If you listened carefully, you could almost hear hearts breaking across America last week as young woman after young woman confronted their monster, a medical doctor, who sexually assaulted them repeatedly when they were aspiring young athletes. More than 150 young women, some Olympians, told Dr. Larry Nassar directly how his abuse had derailed their young lives and destroyed their trust in medicine, in athletics, in authority and in some instances, in their parents. The exact number of victims is unknown and probably always will be.
The only heroes in this sad tale are the young women who insisted they had been abused by someone who was an icon in his field and kept saying so until they were finally believed.
The first and greatest betrayals were Nassar’s alone. For whatever tortured reasons, he put his desires ahead of those of his patients, many of them children when the abuse began. It is impossible to know what drove this man, but the carnage left by his actions is obvious to anyone with a TV. Adding to his enduring shame, Nassar asked the sentencing judge to excuse him from the courtroom so that he would not have to confront his victims in person and experience their anger and hurt. To her enduring credit, the judge declined, saying he committed abuse for years and could certainly listen to its aftermath for a few days.
Institutional betrayals are legion as well, with administrators cascading from lofty posts into oblivion. Topping the list is the president of Michigan State University, Nassar’s employer, who inexplicably cleared him of abuse charges, but who also had doubts but did nothing. University administrators below her are falling, too, as are officials of the national gymnastics associations and people in other sporting groups. Organizations that support young athletes promote not only athletic excellence but character values, but in this instance, they did not walk the talk.
Perhaps most tragic are failures and betrayals by the parents of these young athletes, many of whom were present when the abuse occurred. Stunning as this sounds, they were in the room when Nassar performed “medical procedures” on their daughters, though he shielded his actions from their view with his body or with draping. Some of these parents pushed their talented young athletes to perform in their sports. Some of these parents may have ignored what their daughters told them about Nassar and his procedures, some of them were trusting and unobservant of what he was doing, and some of them likely experienced all of the above. Whatever their thoughts at the time, many will go to their graves with deep guilt that they did not protect their daughters from one of the most prolific child predators the sports world has ever encountered.
If there is any saving grace in this grim story of selfish and criminal disregard for other people, it is that Nassar is now the poster boy for child sexual abuse and stars in the latest chapter just behind #MeToo in our nation’s growing intolerance for such behavior.
If #MeToo addresses women standing up for ourselves in the workplace, then the words “Larry Nassar” are code for the importance of adult vigilance, both individually and institutionally, in protecting children, including promising athletes, from perverted adults. As Americans process how we have addressed – or not addressed – what girls and women are telling us about how they are treated in the workplace and beyond, #Me Too and Larry Nassar offer glimmers of hope that Americans will now believe what we say.
Author Malcolm Gladwell wrote “The Tipping Point” in 2000, a best-seller describing how ideas take hold in a culture and then become part of the culture – think the change in Americans’ attitudes toward cigarette smoking over the last decades of the 20th century and, more recently, our acceptance of samesex marriage.
Let us all hope that sexual abuse of both girls and women in the workplace is becoming a shockingly unacceptable act.
Photo: Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Aly Raisman