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#MeToo, #TimesUp Take Hold in Gymnastics
(6 votes, average 3.83 out of 5)

Six days after former doctor Larry Nassar was first sentenced for sexual assault in Michigan, I spent the day in Washington, D.C., in support of S.534 — Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act. Pictured: Sen. Dianne Feinstein with retired gymnasts Jeanette Antolin, Jamie Dantzscher, Dominique Moceanu and Mattie Larson

Six days after former doctor Larry Nassar was first sentenced for sexual assault in Michigan, I spent the day in Washington, D.C., in support of S.534 — Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act. I was honored to be able to attend the press conference hosted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who introduced the bill in March 2017. She authored the bill, which, among other provisions, requires that all amateur sports federations and their members immediately report any suspected sexual abuse to law enforcement authorities.

Sen. Feinstein was the first national public official to recognize the issue of system-enabled abuse in the sport of gymnastics after she read the Indianapolis Star's investigative series into USA Gymnastics in the summer of 2016.

It is worth noting though that the original IndyStar series said nothing of Nassar, who had quietly left USA Gymnastics in September 2015 but was still working as an assistant professor and team doctor at Michigan State University. The series revealed, however, the chronic mishandling of reports of sexual abuse on the part of USAG over the past several decades. But the IndyStar's reporting immediately led Rachael Denhollander to contact the newspaper with her story of being sexually abused in 2000 by Nassar, who had been the USA Gymnastics women's team doctor for 19 years until he suddenly retired with less than a year before the Olympic Games in Rio. By the time the IndyStar ran its report with Denhollander's allegation against Nassar on September 12, 2016, it had received very similar reports from two other former gymnasts, including a 2000 Olympian, who had filed a civil lawsuit against Nassar and USA Gymnastics in California.

The article triggered dozens of more reports from women who contacted reporters and filed police reports. Even after the figure reached triple digits, many still supported Nassar, who proclaimed his innocence for 14 months until eventually pleading guilty and confessing that the accusations were true: under the guise of medical "treatment," he had sexually assaulted young girls and women for his own gratification.

Jennifer Sey and her baby daughter, Ruth, and former teammate Doe Yamashiro (right) with Sen. Dianne Feinstein in February 2017

In February 2017, Sen. Feinstein invited some of the athletes who had come forward about Nassar thus far, including Jamie Dantzscher, Jeanette Antolin and Mattie Larson, to share their stories with her at her office in D.C. I was fortunate enough to be invited too, though not a Nassar victim, and witness first hand the empathy she expressed for the athletes amid the abject horror their emotional stories evoked.

Sen. Feinstein asked each woman her story and allowed each to speak as long as she needed to. And one by one, they shared with her the abuse suffered at the hands of a man we now know is possibly the worst serial pedophile in American history. Further, the young women spoke of the broader culture of physical and psychological abuse in the sport which made Nassar not only possible but inevitable.

Not everyone there was a Nassar survivor. My former teammate Doe Yamashiro shared her story of abuse at the hands of Olympic head coach Don Peters in the 1980s, demonstrating this problem did not start — or end — with one man. It ran deep inside the culture. Back for decades. And was so endemic it had become impossible to see.

Victims spoke of being groomed by Nassar but also, being in a state of mind so broken down, so beaten up by their own club coaches, that they were perfect prey. So susceptible to the smallest kindness having been emotionally and physically abused by their own personal coaches for years, Nassar was able to easily lure them with a friendly ear and gifts of food. So off balance and unable to trust their own perception of the world — for years having been told "you're fat" when they were hungry, "you're lazy" when they were exhausted and over-trained, "you're exaggerating" when they were injured — they were also unable to believe their own perception that Nassar was assaulting them. He was a trusted doctor. Surely, he would never hurt them, they convinced themselves.

And now, with the passage in both the House and the Senate of the Safe Sport Act and only the President's signature needed, we can hope that things will begin to change. Feinstein promised the athletes when she met with them in February 2017 that she would bring this bill to the floor and she would get it passed. But she also acknowledged, it was only a first step, not the whole answer. Culture change is hard. That's the hard work that needs to happen next.

And as Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Olympic swimming champion and the founder and CEO of Champion Women, said at the press conference, Title IV passed 45 years ago. The passage of this statute is just the beginning. We're at the starting line right now. It is going to take a village of sport that [currently] values emotional harm, that thinks this is motivation. This is going to take a sea of change of different thinking."

It has been a long road to just get here. And we need to acknowledge this moment as a critical inflection point even if it isn't the end-all panacea to a culture so rife with all manner of abuse. None of this is a new topic. For years, women and girls spoke out and were not just ignored, they were discredited, insulted and rebuked.

Joan Ryan, author of Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters, was dismissed as someone who didn't understand. Her 1995 book was a major success, critically acclaimed and even turned into a Lifetime TV movie, but it was panned by gymnastics insiders. Ryan, they said, was just a sports writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and didn't get it — she was billed as an outsider that simply couldn't grasp the training necessary to build a champion in gymnastics.

When I wrote my memoir, Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics' Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams, in 2008, I was labeled a bitter, angry ex-gymnast who never amounted to anything. I was getting back at the sport that didn't provide me with the success I so desperately craved, according to the gymnastics community at large. I was money-seeking, releasing a book just before the Olympics to maximize sales and attention for myself. I was even accused of inventing anecdotes and criticized for not writing more happy memories of my coaches.

And then Dominique Moceanu, in her 2012 memoir Off Balance, described in unflinching detail the physical and mental abuse she suffered at the hands of her coaches, Bela and Marta Karolyi. An Olympic gold medalist. How could she be dismissed when she was an insider of the highest order? And yet she was. Dismissed, ostracized, denounced. Each time someone spoke up — no matter what her credentials — she was ripped apart and banished from the community and from the conversation.

Until the broader cultural context changed, until #MeToo became a reality in the fall of 2017, no one was heard. And until the victim impact statements in January in Lansing, no one truly felt the emotional impact, the harm that had been done. Prior to these two milestones, anyone who dared to criticize the sport, the culture of gymnastics, the governing body, was deemed an opportunist and a liar, seeking to denigrate the reputations of hard working, well-intended coaches and officials for her own financial gain.

Ironic isn't it? As it turns out, it is not those who dared to speak out and criticize the sport who were the liars and opportunists. It was those who held the power all along: USAG, the United States Olympic Committee, abusive coaches across the country — all protecting their own interests.

Their interests centered around maintaining this feel-good narrative that the Americans achieved gold-medal status while upholding our values — good old-fashioned hard-work and dedication, optimism and respect for the athlete. This made us better than those countries that produced the world champions of the past, reared in Eastern bloc regimes that weren't afraid to tout their abusive methods. But in fact, we had adopted their policies, sold our souls for a top spot on the stand all the while selling the image of a shiny happy gymnast winning medals but doing so with a healthy desire to work hard and achieve. Pin curls and powder puffs, smiles and split leaps. USAG was heavily invested in this persona. As were many coaches across the country. It brought in class kids, grew their programs, and it brought in sponsorship dollars after all. So really in the end, the culture of money and medals, was just one of money. The medals just led to the money. Which is what USAG and USOC really wanted.

USAG and its leaders created the perfect conditions for a predator like Nassar to succeed and go undetected for decades. He was willing to do their bidding — put athletes back out on the floor who were injured, all in exchange for unlimited access to their bodies.

The unexpected #MeToo revolution has paved the way for full accountability in the #TimesUp era. The bill is passed. It awaits the president's signature to become law. Employees and members of USAG, and all governing bodies for all amateur sports, will be mandatory reporters of abuse. When signed into law, this bill will criminalize ignoring reports and looking the other way that has gone on for decades with devastating consequences for young athletes. The active cover-up of this neglect has brought the issue to the forefront, to front pages across the country and news programs on every channel.

USA Gymnastics, whose entire board was forced to resign and whose corporate sponsors have all vanished, cannot blame Larry Nassar for the destruction it brought down on its own head. USAG could have declared a new day a year and a half ago, took ownership of the mistakes of the past and drove forward the change. But now the change will be driven by others. With Nassar in prison for life, the reckoning has only just begun.

Jennifer Sey was the 1986 U.S. national gymnastics champion and member of the U.S. national team for eight years before attending Stanford University. She is the author of Chalked Up (2008), a memoir detailing her time spent as a gymnast. She has written extensively on the culture of gymnastics with columns for and The New York Times. She is now the Chief Marketing Officer for Levi Strauss & Co. and the mother of four children.
Comments (1)add comment

Willard Felsen said:

In large part the Nasser affair reflects the detrimental role played by coaches throughout the world of athletics. (Not that Nasser was a coach.) Coaches tend to be dictatorial, requiring athletes to conform to the life styles and behaviors dictated by those coaches. The athletes, in turn, eager to succeed athletically and fearful of being sidelined, typically conform to the coaches' every wish. This abuse is, in turn, abetted by the athletes' partial separation from the everyday world through their hours spent training and through confinement to the training table. The consequence is that athletes tend to become the most unworldly and naive of our citizens, easily misled and abused. Coaches have a lot to answer for.
February 11, 2018
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