Column: After Nassar, still a battle to protect athletes
The testimony out of Michigan is horrific and heart-wrenching.
One by one, dozens of gymnasts have bravely recounted the sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of disgraced doctor Larry Nassar , unleashing a catharsis of emotions while extracting some small measure of justice from the monster who stole their childhood.
In some ways, it feels like the final chapter in a nightmare that went on for far too long.
But really, we’re still at the beginning of the struggle to transform a sporting culture that allowed Nassar’s depravity to thrive, a fight that continues to be met with resistance from many of those in positions of power.
Even now, having been sickened by Nassar’s long list of victims, not to mention the sexual abuse scandals that rocked swimming and speedskating , there aren’t nearly enough safeguards to protect young athletes.
Nancy Hogshead-Makar knows this is a battle she’ll likely be waging for the rest of her professional career.
Winner of three swimming gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Hogshead-Maker is now an attorney who has represented victims of sexual abuse. She also leads Champion Women, an advocacy group for female athletes.
“I have no illusions that this will be over with and I can move on with my life,” she said Friday. “No, we’re going to be doing this for quite some time.”
Her organization recently completed a survey of all 47 U.S. national governing bodies regarding their policies to deal with emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Using a five-point grading system, she found that most NGBs remained woefully ill-equipped to guarantee the safety of their athletes, and some appear to have taken no steps at all to address an issue that has become a dominant part of the national conversation in the #metoo era.
“It was stomach-churning,” Hogshead-Makar said.
Beyond the inevitable trips to court, she’s urging Congress to pass a bill that would provide greater protection to young athletes by requiring those in positions of authority to report suspected abuse within 24 hours, while giving the newly created U.S. Center for SafeSport the ultimate oversight over such cases.
The bipartisan measure, which has already passed the Senate but still needs approval in the House and well as the president’s signature, would apply to all youth sports, not just those within the Olympic movement.
Still, Hogshead-Makar said it would especially poignant if the bill became law by the time the Winter Olympics open on Feb. 9. A government that can’t seem to agree on anything should be able to reach a consensus on this issue.
“We have this huge problem right now,” she said. “That would show that our Senate and our legislators are doing something about it, that they want to protect our athletes.”
As for the U.S. Olympic Committee and the governing bodies that oversee each sport, there’s something they can do, too. It’s time for a hard-and-fast rule forbidding coaches from having sexual relationships with their athletes — even if they are of legal age — the elephant in the room that coaching organizations have been reticent to address.
“That norm has to change,” Hogshead-Makar said. “I’ve spoken to a lot of coaching groups, some guys that I consider really good guys, and they all seem to say, ‘If it’s not illegal, what’s wrong with it?’ It’s the fault of the coaching organizations for not making that explicitly clear. I’m a member of the American Bar Association. They make it clear. There’s no wiggle room. If you want to lose your license ... get into a sexual relationship with one of your clients.”
Really, she went on to say, the entire coaching mindset must change.
“Coaches don’t want any oversight. They don’t want parents around. They don’t want chaperones,” Hogshead-Makar said. “They’re accustomed to having absolute authority over their athletes.”
Parents are our best bet for bringing more balance to that relationship, but only if they realize a gold medal can never make up for a stolen childhood.
If a coach doesn’t want them around, they must question why. If they’re barred from a gym or a pool or rink while their kids are practicing, they must take a stand. If they’re discouraged from going on the road to competitions or staying with their own children in a hotel room, it’s time to find another coach — no matter how many gold medalists he may have produced.
Bridie Farrell has been especially riveted by the testimony coming out of Nassar’s sentencing hearing. Four years ago, she rocked the speedskating community by coming forward to tell of an improper sexual relationship with four-time Olympian Andy Gabel when she was only 15 .
“It’s just so familiar. I feel like I’m listening to my own story,” Farrell said Friday. “Seeing all these gymnasts come forward, it’s still here. It’s still in every sport.”
Farrell has directed her efforts toward getting states to remove a statute of limitations on sexual abuse cases, noting that many victims — herself included — aren’t ready to reveal the truth until years later.
Despite all the ugliness she’s heard this week, Farrell is hopeful that the tide is finally turning against the Larry Nassars of the world.
“With the #metoo movement and everything that came with that, it’s so much more possible to talk about these things,” she said, before adding one very important caveat. “Not until the institutions that protected the abusers are held accountable will it really change.”
Yep, this is only the beginning.
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