by Rebekah Frank
On Tuesday, March 28th, 2017, former Olympic gymnast Jamie Dantzscher testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about her experiences as an elite athlete. Dantzscher reported that starting when she was 12 years old and continuing through the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games six years later, she was sexually abused by the USA Gymnastics (USAG) team doctor, Larry Nassar. She spoke in front of The Committee in support of an amendment to the federal law that governs Olympic sports organizations in America. This amendment, formulated by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Cali), would overhaul the ways in which organizations that put together the United States Olympic teams deal with allegations of sexual assault and misconduct within their sport. The legislation would require anyone associated with an Olympic governing body, such as USAG, to report allegations of sexual misconduct to law enforcement and would create procedures intended to prevent coaches who have been fired due to such accusations from getting a job at another club. Although this legislation would impact all Olympic sports, it appears to be in direct response to what some have characterized as gross negligence on the part of USAG when it comes to protecting its athletes from serial sexual predators.
Women’s gymnastics poses a unique challenge when it comes to preventing misconduct. Athletes spend roughly 35 hours per week in the gym, sometimes working one-on-one with their coaches. Hands-on spotting is required to assure athlete safety, and as a result coaches are often male owing to the fact that on average men are taller and have more upper body strength than women. The sport also requires that an incredibly high level of trust exists between coach and athlete; a poorly placed foot or a missed hand could result in serious injury or death. In the best cases, this leads to an incredible bond between gymnast and mentor, where the two individuals function as a team and are able to help one another reach the goals they have set. In the worst case, this unquestioned trust and imbalanced power dynamic can result in a situation where a coach abuses the athlete or else turns a blind eye to the misconduct of others in pursuit of a shared dream. In the case of Dr. Larry Nassar, and of 2010 USAG Coach of the Year Marvin Sharp before him, the organization seems to have prioritized its own success over the safety of the athletes, many of whom are minors.
In an interview with 60 Minutes this past February, former USAG National Team member Jessica Howard summarized her experience of abuse and explained why she and the dozens of other gymnasts who have come forward since Nassar’s arrest didn’t do so previously. She said, “no one wants to step out of line because there’s a group of people that make decisions that dictate whether you’re successful or not. So you just comply with what you’re told to do.” The people who make up the governing body of USAG, the body that chooses who represents the United States in international competition, are the same people who see these young women monthly at the National Team Training Camp in Huntsville, Texas and they are the same people who hire the support and medical staff that are tasked with keeping the athletes safe and healthy. The gymnasts spend their entire childhood and early adulthood attempting to impress the members of USAG because those people hold the key to their futures; without the approval of the USAG Selection Committee the gymnasts dreams simply cannot come true. As a result, the athletes unquestioningly do as they are told because they assume, understandably and probably correctly, that obedience is required for the realization of their dreams.
As of March 23rd, 103 women have come forward and joined the federal lawsuit against Dr. Larry Nassar. Among these women are members of the USA gymnastics national team, club gymnasts in Eastern Michigan as well as student athletes at Michigan State University where Dr. Nassar had an office. Almost all of the suits list USAG, MSU and Geddert’s Twistars, a Lansing-area gymnastics club, as codefendants for ignoring red flags about Nassar’s behavior. What this growing lawsuit indicates is that over the course of at least 2 decades USAG, as well as other organizations and individuals, shirked their moral responsibility to protect the women under their guidance and instead allowed a doctor to have unfettered access to them. Perhaps these organizations operated in a shadowy area of the law, but what they did was look the other way as young women were routinely victimized and disempowered under the guise of medical attention. If the situation involving the Catholic Church is any indication of what is to come, it seems likely that this lawsuit will grow larger by the week, month and year and the uphill battle that USAG will have to fight to regain its reputation as a safe space for young athletes is only beginning.