Nicolle Generaux | Editor-in-Chief
September 14, 2023
A scandal regarding covered-up incidents of sexual abuse in USA Gymnastics broke national news in 2015. Six years ago, more than 150 female ex-gymnasts testified in court that their medical physician Larry Nassar – a doctor and physician for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University (MSU) for almost 30 years – sexually assaulted them while performing physical therapy.
It came out later that many of these incidents were reported to MSU, the coaches, and the President of USA Gymnastics at the time – Stephen Penny – but were either ignored, turned away, or told that the administration would “handle it” and “not to worry about it,” even though no one took the allegations any further. This lead to Nassar being convicted of at least 7 counts of sexual abuse over two decades, and was sentenced to more than a century in jail.
But that was only the beginning.
During Nassar’s trial in 2018, other former gymnasts began to speak up – not only regarding Nassar’s sexual abuse, but also of sexual and verbal abuse from other coaches and physicians that had been covered up by USA Gymnastics. It became clear that around the nation, gymnastics had become toxic in its environment, emotionally and physically harming the young gymnasts, especially at the higher levels.
In addition to the sexual abuse, many counts of former gymnasts on the USA national team recounted stories of how they were “constantly belittled and berated” by the coaches, as they were pushed to the edge of injury, denied food, fat shamed, slapped, physically assaulted, and much more.
“This is horrible – I can’t believe any adult would wish to harm children in this way,” commented junior Coco Bush. “These people are probably forever scarred from the cruel and inhumane actions of these adults.”
Following a lawsuit that settled with $280 million being given to former victims of Nassar, USA Gymnastics finally got the bright idea to change their laws. The Safe Sport Authorization Act passed in 2018 that authorized a group to investigate complaints of abuse across all Olympic sports.
“The law will help,” remarked senior Ella Pratt, “but there is something fundamentally wrong with the system if athletes are reporting abuse to administration instead of law enforcement.”
Furthermore, many still believe that the culture of gymnastics is not going to change with one law – and that its culture and focus has shifted from fun and development to publicity and revenue. It has become more of a business and less of a children’s sport, and the best way to grow in popularity and revenue is by winning on an international level – so cruel behavior by the coaches is acceptable, as long as they win.
As detailed by the Netflix documentary Athlete A, countries like Romania and Russia in the 1970s started to surpass the United States in gymnastics, such as beating the US in the World Championships and the Olympics. What led to the success of these countries were the coaches’ system of complete control over their athletes – things like their weight, their mindset, their accessibility to food, and even their communication with family were all tracked and monitored. So, the gymnastics industry in the US adopted these techniques, eventually leading to them finding success – and lots and lots of sponsorships and publicity, which brought in lots and lots of money.
Because of the obvious victories, this kind of extreme coaching – no matter how cruel or illegal – was covered up in the US in order to keep winning and keep wealth pouring in. Similarly, complaints concerning sexual predators like Nassar were swept under the rug because the industry could not take such a scandal at a high level, as it would not only discredit USA Gymnastics, but it would also open the door to discovering the other physical and verbal abuses that they considered “necessary” to win.
This is how far the United States’ companies have gone to obtain success publicly – and more importantly, raise their profits. At some point we have to question: how did we get to this point? How did we start letting children get abused by the adults they were supposed to trust?
When did money become more important than a child’s safety?
As the country finally becomes aware of the mistreatment in this industry, it is important to not only watch for this kind of corruption in other high-making companies in sports (including companies not in the gymnastics industry), but also look for it at a local level – so the change in culture can retreat from just winnings and successes and go back to what it was before: an activity that children are supposed to enjoy.