It is common knowledge by now that former USA Gymnastics team doctor of 18 years, Larry Nassar, was convicted of molesting hundreds of young gymnasts.
The real question is, how did this sexual abuse go unnoticed for so long? Why did it take over two decades for Nassar to be brought to justice?
I believe that the culture of USA Gymnastics, and the sport of gymnastics in general, is largely to blame.
There is no doubt that gymnastics is one of the most intense sports out there. Gymnasts are trained from a young age to obey authority figures at all costs. Talk back, and you are punished. Voice your opinion, and you are silenced. At least, this was my personal experience with the sport.
In Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman's autobiography, "Fierce", Raisman recalls one teammate who was reprimanded by her coach for simply stating, "Yes, I understand the correction." The coach told her that she was being rude by "talking back". This is the kind of culture that many gymnasts are raised under. Please keep in mind that not all coaches teach in such an abusive manner. I've had some really great coaches who were strict, but never abusive. But many coaches-- not just in gymnastics-- but in all competitive sports, can adopt an authoritarian mode of teaching, utilizing positive punishment and fear conditioning as ways to reinforce correct behavior and skills in athletes.
So put yourselves in these young girls' shoes. They were taught from an early age to not talk back and to not question authority figures. After many years of being silenced, these girls make the elite level and begin to work with the team doctor, Nassar. Here is this physician with a University of Michigan education, tons of professional experience, and is well-established within USA Gymnastics. This man was trusted, presumably highly capable, and outwardly charming and kind. Aly Raisman recounts Nassar coming into the girls' hotel rooms during competitions and offering them bread-- a luxury, in the world of gymnastics. When they first encountered Nassar's "sessions", they must have sensed something was incredibly wrong with his unconventional method of healing. But here was this doctor who had worked with dozens of Olympic gymnasts. He was the epitome of an expert and authority figure. And because gymnasts were taught to never question authority, they silently repressed their feelings of intense discomfort and submitted to Nassar's continual abuse.
Again, I am simply assuming what must have been going on in these poor girls' minds, based on personal experience with the oppressive culture that permeates USA Gymnastics. I could be wrong. There must have been other external factors that contributed to the decades of silence regarding Nassar's abuse. But at the root of it, I truly believe, based on my experience as both an artistic and rhythmic gymnast, that the root of this scandal was the culture of gymnastics.
USA Gymnastics is not the only federation to be guilty of silencing their athletes. In summer of 2011, I trained with one of China's rhythmic gymnastics province teams. The abuse in this country made that of the US seem miniscule. These Chinese coaches would not hesitate to hit the girls' shins with clubs during conditioning, if they were not straightening their legs or pointing their toes enough. One time, the girls were caught fooling around in the foam pit, in the middle of training. When the head coach found out about this, she made all the girls line up single file and went down the line, slapping each girl hard on the face. That day, the girls had to do double the amount of conditioning, until by the end of it, each girl was sobbing with exhaustion. My goodness. I am tearing up as I recount this horrific memory. How these girl suffered at the hands of their coaches-- this kind of physical and psychological abuse would not be tolerated, in the US. No freaking way. And the crazy thing is, at one point in my life, abuse was my normal. My baseline. I was blind to the abuse, and didn't see what my coaches did to me as wrong or unjust. The phrase "no pain no gain" was so deeply ingrained into my being that I saw pain as the ONLY way to attain success. So whatever my coaches put me through, it was to build character and make me a stronger, better athlete.
Gymnastics is a sport that requires immense discipline for one to succeed. The training hours are long and brutal. The nature of the sport is incredibly difficult to master. Because of that, it is vital that gymnasts listen closely to their coaches to ensure their growth, as well as to prevent serious injury. But, as I learned in my Psychology of Learning class this past quarter, the method of positive punishment to reinforce behavior oftentimes backfires, as punishment introduces FEAR CONDITIONING, which does nothing but scare athletes into submission. How can one learn effectively, if they are petrified of their superiors? In the long run, these athletes are no longer driven by the desire to improve, but rather, the avoidance of failure and fear of disappointing their coaches. At least, that was the case in my own experience.
But I digress. Back to my main point-- Larry Nassar was able to get away with his crimes for so long because gymnasts were deprived of their voice from the moment they began competitive training. They were told exactly what to do by their superiors and thus were not only deprived of a voice, but also rendered incapable of thinking for themselves.
Sexual abuse in itself is complex. Oftentimes, victims of abuse try to justify the actions of their abusers and convince themselves that what they experienced could not have been abuse. Because the reality of being a victim of sexual abuse is much too painful to face. I know this, for I myself was a victim of sexual abuse and molestation. I was 16 years old when this happened, and it happened at the hands of a man I knew for a while and trusted. I won't get into the details of what happened... not even my family or my closest friends know about this, for I buried the memory deep into the darkness of my mind. But all I remember was, in that moment, I was so petrified with fear and confusion that I completely froze up and didn't say a word. I let it happen, and I chose to keep silent about it-- more for my own self-preservation, than anything else. But here I am, sharing this with all of you, because I think it is relevant to this discussion. When young girls are molested, they face a myriad of complex emotions. Confusion. Betrayal. Fear. Hurt. Violation. And instead of addressing these emotions, many people-- especially athletes, who are conditioned to not show pain or weakness-- find it easier to suppress such dark feelings and block it out of their memories, instead of confronting them head-on.
So, those are my thoughts on the Larry Nassar scandal and why it took so long for him to be convicted. It was only when a female gymnastics coach overheard a group of gymnasts talking about what happened to them, that action was taken for this monster of a man to be brought to justice.
If y'all have your own thoughts about the scandal, please feel free to share and leave a comment. If you yourself are a victim of abuse, please know that you are not alone. That it is NECESSARY for you to speak up for yourself when you feel the slightest bit of violation. You have a VOICE. Don't be afraid to use it, no matter who tells you otherwise.