The Penn State child sex abuse scandal of 2011-12 stunned the nation, sending assistant coach Jerry Sandusky to prison and bringing record NCAA penalties upon the Nittany Lions’ football program.
This is worse.
What we are seeing play out this week in a Lansing, Michigan, courtroom involving USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar might never be given the same infamy because it didn’t involve a storied major-college football team or a legendary coach like Joe Paterno, on whose watch that disgrace unfolded.
But this is worse.
That is not to diminish what those Penn State victims endured, but the magnitude of Nassar’s destruction, much of it also against children, appears far greater. It is one of the most monumental scandals in the history of sports, and also of the medical profession.
More than 140 women — each so strong, together an unbeatable army — have come forward to testify against Nassar. For years he sexually abused scores of young female athletes under the guise of treatment, athletes whose parents or coaches placed their trust in a predator. He “treated” U.S. women gymnasts through four Olympic Games. He took advantage of athletes at Michigan State University, where he was on the faculty. He abused little girls, some as young as 6.
Seven national-team gymnasts, including Olympic stars Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney, have said that they were abused by Nassar. On Monday, Simone Biles lent the heft of her stardom and also stepped forward. She set an American record in winning four gold medals in 2016, which we might now recast as even more remarkable considering the trauma she’d gone through as a teen from her “doctor.”
Biles, now 20, said: “For far too long I’ve asked myself, ‘Was I too naive? Was it my fault?’ I now know the answer to those questions. No. No! It was not my fault. No, I will not and should not carry the guilt that belongs to Larry Nassar, USAG and others.”
In December, Nassar, 54, was sentenced to 60 years in prison on federal child pornography charges. Now he awaits additional sentencing on 10 guilty pleas to charges of sexual assault, of digitally penetrating 10 girls without consent — as recently as 2015. Prosecutors are seeking a 40-year sentence.
Almost 100 women in all — the “Me Too” mindset in full force — are scheduled to give victim impact statements over four days in that courtroom this week, as a shamed doctor cannot help but listen, and hear about the pain he caused. What brought these women to that courtroom is heartbreaking, but what they are doing there will mend hearts and lift them.
It is almost unfathomable to think a decorated world-class athlete such as Biles, a star who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and Time magazine, was among the victims of Nassar’s vile crimes.
It is no less impactful, though, to hear the testimony of those who are not stars, names you may not know.
How profoundly powerful it is when the victims seize control. Perhaps their testimony won’t heal all the invisible scars left by Nassar, but perhaps it will help.
The first victim to speak this week was a woman, Kyle Stephens, whose family was friends with Nassar. She is the only non-medical victim who has come forward. She spoke in detail of how Nasser abused her for six years, starting when she was only 6.
“Little girls don’t stay little forever,” Stephens told Nasser, her voice fighting a tremble. “They grow into strong women who return to destroy your world.”
Nassar destroyed his own life, of course, his dark urges beyond his control. He has been contrite. Too late. “A match turned into a forest fire,” he described what became years of abuse. Too late. Those far more religious than myself might be capable of forgiveness. I cannot find it.
For years Stephens’ parents believed Nassar, not their daughter, when she would say some of the things he was doing. Stephens’ father committed suicide in 2016. She said she thinks it was because of the shame he felt when Nassar became national news and he realized for the first time that his little girl had been telling the truth all along.
Donna Markham said in court that she took her 12-year-old, Chelsey, to Nassar for medical treatment, and that the girl broke into tears on the drive home, saying the doctor had put his fingers into her vagina even as her mom sat in the room. That led Chelsey to depression and drugs, her mother testified.
Chelsey committed suicide at age 23 in 2009.
“I miss her every day,” said her mother. “And it all started with him.”
Much of the testimony against Nassar also has implicated the lack of oversight by USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, which are the subjects of several civil suits. Many girls and women spoke out over the years, all to disbelieving ears — until finally the weight of the individual accusations became a collective force. Nassar abused these women; the system let them down. There is strength in numbers, but there shouldn’t always need to be. There should be strength in every individual allegation. In something this serious, every one should be taken seriously, and investigated.
One victim, Olivia Cowan, addressing the gymnastics governing body and university, said: “You failed all of us, and for that I see you in the same category of criminal as I do the criminal standing before us today.”
Nassar’s victims coming forward mirrors the #MeToo movement we saw blossom in late 2017 in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal involving Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein as more and more women have come forth.
Ironically, Nassar himself may have coined the phrase. In September 2016, as his world was crumbling around him, Nassar emailed his boss, a Michigan State dean who has since resigned, to warn him that more allegations may be imminent. Nassar wrote, he said, “Before the ‘Me Toos’ come out.”
Well, the Me Toos came out, yes.
And, at the intersection of Empowerment and Justice, they crushed the man who had betrayed their bodies and their trust.