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“How much is a little girl worth?”
— Rachael Denhollander, the first former gymnast to go public about abuse by Larry Nassar
Early last year, Larry Nassar, a serial child sex abuser who preyed on hundreds of young female athletes, got back-to-back sentences for multiple sex crimes, ensuring he’ll spend the rest of his life in prison.
Tonight, HBO will air a documentary, “At the Heart of Gold,” which explores the perfect storm that allowed Nassar to have round-the-clock access to girls — and a system that prioritized winning over everything else.
Nassar, 55, worked for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University for two decades; among his victims were the Olympic medalists Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney.
I watched an early screener of the film. What struck me was the admiration he’d commanded, and how it allowed his behavior to go unchecked for so long. Here are a few of the most staggering takeaways.
Nassar portrayed himself as “the nice guy” and was beloved in his community.
In a sport where girls are militarily broken down physically and emotionally, Nassar established himself as a rare compassionate figure and confidante.
Isabell Hutchins, a former gymnast, said that she texted with him as a teen almost daily, and Kristen Thelen, another gymnast, said that in their town of Holt, Mich., he was “almost everywhere we went, always smiling.”
He did community outreach at local high schools and gyms, where he had access to rowers, cheerleaders and dancers. “He had his hands on hundreds of children every year for many years,” said Juliet Macur, a Times sports reporter who was interviewed for the film. “He was brilliant at fooling the girls into trusting him.”
Marci Hamilton, a child sex abuse expert, offered perspective on how Nassar was able to groom not only his victims, but also his community.
“He was a typical, serial pedophile: charming, powerful,” she said. “What do you look for in a child sex abuser? The answer is the nice guy.”
“They find places where it is easy: a priest, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, a coach,” she said. “He was able to pull the wool over all the adults’ faces.”
Nassar insisted his technique was “medically necessary.”
In 2015, the gymnast Maggie Nichols asked Aly Raisman about Nassar’s technique. “I’m not sure it’s helping,” Nichols reportedly said.
Nassar’s so-called treatment involved him sticking his fingers into girls’ vaginas, often ungloved and unlubricated, for numerous ailments, including injured ankles. He performed this on most of the girls who said he abused them.
He would use this technique whether or not the child’s parents were in the room, further normalizing it to the girls. (Though, if parents were present, he’d position himself so they couldn’t see, essentially hiding the abuse in plain sight.)
Trinea Gonczar, a former gymnast and longtime family friend of the Nassars’, said that he’d subjected her to this abuse more than 800 times.
The system failed.
In 1997, the gymnast Larissa Boyce confided in Kathie Klages, then a M.S.U. gymnastics coach, that Nassar had molested her. Klages responded by telling Boyce she was mistaken and ultimately scared her into silence, Boyce said.
“I convinced myself I must be the problem,” Boyce said. “I hopped up on that table, and he continued to abuse me for the next four years.”
Between then and 2015, 17 incidents were reported to M.S.U. alone.
Since Nassar’s sentencing, officials from several organizations — including M.S.U., U.S.A.G. and the United States Olympic Committee — have been ousted or charged in relation to the case.
“There’s a whole institution of people who knew through these years, and it could have been stopped,” said Lyndsy Gamet, a former gymnast who was abused by Nassar.
“Adults prefer and protect adults,” said Hamilton, the child abuse expert. “We say we protect children, but children are second-class citizens.”
The fallout was swift.
Within weeks of Nassar’s sentencing in January 2018, the entire board of USA Gymnastics resigned and Scott Blackmun stepped down as chief executive of the United States Olympic Committee.
Within a couple of months, M.S.U. agreed to a $500 million settlement for athletes who were abused by Nassar (over 300 women came forward), and Klages was charged with two counts of lying to investigators.
That fall, Steve Penny, president of U.S.A.G., was arrested for tampering with evidence in the case (he awaits trial); the U.S.O.C. moved to decertify U.S.A.G. as the sport’s governing body; and Lou Anna Simon resigned as president of M.S.U. She awaits trial on charges of lying to the police.
A criminal investigation into John Geddert, the former head coach of Twistars, a gymnastics club where many of Nassar’s victims said they were abused, is underway.
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By the numbers
That’s how many survivors spoke during Nassar’s seven-day sentencing hearing in Judge Rosemarie Aquilina’s courtroom. Initially, only 88 had been scheduled, but as the statements went on, more women decided to confront Nassar.
The final statement came from Rachael Denhollander, the first to publicly name Nassar, in The Indianapolis Star. “This is what it looks like when institutions create a culture where a predator can flourish unafraid and unabated,” she said. “Women and girls who have banded together to fight for themselves because no one else would do it.”
What else is happening
Here are five articles from The Times you might have missed.
“Her unique genetic gift should be celebrated, not regulated.” Caster Semenya and other athletes with naturally elevated testosterone will not be able to compete without medically suppressing their hormone levels, a top court rules. [Read the story]
“These aren’t just numbers, these are people’s lives.” Pentagon survey finds a surge in sexual assaults in the ranks. [Read the story]
“They are a lucrative audience.” L.G.B.T. households are now Nielsen families, and advertisers and producers get a valuable tool. [Read the story]
“Years ago, my sister vanished. I see her whenever I want.” The winning essay of this year’s Modern Love college contest explores the comforts and limits of online connections. [Read the story]
“They occupy the backwaters where the writer need not pander or persuade.” #MeToo is all too real. But to better understand it, consider turning to fiction. [Read the story]
Read past articles here.
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