Keith Strudler: No Silver Lining

Jan 24, 2018

If there’s a silver lining to this story, and really there isn’t, it’s that Dr. Larry Nassar will die in prison. Which means he won’t victimize any more of the young female athletes that came to him for medical counsel. It also means that the dozens of victims that have spoken out – and others that haven’t – can hopefully feel some modicum of justice and perhaps relief that Nassar got what he deserved, if you’re so inclined to view the American penal system that way. But outside of those victories, this story is a true tragedy.

The story is, as most of you know, how Nassar sexually assaulted countless young women as the team doctor for both USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University athletics, among other things. This has happened over the course of over 20 years, largely in Nassar’s role with USA Gymnastics, but also in treating athletes on MSU’s campus. The number of victims is as shocking as the crime itself. In seven days, 169 victim impact statements were read – including 156 read by athletes. They were visceral and raw and showed the impact unquestioned adult authority can have on a child. And just as awful – but perhaps not shocking – is that they were formulaic.

The victims are both famous – at least in the framework of Olympic sports – and anonymous. Perhaps the renown of several victims who testified – including Olympic medalists Aly Raisman and Jordyn Wieber – made this case more visible. But it’s the obvious and tragic long-term impact that makes it more memorable. In one of the more poignant testimonies, elite gymnast Mattie Larson looked towards Nassar and said, “I can’t even put into words how much I f-ing hate you.” And I believe you can translate. She described how she tried to hurt herself so she didn’t go to a gymnastics camp and end up in Nassar’s care.

It’s not hard to understand why this story is so captivating and emotional. It’s not simply shocking, but we also see ourselves in the story. What if that were my kid, or my partner, or someone in my life. It makes us hold those close to us just a little closer. It reminds us that en loco parentis – which I believe we all assume team doctors, coaches, even national sports federations to be, they may in fact be far from it.

Which brings us to the unanswered questions. Why did this happen? How can it be prevented? Who’s to blame, and who should be punished? To be fair, those aren’t simply questions, but rather a series of dissertation topics. As for blame, it’s a long list. By no means should we ignore the fact that no matter how many culpable parties, Larry Nassar is a horrible human being. His crimes, regardless of accomplice, were the work of evil. Yes, there should be failsafe processes to prevent this. But do not make the mistake of ignoring Nassar’s depravity in this awful saga.

But who else? Who else should be held accountable? The CEO of USA Gymnastics resigned last year, and several board members quit this week. Among other things, they stand guilty of considering sexual assault charges as mere legal issues to be handled as such, not cultural decay that rots the sport from within. And certainly not the life altering moments that didn’t simply ruin athletic careers, but also lives. For that reason, our national federation will be gutted and reconstituted. Whether that cures the disease is up for debate.

Also receiving intense criticism is Michigan State – most notably its president Lou Anna Simon. Students and alumni and far beyond have called for her resignation – which, for the record, has not been demanded by the board of trustees, who are firmly in her backing. It’s hard to say whether a college president should lose or her job based on the criminal actions of her staff – especially one as big as Michigan State – but at the very least, it’s a message that being a college president is far more than raising money and rankings. So the next time a leader hears about a potential assault scandal on campus, the conversation cannot be about PR crisis management.

But at the core of this all is something much bigger than a sports federation or a university or even a depraved human being like Larry Nassar. It’s about a youth sports culture that allows, encourages – no perhaps forces young girls to chase some abstract dream of perfection at the cost of everything else. And one that empowers individuals to hold these keys to that kingdom – doctors, coaches, trainers – all the people that make a young, innocent, aspiring kid to believe they have to do anything they say if they want to make it. That’s the problem, in a horribly messy and incomplete nutshell.

Demystify athletic success, get rid of these gatekeepers, and give kids back their innocence. If that happens, which it probably won’t, then maybe we’ll have a silver lining. Until then, it’s hard to see one.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

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