Larry Nassar Scandal Reveals Issues Within U.S. Gymnastics

Convicted serial child molester Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40-to-125 years in prison on January 5th at Eaton County, Michigan. It is the latest sentencing for the man who stands at the center of one of the largest sexual abuse scandals in the history of sports.

USA Gymnastics has helped produced the highlights of the nation’s Summer Olympics delegation over the past decades. Today, the organization is mired in criticism and gutted by mass resignations. The US Olympic Committee is calling for the entire USAG board of directors to step down, or have the organization face complete decertification. This would leave US gymnasts without a centralized governing body.

Days of emotional court testimony suggest that Larry Nassar was surrounded by enablers and defenders at the organizational level. Even after USAG cut ties with Nassar “after learning of athlete concerns” in 2015, it has become public knowledge that the organization tried to cover up the abuse. Olympic gold medalist McKayla Maroney was allegedly offered $1.25 million by USAG as part of an agreement for her to maintain silence. She is one of 265 accusers who have come forward as victims of Nassar’s sexual and psychological abuse.

Larry Nassar’s threat to children influenced sentencing

Nassar was originally sentenced 60 years in prison in July 2017 over federal child pornography charges. These charges came about after he was initially accused of sexual assault of a child in late 2016. An FBI investigation of his home then recovered over 37,000 images of child pornography. In addition to this stunning discovery was a GoPro video of Nassar himself, molesting girls at a swimming pool. He would ultimately plead guilty for the child pornography charges.

Larry Nassar would later plead guilty to seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual misconduct in Ingham County. Over 150 victims came forward during the trial to confront Nassar and provide impact statements. He would be sentenced to 40-to-175 years in prison on January 24th.

“You remain a danger and I am a judge who believes in life and rehabilitation when rehabilitation is possible,” said Judge Rosemarie Aquilina during the January sentencing. “I don’t find that possible with you.”

Between the 60 years for child pornography, and the two separate sentences from the Eaton County and Ingham County courts, Nassar will likely spend the rest of his life in prison.

Nassar’s abuse of young athletes had been reported for decades

Despite losing his role as a US Olympics team doctor in 2015, Nassar would maintain a position at Michigan State University. Victims allegedly reported Nassar’s continued abuse at university for years, yet no action was taken. The earliest incident allegedly took place in 1992.

In 1997, one victim was discouraged by her coach, Kathie Klages, from reporting Nassar to high authorities. Klages would retire in February 2017 as another Nassar accuser claimed she was also told to not report Nassar’s conduct by Klages.

In one instance, an accuser in 2004 had her case closed by Meridian Township police despite her testimony. Nassar himself reportedly “duped” investigators with medical journals and a PowerPoint presentation supporting his practices.

Critics have drawn parallels between the Penn State controversy and Nassar

Penn State still reels from its own brush with sexual abuse in sports. Jerry Sandusky’s own crimes were eventually tied to the late Joe Paterno, and others in Penn State’s sports programs. The  scandal ultimately cost the university its claim to integrity. Decades of sports heritage now have an undeniable taint.

It is too early to predict how far the Nassar scandal will truly reach. Michigan State University has seen a smattering of early retirements. University president Lou Anna Simon announced her own resignation on January 24th, after her own remarks regarding the situation drew negative attention.

As a former Olympic doctor for Team USA, people in positions of authority within the USOC and USAG are facing the same firestorm of questions. Who knew of the abuse? How long did they know of it? How far did they go to cover it up, if there was a cover up?

Other MSU scandals are coming to light. In 2010, a student assistant basketball coach punched a female MSU student at a bar, but was permitted to stay on the coaching staff. He would later be accused, along with two basketball players, of raping another female student. While the coach would be fired, the players saw “little action” taken against them.

The future of U.S. Gymnastics, and the Olympic team

The abuse by Nassar is particularly damning to authorities within U.S. Gymnastics, but his acts are not the only ones of concern. Abusers throughout the history of the organization have been fired and banned from the program.

However, none come remotely close to Larry Nassar. The question as to how someone like him could have remained a presence among the young and emotionally vulnerable will not have simple answers.

For the US Olympics Committee and the gymnastics world, the fallout from Larry Nassar’s acts has already begun to spread. The famed Karolyi Ranch, where the Olympic team trained, was the site of many of his abuses; a statement on the Ranch’s website says that it is now permanently closed. Reports about the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse endured by attendees of the Ranch, in conjunction with the ongoing scandal, prompted USAG to end any training camps scheduled there. USOC has called for brand new leadership for USAG to move forward.

The problem extends far beyond gymnastics and the Olympic team

In recent years, concussions have become a concern for all sports at all ages. Sexual abuse has become the catalyst to a sweeping movement for social change. With Larry Nassar’s abuses uncovered for public view, a sport that drives children to the limits of physical performance will have its methodology scrutinized.

However, as the testimonies made clear, the abuse was far from limited to Olympic gymnasts. Multiple victims have given their own accounts, athletes across multiple sports and non-atheletes who all trusted this doctor to provide treatment.

It is also clear that men like Nassar are more prevalent than many are willing to believe. Indeed, many of the victims shared stories in court of simply being afraid to even report what had happened. Some victims questioned who would truly believe them. And in many cases, those fears were unfortunately well-founded.

This article is possible in part by Radio Law Talk, which provided additional information resources. Radio Law Talk is hosted by Frederick Penney of Penney & Associates, Denise Dirks, and Todd Kuhnen. Along with a panel of regular contributors, the Radio Law Talk podcast focuses on current legal issues, trends, and general topics related to state and federal law.

Reader Interactions