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.

That old saying is “boys will be boys.”  Period.  End of sentence.  We’re changing it.  Boys will be the boys we let them be.  We can help with some specific safety skills for kids.

It’s creeping up to mid-September here in Seattle, and kids have headed back to school.  For some it will be a new school.  For others, more totally remote learning.  Some families will get together in “pods” for pooled learning experiences.  Others will struggle with basic access.  It won’t be easy, and for many the beginning of this school year will feel like barely contained chaos.  It’s in times like these that we all want to be on the lookout for predators and their enablers.  Remind kids that it’s OK to say no to adults.

Many of the people who say “boys will be boys” are not predators, and certainly would be offended if called an enabler.  After all, they are responsible adults helping guide young people through life’s realities.  And they do actually believe that “boys will be boys.”  As well as it’s corollary, “he punched/pinched/pushed you because he likes you.”  You may be thinking, wait what year is this?  Are people actually believing this into the 21st century?  From what I can tell, fewer kids are hearing it than I did decades ago.  But still, each year a couple of kids or tween students do report they’ve been told that “he’s mean because he likes you.”   Sometimes it comes from teachers, teaching assistants, volunteering parents, coaches, or even assistant principals.

Need I say this issue doesn’t only impact girls?  It impacts kids of any gender.  Perhaps, though, instead of “he likes you,” boys may hear “be a man.”

In our safety skills classes for kids (as well as self-defense for tweens and teens) we talk about finding trusted, supportive adults to go to for help.  And that trusted, supportive adult should be able to schedule a conversation to hold the speaker accountable.  Now, what can we ask our young people to say?  How can we help them grow into their own voices?

The exact words depend on the age of the child.  I suggest the child tell that adult they are sure that no, that other kid really is acting mean and does not like them.  That if a another kid likes you, they would not be trying to harm you.  This may be very hard for some kids, and maybe for their parents too.  Because a lot of parents themselves struggle to advocate for themselves.  The other adult may see this as a challenge to their authority — and they’d be right.  We should not have to accept unquestioningly the authority of other adults who won’t keep our kids safe.

Parents, if your child does speak up, please back them up.  Parents, if your child was the one who punched/pinched/pushed another, maybe you want to chat about why they’re choosing those behaviors for self-expression.  Is that the boy (or girl, or other) you want them to be?

We’ve all seen them.  Decals, generally on minivans, showing stick figures representing family members.  Or sometimes representing parodies of family members.  Or a T Rex snacking on family members . . .

Some people like them, some are annoyed, most probably don’t care one way or the other.

But do pedophiles care?  Will the decal draw the criminal element to your family?  Some people believe so.

Even a few police departments are warning about having these decals on your vehicle.

However, there is one little issue.  There are no cases cited where a perpetrator gleaned personal information from stick figures and used it to commit a crime.

As a self-defense instructor, I have a short list of “rules” I check before giving safety recommendations to students.  Rule #1 is that any piece of safety advice has to be based on evidence.  There has to be some proof that this reduces violence in the real world, not just as a hypothetical in the world between someone’s ears.  No matter how logical or reasonable it may seem, if it does not exist in reality it does not get forwarded.

This suggestion that stick figure family decals can attract bad guys fails to meet that standard.

This piece of advice also ignores the substantiated fact that most predators who go after children are people already known to the family and do not need any decals to inform them.  You’re better off learning how to assess the real people in your children’s lives.