On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, disgraced gymnastics doctor and convicted child sex abuser Larry Nassar stood in front of a judge in Lansing, Michigan. He had just pleaded guilty to seven counts of sexual assault—a small fraction of the crimes he’s been accused of committing. As Slate’s Jeremy Stahl wrote, Nassar’s plea deal will allow all 125 victims who reported their assaults to the Michigan State Police to read statements at his sentencing in January.
The abuse allegations—for which Nassar will likely serve at least 25 years in prison—span his entire career in gymnastics, during which he served as a team doctor for Michigan State University, the Twistars (a club in Lansing), and the U.S. national team. (Nassar also recently pleaded guilty to federal child pornography charges after an astounding number of images were recovered from his devices.) Nassar’s accusers include Olympic gold medalists McKayla Maroney, Gabby Douglas, and Aly Raisman, the latter of whom defiantly recounts her abuse—and USA Gymnastics’ infuriatingly slow response to it—in her recent memoir Fierce.
Gymnasts and their parents began making documented complaints about Nassar as early as 1997 (see this detailed timeline), reporting that the doctor had disguised his abuse—fondling and digital penetration—as “treatment” for injuries. These allegations were not taken seriously until Aug. 29, 2016, when former gymnast Rachael Denhollander took a “shot in the dark,” becoming the first person to file a criminal complaint against Nassar. (Denhollander’s complaint came a week and a day after the gymnastics portion of the Rio Olympics concluded.)
As a result of his suite of enablers (or, to be undeservingly charitable, the negligence of high-level operators) at Michigan State and USA Gymnastics, Nassar was able to continue “practicing” his “medicine” unabated for almost two decades. During these years, hundreds of girls and young women were sent to him by parents and coaches. How is it possible for a serial predator to offend so blatantly, for so long, in such a highly visible position—sometimes, as in Denhollander’s case, with parents in the room—without being found out?
Much of it has to do with the wide-ranging culture of sexual abuse that has finally, thanks to the recent spate of high-profile allegations, become the topic of an extended serious discussion in the United States. Often, victims don’t report sexual abuse: They’re scared to; they don’t think anyone will believe them; they are afraid they will be shamed.
But Nassar’s case needs to be understood within the context of gymnastics. As a level-8 gymnast in the late 1980s and early 1990s who trained alongside several elites, I worked with three different coaches (that I know of) who were later arrested for child sexual assault. (None abused me.) Given my experience in the sport, the fact that Nassar got away with it for so long does not surprise me. As Dvora Meyers has written in her exhaustive and harrowing coverage of the Nassar case for Deadspin, USA Gymnastics’ insatiable hunger for medals allowed the organization to tolerate (if not outright encourage) abuse for decades.
But it’s also important to recognize that this culture of abuse is not limited to the U.S. national team. Indeed, what enabled Nassar (and what could enable other coaches and trainers and doctors) is the unique and unusually fraught relationship that gymnastics cultivates between a young athlete and her own body. In no other competitive sport must a girl begin training both so young and with such physical intimacy with her coach.
An elite female gymnast spends nine hours a day being told what to do with every part of her body, and often being guided, positioned, and protected by coaches’ hands. Do it again, arms straighter. Do it again, butt tighter. Do it again. Again. Again. I don’t care if you’re tired. One more word and it’s 200 push-ups. I remember when my newer teammates would get their first “rips”—when your hands blister from the uneven bars and then the blister rips off. Our coaches would laugh and tell us to get back up there.
From the youngest possible age, we were taught that the best gymnasts work through pain—that even mentioning the pain constitutes complaining and that champions don’t complain. Not about anything, ever, but especially not about the ailments of bodies that, as we ascend to the sport’s higher levels, become less our own and more an instrument of other people’s will. It’s unsurprising that so many of Nassar’s victims either did not understand what he was doing, were too afraid to say anything, or were ignored when they did. Gymnasts learn before puberty that their bodies are everybody else’s business.
Any gymnast who becomes a champion has to want her body to do all of that gymnastics, and to want it badly; Raisman’s descriptions of her determination to get to the Olympics twice bear this out. But an athlete cannot get to the international elite level without sacrificing her autonomy—to the coaches who demand the hundredth repetition, to the national team coordinator who will yank someone from an international competition at the slightest sign of weakness, and to the doctors entrusted with fixing the innumerable (and often gruesome) injuries that result from nine hours a day spent flipping upside down, at full speed, 15 feet off the ground, under duress.
What makes Nassar’s abuse especially nauseating, then, is his deft maneuvering within this culture. He understood and capitalized on the fact that the girls and young women in his care were all too accustomed to allowing trusted adults to exercise dominion over their bodies.
At the same time, as Raisman details in Fierce, he offered himself up over and over as the confidante, the friend, the advocate, the cool guy who encouraged humane training schedules. For just a few minutes, he allowed the athletes to feel as if they were doing something to heal their battered selves—and to feel that he was the guardian of their well-being. That is what makes Nassar’s actions so unforgivably awful. He constructed an illusion of the physical safety that these girls and young women so desperately craved, and then he ripped it all away.