A conviction and a resignation aren’t enough

January 29, 2018

In an article for TheNation.com, Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, and David Tigabu, co-producer of the Edge of Sports podcast, argue that the institutions and officials which enabled Larry Nassar's abuse have yet to be held accountable.

THE SERIAL sexual assaulter of USA Gymnastics (USAG) and Michigan State University (MSU), disgraced doctor Larry Nassar, was sentenced to 40 to 175 years after being convicted of seven counts of criminal sexual conduct in the first degree. Later that day, MSU President Lou Anna Simon announced her resignation, after student demonstrations and faculty resolutions called for her ouster.

While seeming to provide some justice to those who survived Nassar's abuses, these two outcomes are not enough. Not when institutions of USA Gymnastics--under the auspices of the U.S. Olympic Committee--and Michigan State didn't believe the women who came forward and de facto let this continue again and again.

In the wake of massive calls on the Michigan State community for her resignation, Michigan State trustee Joel Ferguson issued a statement in defense of Lou Anna Simon. In it, he demonstrates everything wrong with the modern neoliberal university, and the role of college sports as an economic tent pole:

Survivor Kyle Stephens confronts her abuser Larry Nassar in a Michigan courtroom
Survivor Kyle Stephens confronts her abuser Larry Nassar in a Michigan courtroom

The meeting we had the other day was five hours. And talking Lou Anna was 10 minutes. We unanimously decided in that meeting right away...that we were going to support her staying as president. There's so many more things going on at the university than just this Nassar thing. When you go to the basketball game, you walk into the new Breslin, and the person who hustled and got all those major donors to give money was Lou Anna Simon. There's just so many things that make up being president at a university that keeps everything moving and everything right with the deans, everything at a school where we have a waiting list of people, of students who want to come. [Emphasis Deadspin's.]

TO FERGUSON, serial sexual assault is just "the Nassar thing." None of it matters, because there is a new athletic facility. But any attempt at plausible deniability by school officials was rendered obsolete after a recent investigation by The Detroit News uncovered that 14 university officials were notified about Nassar's misconduct 20 years before he was finally arrested in December 2016. The article is littered with accounts of young women athletes seeking medical counsel, experiencing assault and its resultant trauma, reaching out to various athletic staff at Michigan State–all to be brushed aside.

There's Larissa Boyce, a then-16-year-old high school gymnast in Williamston who was a victim of Nassar, briefing Michigan State gymnastics coach Kathie Klages about an incident of assault, only to be dismissed by the coach who would allegedly go on to give the doctor a heads up.

Then there's Tiffany Thomas Lopez, who in 2000 would move to East Lansing to play softball for the Spartans. After going to Nassar because of lower-back pain she was experiencing, Thomas Lopez was violated, and when she came forward to tell trainers Lianna Hadden (who is currently on staff at Michigan State) and Destiny Teachnor-Hauk, she was told by Teachnor-Hauk that this was normal medical treatment. Thomas Lopez was also told that coming forward would "cast a burden over my family."

As Keith Olbermann tweeted, "Fire Lou Anna Simon Fire this clown Joel Ferguson Fire the entire university management Convene a grand jury and indict everybody who turned a blind eye--or is now defending others who did--to Larry Nassar's institutionally-protected crimes." [sic]

I would add that calls for congressional investigation into not only the USAG but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) could be necessary as well. I spoke with Nancy Hogshead Makar, three-time Olympic gold medalist turned attorney, and she said:

Congress should investigate Scott Blackmun and the USOC because of their deliberate indifference to the safety of athletes. The Olympic sports movement is a pedophile's dream set-up. Families are expected to give complete control over to the coach, often times banning parents from watching practices. Emotional abuse is considered "motivation," and there is almost no coaching oversight from sport governing bodies like U.S. Soccer. To make matters worse, the U.S. Olympic Committee's official legal position is that the organization doesn't protect athletes from sexual abuse, that removing pedophiles from the Olympic movement isn't their job. Really. If that doesn't raise the hair on your neck, consider that club owners are for-profit businesses and have zero economic incentive to report sexual abuse to police or child services. The bad PR could cost them dearly if word of the abuse got out. Club owners frequently fire the abusing coach quietly, and he is hired at another club, becoming someone else's problem. In 2014, I represented 19 victims of coach sex abuse in swimming, who were protesting Chuck Wielgus's induction into the hall of fame, because of his miserable handling of sexual abuse. One week later Blackmun announced that the USOC would create "SafeSport." It took him almost three years to open its doors. No business can wait three years to start an HR department. Meanwhile, his pay and expense account ballooned. Think of the hundreds--if not thousands--of victims that could have been saved.

It has to end. Under the current set-up, instead, we are just waiting for the next scandal. When handing down the sentencing to Larry Nassar, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said, "Justice requires more than what I can do on this bench." She's right. That will be up to us.

First published at TheNation.com.

Further Reading

From the archives