organization.