When girls — indeed, women of all ages — have the courage to disclose sexual improprieties, the reaction too often has been dismissive, if they are heard at all.
Administrators, coaches, doctors, lawyers, police and many parents didn’t heed the anguished pleas of young gymnasts and female Michigan State University athletes abused by Larry Nassar, the physician for the USA Gymnastics women’s team and MSU athletics.
Indeed, the case against Nassar languished until 2016 when lawyer Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast, sued him in Indianapolis, headquarters of USA Gymnastics, prompting an Indianapolis Star investigation.
After a subsequent police probe, Nassar, 54, a father of three, was sentenced to 60 years for child pornography (37,000 images). His fate for multiple sex crimes followed. It would have been anticlimactic if Judge Rosemarie Aquilina had not allowed 156 victims to share heart-wrenching stories, then added 40 to 175 years.
Nassar became athletic trainer for USA Gymnastics in 1986 and national medical coordinator in 1996, three years after graduating from MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine. He became MSU team physician and assistant professor in 1997.
In 1988, he started his association with the Great Lakes Gymnastics and Twistars USA Gymnastics Club near East Lansing, Mich., both owned by John Geddert, a renowned gymnastics figure who would coach the women’s 2012 “Fierce Five” Olympics team, and Kathie Klages, the future MSU women’s coach.
Geddert instilled fear in gymnasts, Makayla Thrush testified during Nassar’s pre-sentencing hearing. “You told me to kill myself not just once, but many other times. After you ended my career, I tried.”
Nassar provided solace, first grooming his victims, and then using intravaginal and intrarectal treatments for his gratification.
Doctors told ESPN the procedures could treat medical problems such as pelvic floor dysfunction, which can occur when muscles on the pelvic floor are weak or tight, but are never performed without gloves, a chaperone or parental consent with a minor.
Nassar frequently performed such procedures, ignoring prerequisites, and massaged breasts to treat hip injuries.
At least 14 Michigan State officials since 1997 heard complaints about his procedures, according to the Detroit News.
Christy Lemke complained to Klages on behalf of her daughter, an MSU gymnast, but was told Nassar used “a legal medical procedure,” warned that “false information” could “hurt” him, and threatened with her daughter’s scholarship being revoked.
In 2014, MSU campus police and Title IX (the federal law banning sexual discrimination) officers began investigations.
The Title IX office, the Lansing State Journal reported, “concluded that (Nassar’s) conduct could open the university to lawsuits and expose patients to unnecessary trauma based on the possibility of perceived inappropriate sexual misconduct.” Its findings were only disclosed to MSU’s Office of General Counsel, Nassar and his supervisor.
When a criminal investigation ensued, Klages urged gymnasts to sign a card supporting Nassar, “that we’re thinking of him and praying for him,” according to Lemke.
Other complaints were routinely ignored. Softball player Tiffany Thomas Lopez was rebuffed in 1998 by three athletic trainers. Cross country runner Christie Achenbach was told by Coach Kelli Bert, “He’s an Olympic doctor, and he should know what he is doing.”
MSU now faces suits brought by 140 women.
MSU president Lou Anna Simon resigned days after Nassar’s sentencing (as did Athletic Director Mark Hollis), because “tragedies are politicized,” but maintained “no cover-up” existed.
“I was informed that a sports medicine doctor was under investigation. I told people to play it straight up, and I did not receive a copy of the report. That’s the truth,” said Simon, using disinterest as a defense.
USA Gymnastics’ investigation began in mid-2015 when a visiting coach at the Karolyi Ranch training facility near Houston overheard Aly Raisman, the gold-medal winning captain of the 2012 Olympic team, and Maggie Nichols, then a national team member, talking about Nassar’s treatments. Others came forward.
Nassar lost his position months later. Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics, told Nichols’ mother, “We need to keep this quiet. It’s very sensitive. We don’t want this to get out.” McKayla Maroney was paid $1.25 million for her silence.
Now a professor, MSU’s Simon still will receive $750,000. Penny resigned in March with $1 million in severance.
Enabling Nassar could prove very expensive for MSU and USA Gymnastics.
Following the Penn State sexual molestation scandal perpetrated against boys by assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, former President Graham Spanier and two administrators were imprisoned for a cover-up. Sandusky’s 33-plus victims have been paid $109 million.
MSU could have considerable liability if victims surmount a state law giving immunity to public institutions. A waiver exists for medical malpractice.
The moral culpability of MSU and USA Gymnastics is far greater.
It is unconscionable that they failed to heed numerous warnings and put ignorance, institutional reputation and self-preservation ahead of young women whose well-being was casually disregarded.