Today I’m revisiting that hot mess from a couple of years ago that was USA Gymnastics, the organization that trains and selects the Olympic team. Because this weekend I finally got around to watching the Netflix documentary Athlete A.
This disturbing documentary brings to life to the phrase “the banality of evil.” How team doctor Dr. Larry Nassar was enabled by coaches and the USA Gymnastic organization, who themselves were too engrossed in making money and medals to give priority to the welfare of the teenage athletes. But it’s not just the coaches and administrators who bear responsibility. There are layers of staff and volunteers and even some parents around that circle who bought into the idea that athletes needed to be abused and belittled to achieve peak performance.
Perhaps “bought into the idea that abuse is required” is a bit forward. How about “studiously ignored,” or “turned a blind eye” to abuse, as long as it got results. An ideal set-up for a sexual predator to stalk their prey. But it was just business as usual, for them.
“Athlete A” was the alias in early court documents for Maggie Nichols, one of the many athletes sexually abused by Dr. Nassar. Nassar himself, after an over 25 year career, was convicted of victimizing many athletes and of possessing child pornography (37,000 images on hard drives). One of the film’s major focus is on Nichols, who reported the abuse and was then not selected for the 2016 Olympic team (Nichols’ mother has stated she felt that Maggie’s exclusion from the team, despite having been a favorite, was retaliation). Several other former athletes are spotlighted, as are the investigative reporters at the Indianapolis Star, the newspaper that broke the story and then dug deeper. Nichols was not the first to report Dr. Nassar, but she successfully spearheaded the effort and because of that many many others came forward. A lot of this, and more, is also in the excellent podcast Believed. There is also a Discussion Guide for Athlete A.
The story has a pretty good outcome for Maggie Nichols. She went to the University of Oklahoma, joined the gymnastics team there, and became one of the most accomplished NCAA gymnasts. Many of the former gymnasts, after Dr. Nassar’s conviction, felt the single most important outcome was that they were finally believed. And I’m sure there are many more out there who are still struggling with the aftermath of their abuse.
What can we learn from this film? How easy it is to get away with assault and abuse, so long as the perpetrator is successful and well-liked. How challenging it is for the abused to be taken seriously. An articulate example of the extent of the power imbalance in amateur athletics. When an administrator says “don’t report to the police, we’ll take care of that,” do not take them at their words. And, most importantly, how easy it is for SO many people to not want to see the real human costs of child abuse, as long as there’s some benefit for them.
Stay safe, live life.