#TimesUp in Sport Part 1: Nassar - Master of Manipulation

NOTE: This is the first instalment in a series written by 110PercentBlog contributors providing insight into the #TimesUp & #MeToo movements in sport.

Over the last several months the horrific actions of former Michigan State University Athletics and USA Gymnastics doctor, Larry Nassar, have caught the attention of main stream media. Rightfully so as he abused over 250 female athletes from several sports for over two decades. National news media outlets such as CNN, The New York Times, and Huffington Post have aggressively covered the case. Although initial reports of abuse date back to 2015, national media attention didn’t begin until high profile gymnasts like McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, and Simone Biles came forward.

Much of the discussion surrounding this case has questioned how administration at Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics coaches and board members could have known about this abuse and done nothing. These organizations swept accusation after accusation under the rug, allowing Nassar to abuse without consequence. Numerous athletes (the band of survivors as many of them have called themselves) could have been saved had either of these organizations listened to these complaints and taken action sooner. These conversations about organizational culture and placing winning medals over athlete safety are extremely important, but there’s more that needs to be investigated.

Nassar didn’t commit 250 single acts of abuse, he abused many of his victims over and over and over. How does one gain the trust of an athlete to commit this type of reoccurring crime? Former Olympic gymnast, Jamie Dantzscher provided insight into the manipulation tactics used by Nassar to gain these athletes’ trust during her statement at the sentencing hearing.

Knowledge of the abuse Dantzcher experienced while training at the Karolyi Ranch was no secret as many other gymnasts have confirmed the restrictive food policies, extreme training regiments, and emotional abuse from National Team Coaches (see Off Balance: A Memoir), so it’s no surprise Nassar was able to identify this abuse too. Nassar used his knowledge of this abuse to help manipulate victims into believing he cared for them. Sneaking them food and calling their coaches “monsters” was all part of his plan to gain their trust, build a strong bond, and catch them off guard when he began to abuse them.

Once the abuse began, he would use his organizational power (e.g., mandatory rehab or treatment sessions) for continued access to the athletes. Even after athletes would understand what was happening to them was abuse, they were forced to continue attending sessions with Nassar, often unsupervised, per coach or gym guidelines. Sometimes without choice, these athletes put their lives in Nassar’s hands. Olympic champion, McKayla Maroney, came forward as a victim of Nassar’s abuse and paints a graphic story of the price she paid to win Olympic gold. In her #metoo post Maroney details “the scariest night” of her life; waking up in Nassar’s hotel room after being given medication to help her sleep on a long flight to Tokyo for an international meet. See second paragraph in her Facebook post pictured below.

Nassar’s manipulation caught other athletes off guard. Athlete A, Maggie Nichols, was overheard discussing her treatment from Nassar with another gymnast by her coach who questioned Maggie about the events. After hearing of Maggie’s encounters, she reported Nassar to USA Gymnastics. Maggie referred to Nassar as not only her doctor, but her friend. She recalled him contacting her on Facebook; complementing her on her ability and telling her how pretty she was. At the time she was only 15, and thought Nassar was just trying to be nice. Nichol’s coach reported Nassar’s behavior immediately, but USA Gymnastics did not contact the FBI for five weeks after the report when gymnast like Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney confirmed Maggie’s story. Maggie is one of only a few NCAA gymnasts who came forward as a victim, and throughout this ordeal she has been afforded a great deal of support from her coaches, teammates, and competitors. When UCLA and Oklahoma competed in early February a “Together We Rise” campaign to illustrate their support.

Other survivors have not been as lucky. Rachael Dehollander’s experiences are a stark contrast, as she experienced harassment regarding the truthfulness of her accusations, questions of her motivations for reporting so long after the fact, loss of her church and friends not to mention her sense of privacy once her name was released beyond the generic Jane Doe originally used. (See Rachael Denhollander: The Price I Paid for Taking On Larry Nassar).

The responses to Rachael’s reporting illustrates how little is understood about the experiences of sexual assault survivors; especially those who are so young, and those who were repeatedly abused. As adults we may be quick to pass judgment and how, “How could they not have known that was wrong?” Or, “Why didn’t they speak up louder?” Rachael’s experiences tell us why.

The discussion must continue past organizational culture onto helping young girls and women recognize predatory characteristics and behaviors as well as alleviating judgement and skepticism when these abuses are reported. We owe girls and women more! These uncomfortable conversations must occur early and often.