150 athletes have accused Larry Nassar of sexual assault and abuse—among them Aly Raisman and Simone Biles. So why is this not the biggest sports scandal of all time?
In the midst of this #MeToo moment, there are 150 or so athletes who have accused a single man—a top-ranking sports doctor—of sexual assault and abuse. Among those 150 or so athletes (yes, one-hundred-and-fifty, that’s not a typo) are the world’s undisputed best in their fields, who say they endured abuse and assault at the hands of this man not for a few months or years, but for decades, in most cases beginning when they were children. This man, who is affiliated with one of the country’s powerhouse public university athletic programs, has pleaded guilty to sexual abuse charges and been convicted on child pornography charges.
Even if you consider yourself a denizen of the sports world, you might be forgiven for not knowing the details of this case, which has been dwarfed by the unrelenting stream of sensational takes on Aziz Ansari—from outlets like The Atlantic, The Guardian, Vox, and The New York Times, in just a few days. The man’s name is Larry Nassar, a Michigan State University–affiliated sports doctor who treated members of the USA Gymnastics program, including the gold medal 2016 Olympic team, several members of which say that they, along with—again, the number boggles—150 or so other athletes, including gymnasts, soccer, and volleyball players were abused and assaulted by Nassar. All under the guise of receiving medical treatment.
The scope of Nassar’s crimes alone—he’s already pleaded guilty to ten counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct—should dominate headlines. But the fact that Nassar’s victims were among the most highly decorated athletes in what may be the Olympics’ most-watched sport coupled with the fact that his victims were children and teenagers? This isn’t just the biggest sports story of the last two years—it’s arguably one of the biggest sports stories of all time.
What coverage exists of Nassar’s crimes has been robust and credulous, but the extent of what it must have taken for Michigan and USA Gymnastics to ignore or silence Nassar’s victims over the years means that, even if he ends up in prison for the rest of his life, there are many others behind the scenes who enabled him. And that’s the conversation that must not be lost. These stories should be told, and perpetrators should be tried, be it in court or in the court of public opinion. But the media’s job isn’t just to move from one story of unthinkable abuse to another, but to uncover the systems that permitted—and enabled—such abuses to begin with.
This is a multifaceted story that goes deep—but the attention paid to it since local outlets in Indiana and Michigan began breaking news about the abused gymnasts in 2016 pales in comparison to the eyes, pens, and cameras trained on similar revelations in football, such as the Sandusky sexual abuse scandal at Penn State or Baylor University’s cover-up of rape charges against college football players that resulted in the ouster of head coach Art Briles.
For perspective on the gymnastics story, I talked with the journalist who broke Baylor wide open: Jessica Luther, who knows Baylor coverage better than anyone, and who tweeted Tuesday about the mainstream sports-media machine’s timid approach to Nassar just as his sentencing hearing began in Michigan. Luther’s book, Unsportsmanlike Conduct, is an essential read and a ruthless and unwavering look at the college athletics machine’s inadequate and dangerous approach to gendered violence. It is not an accident that it’s a book about football.
“One thing I often say when talking about why my book is about college football and sexual violence, rather than any other sport or pop culture arena, is that people care when it’s football,” Luther says. “Because you are threatening a power structure they love. That’s where they will have the conversation.”
American sports fans are deeply invested in football, and especially in protecting football from criticism that goes any deeper than throwing back a couple of beers at the tailgate party and sparring over trades and stats. But they will talk about football, if only to claim that someday, when the allegations are true enough and the crimes are bad enough, they will really and absolutely take this whole sexual assault thing very seriously. This was the tenor of much of the resistance to Luther’s book: The implication is, of course, that we shouldn’t overreact to just any allegation of gendered violence, because when we do react to the real allegations, we will really go to town on whoever is responsible!
Will we, really? Because we aren’t right now. Nassar sexually assaulted children. Dozens of adults working in a collegiate sports program and in one of the most prestigious Olympics programs—some of whom knew about the allegations against Nassar long before they became public—were either so incompetent that they were unable to handle Nassar themselves, or so self-interested that they thought they could get away with a cover-up. Michigan State’s gymnastics coach resigned after she was suspended in February 2017, and two other Michigan State doctors, including Nassar’s boss, have left the program. The president of USA Gymnastics also resigned last year. This is a story that should absolutely shake the sports world to its core.
“There are very few spaces sacred enough to sports people that they’ll even have this conversation,” Luther said. “I feel like the Nassar case has proven me right on this in the worst way, and it makes me so fucking angry.”
I’m pretty fucking angry, too. I’m angry at everything the spotty coverage of the Nassar case shows us—how it exposes the lies we tell ourselves about sexual abuse, assault, and harassment. It shows us that lots of folks really are not as mad as you think they would be about the sexual abuse and assault of 150 young girls and teenagers. That many more folks aren’t even being given the opportunity to decide how mad to be, or not, because the sexual abuse of 150 child and teen girl athletes isn’t more interesting to most sports editors and producers than a hail-mary pass in a playoff football game. That the sports fans and sports writers who always seem to be looking for the perfect victim when players are accused of rape or domestic violence could hardly ask for victims more sympathetic than star gymnasts, and yet—the headlines just aren’t there. That programmers consider an NBA locker room kerfuffle a crime worthy of repeated, multi-day, multi-angle, lead coverage while other-newsing the many dozens of young athletes gathered in a Michigan courtroom confronting their abuser.
Nevermind the fact that women’s and girls’ sports get less media attention than men’s sports. And it follows, of course, that when women’s and girls’ sports are sidelined, they make less money—from advertising, from endorsements, from investors. And then we’re told that because they make less money, they’re just not worth putting on television, or on magazine covers…
But gymnastics is the exception that proves the rule; it routinely delivers ratings gold for NBC. Which means sports media can still correct its course with the gymnastics story, especially—if cynically—with the games coming up. This is a chance to show that sports writers and sports fans really can take sexual abuse and assault seriously, instead of rolling their eyes and asking when we can all get back to the game. The evidence is clear. The victims are vocal. And there’s no reason this shouldn’t make it out of the sports pages and on to the front pages. Have nearly 100 survivors of sexual abuse ever confronted a convicted predator, on camera and in a courtroom? Anywhere?
That’s not just surprising and newsworthy in a sports context, it’s surprising and newsworthy for human history. And if first drafts of history are what we’re supposed to be writing, we’re really, really pushing this deadline.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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