Column: Parents of young athletes must face the disturbing truth in light of Larry Nassar’s crimes
When my oldest daughter was in eighth grade, she was picked for a traveling all-star soccer team, and I momentarily lost my mind.
I stopped being a parent and started being a fan. The coaches became deities, their orders became gospel, and my faith became blind.
The girls were traveling with only a couple of chaperones to a state tournament? Cool! They were staying in some unnamed hotel with who-knows-who in their rooms? Awesome! Late practices at weird locations with special tutoring? Go for it!
For a couple of weeks, my parenting instincts were sacrificed on the almighty altar of sports, and even though my daughter had a wonderful experience with kind and decent people, it could have been so much different.
She could have been a standout gymnast, and her team doctor could have been Larry Nassar, which prompts a necessary conversation.
If a child molester like Nassar can be protected by a major university, a national sports organization and the United States Olympic Committee, who can parents trust with their child athletes?
The answer, as we’ve all been so horribly reminded, is to ask questions, listen to your child and trust nobody until they’ve earned it.
The horror on display for the past week in Courtroom 5 of the Ingham County Courthouse in Lansing, Mich., marks the largest sexual assault scandal in this country’s history and maybe the most tragic youth sports story ever.
It’s the story of nearly 200 females, mostly athletes, including Olympic gold-medal gymnasts, who were molested during examinations by Nassar over the past two decades while he was a USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University physician.
It’s the story of parents continually trusting a sports system that failed them at every level, from the lowliest Michigan State coach to the vaunted USOC.
Nassar, 54, has been sentenced for 60 years in prison on child pornography charges. He also pleaded guilty to 10 sexual assault charges for which he will be sentenced on Wednesday.
As part of the plea deal, Nassar’s victims have been allowed to confront him in court — 177 of them have so far, powerful women and girls facing their demon and firing back with strength and inspiration.
They’ve cried, they’ve cursed, and some have nearly collapsed, as they’ve all powerfully given witness to the pain of assault and the will to endure.
Videos of their testimony are all over the internet and parents should watch. That could have been your child. It could have been my child.
Little girls don’t stay little forever. They grow into strong women who return to destroy your world.
Kyle Stephens, the first victim of Larry Nassar to testify
Athlete after athlete told stories of being ordered to visit Nassar by a coach, often without a parent present. During what he called treatment, he would vaginally or anally penetrate them for as long as 20 to 40 minutes. When they complained, they were told they didn’t understand medicine or were otherwise shushed. Until now.
“Little girls don’t stay little forever,’’ said Kyle Stephens, the first victim to testify last week, looking directly in Nassar’s face as the doctor hid behind his hands. “They grow into strong women who return to destroy your world.’’
Mattie Larson, one of the last women to testify, spoke of being molested at the Karolyi Ranch, the former cathedral of USA Gymnastics. The ranch is located in the woods outside Houston, where cell phone service is sketchy and parents weren’t allowed. She also described being molested in Minnesota at her first national championships, penetrated by the doctor even with a USA Gymnastics trainer in the same room.
“Larry, you were the only one I trusted,’’ she said. “In the end, you turned out to be the scariest monster of all.”
The issue of trust has been a recurring theme. The athletes and their parents had to trust a system that churned out Olympians. Or they had to trust the university if they wanted to compete in college. And that gave Nassar his opportunity.
Anne Swinehart, whose daughter Jillian was abused when she was 8, spoke for many of the tortured parents when she said, “To think I let this happen to my child when I was sitting right there…’’
This could happen to any of us with children in sports, right? We hand them over to strangers with no questions asked. We send them to distant backyards for pitching lessons, to desolate ice rinks for early-morning skating practice, and we walk away for hours or even entire weekends.
And when some sports authority tells us our child has potential but needs a private therapy session with a team doctor, we’re not skeptical, we’re thankful for the attention.
In this case, only too late did the parents realize that even the biggest and brightest of sports institutions care mostly about themselves.
Nassar worked for Michigan State, and at least 14 staffers and school representatives reportedly knew about his abuse for more than 20 years. Yet, even when Nassar was finally the subject of Title IX and campus police investigations in 2014, school president Lou Anna Simon didn’t even look at the reports, and at least 12 more assaults occurred before the doctor was fired.
Michigan State did worse than ignore Nassar; it enabled him. The school even continued to charge women for sessions in which he was accused of molesting them.
”My mom is still getting billed for appointments where I was sexually assaulted,’’ Emma Ann Miller, 15, said in court this week, before the university finally stopped halted its billing.
This scandal is, by numbers, larger than the Jerry Sandusky child molestation case that cleaned out Penn State’s president, athletic director and legendary football coach. So how does MSU president Simon keep her job? In one of the most sickening statements in a case full of them, trustee Joel Ferguson said during a radio interview, “There’s so many more things going on at this university than just this Nassar thing. … I mean, when you go to the basketball game, you walk into the new Breslin [Center] and the person who hustled and got all those major donors to give money was Lou Anna Simon.’’
For Ferguson’s Michigan State, it seems that money trumps morality. Listening to the gymnasts, the same philosophy was followed by USA Gymnastics in the pursuit of Olympic gold.
Four of the five members of the “Fierce Five’’ group that won a team gold medal in the 2012 London Olympics alleged they were abused by Nassar.
“Both USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee have been very quick to capitalize on and celebrate my success,’’ gold medal winner Aly Raisman said in one of the many compelling statements last week. “But did they reach out when I came forward? No.’’
Steve Penny, USAG president, resigned last March, and three members of the organization’s board of directors resigned Monday. But it’s not enough.
The USOC needs to decertify USAG, clean house, and start from scratch. Current gymnasts might temporarily lose funding and their ability to compete internationally, and that might not be fair, but it’s the only answer.
“The fact that a system that is supposed to protect children has failed them so bad is so wrong,’’ Shawn Johnson East, a former 2008 Olympic gold medalist, said in a video she posted on the internet. “I think gymnastics is the best sport in the entire world, but if I had a daughter right now, I wouldn’t put her in it.’’
If you are a parent of a child athlete, only one system of protection can be totally trusted. That protection is you.
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