By: Rebekah Frank
As many of you who know me personally are probably aware, I am a HUGE gymnastics fan. While friends are binge watching the newest series on Netflix and Hulu, I am rewatching National Championships from the late 90’s, exploring NCAA gymnastics meets and reviewing some of my favorite routines and gymnasts from over the years, amazed by what they have been able to do with their bodies in such limited pieces of air. It is death defying, beautiful, seemingly impossible and yet they do it. And what’s even more amazing is that they make it look easy.
As many of you also know, being a gymnastics fan right now is a very unenviable position to be in. I have watched over the past year and change as my favorite sport has been ripped apart from the inside out, slowly, methodically, and the world has paid no attention. Not until the past few weeks, anyway, and I am so angry. I am so angry that I feel as though I could punch a hole through a brick wall. I am so angry that I am afraid that if I didn’t stop myself from clenching my jaw my entire face might explode. I am so angry that if I ever met Larry Nassar in person I think I could do something I never thought possible of myself; I think I could actually kill him with my bare hands and feel no remorse whatsoever. I am so angry that I want to shake every single person in this entire fucking country and ask them where they were, why they haven’t been listening and why, when the Indy Star broke this story over 14 months ago, why no other goddamn news source picked it up. Where were you, New York Times? Washington Post? NPR? ESPN? Where were you when these women were coming to terms with what was done to them? Where were you to tell them that we were listening, that we cared, when people ignored their pleas for help for decades?
Let us not forget, these were children.
I remember back in 2015 when Larry Nassar disappeared from USA Gymnastics with no fanfare, not even a word. As an avid fan I knew how well respected he was, I knew that he was touted as the best gymnastics doctor in the world. He was a miracle worker, he could fix anything. But then one day, leading up to the 2015 World Championships and the 2016 Olympic Games when we were expected to sweep the field yet again, he was gone. Just poof. Shortly thereafter Marvin Sharpe, coach of 2008 Olympians Bridget Sloan and Sam Peszek, was arrested on child pornography charges. He was later found dead of an apparent suicide. No one said a word. And then it came out that the national governing body of the sport, USA Gymnastics (USAG) had been covering up abuse charges for decades, Catholic Church style. They had complaints about 50 coaches spanning decades. Coaches who they allowed to transfer to different facilities around the country without informing the owners and other coaches of the monsters that were in their ranks, monsters that were training young boys and girls who entrusted them with their safety. When the story broke in the Star it became clear that USAG was an organization capable of covering up the worst in the interest of maintaining a clean reputation all in an effort to win medals, and money, on the backs of young athletes whom they mistreated and did not protect.
These were children.
There were reports about Nassar going back decades. Athletes who went to school counselors, local police departments, coaches, Child Protective Services, university athletic directors going all the way back to the 1990s. No one said anything. No one stopped him. We are talking about a man who stuck his ungloved fingers inside the vaginas of scores of young women under the guise of medical treatment. We are talking about a man so vile that he told girls he could help them achieve their dreams, all while robbing them of their innocence. We are talking about a man who angled himself into a career, a position, where he would have unfettered access to girls who thought he was their friend, their protector. And we are talking about organizations – USAG, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), Michigan State University (MSU), Geddert’s Twistars – who looked the other way for decades as this man violated women who they were obligated to protect. And then, when they couldn’t ignore it any more, they tried to sweep it under the rug and hope that no one would notice and they almost managed it.
They almost fucking managed it. Here were are, in the middle of the #MeToo movement and #TimesUP and a serial pedophile who preyed on young girls for decades was almost tried and convicted with no media acknowledgment whatsoever. USAG, MSU and the USOC have been putting out toothless statements about the bravery of the young women who have come forward and have done absolutely nothing to take on some of that work themselves. These women are survivors and, as is always the case, they are out there alone doing the heavy lifting. These women, women who have been trying to get people to listen to them for decades, some of whom have brought fame on USAG and the USOC through their performance on the national and international stage have been cast aside. They have been made to feel as though they only hold worth as long as they fly through the air in sparkly leotards adorned with the Stars and Stripes. So I have to ask, where has everyone been? At this moment when people are finally, finally listening to women, why did it take 14 goddamn months of a constant cascade of information for The New York Times to put this on the front fucking page? This is the biggest sexual abuse scandal in sports history and they were children and it was not deemed important enough to print until now. I’ll tell you why. Because for as important as the #MeToo Movement has been we are still knee deep in a disgusting patriarchal culture that does not listen to the voices of women even while news outlets congratulate themselves on how much space they have been giving to our voices. If they cannot make space to out a serial pedophile and the organizations that stood blindly by all while creating an environment that was just aching to host a monster like Nassar then we have gotten no where, our voices, our pain, still mean nothing.
I have been saying since the beginning that our downfall is our tendency to valuate the experiences of victims in order to decide whether the career of one man is worth being ruined. How many of our voices does it take? How many of our careers, our lives, have to be stymied in order to protect the trajectory of a man’s life? How many young girls coming forward to the people whom they trusted with their safety and their happiness and their innocence does it take to get one serial fucking pedophile put behind bars? I think we have our number and it is higher than we know.
When will people start listening? At what point will one abuse be enough to end it? When will our stories permanently stop being relegated to women’s interest subsites as if our experiences do not have universal effects on the societies in which we live. Our experiences matter. What we endure shapes the world around us. I would love to tell everyone to shut up and listen but the problem is that they claim to be but they simply aren’t. How long did it take the news to go crazy over some bullshit story about tide pods? Not 14 months, I can tell you that much. The bottom line is that we as a society simply do not care about women and we do not care about little girls. This story has made that abundantly clear and it breaks my heart every single day.
Am I happy that this monster will die in jail? Yes. If there was a way for us to keep him alive for every single second of his 175 year sentence, I would support it. I want that man to suffer for every moment of the rest of his miserable life. When he is sleeping I hope he replays these past few days in his mind until his very last day. But that is not all that I want. I want USA Gymnastics to be decertified as a governing body until they completely clean house. Every person that worked at that organization while this was allowed to happen has got to go and we need to start fresh. If that means less medals, so be it. The athletes must always come first. I want Marta and Bela Karolyi investigated for their role in this atrocity and fuck them if they think they get to retire in peace and determine their own legacies. They did this. I want every person who had involvement with the athletic department at MSU gone, starting with the president of the University, Lou Anna Simon. I want a complete overhaul at the USOC because that is clearly not an organization that can or should be trusted with the safety of any athlete. And I want people to finally listen to women and girls when we speak. I want people to trust that we understand the difference between a good touch and a bad one, that we can discern a joke from abuse. We are raised to protect ourselves from men, it is the only thing that allows us to survive.
So no, I am not happy and I am not relieved. I am fucking angry. Remember Dominique Moceanu? That little girl who danced into our hearts in 1996? She has been trying to expose the abuse within USA Gymnastics for years and she was maligned. And here’s a name you might not know: Rachel Denhollander. She was the one who started this whole process by reaching out to the Indy Star over a year ago when they published an article critical of the culture of USA Gymnastics. She knew what Nassar did was wrong when it happened to her but she didn’t report it until now. Why? Because she knew no one would listen to her, no one would believe her. And she was right.
This is not just about one man. This is not just about one sport or a few governing bodies. This is not just about the countless adults who did nothing in the face of decades of abuse. This is about all of us. We need to start caring. And not just paying lip service. We need to demand that these stories are told front and center because that is the only way we can stop this from happening again. Because if we continue the way we are, it will happen again. Who knows, it might be happening right now.