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Student Blog Series: U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Survivors: Larry Nassar’s Repeated Abuse and the Coverups that Ensued

Posted: February 27, 2023

A former athletic doctor for the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team, Larry Nassar, leveraged his high-profile position as a doctor to sexually assault 265 female gymnasts over decades. Nassar would hide his abuse by labeling it as “medical treatment” and used his credentials to continuously exploit and abuse young women. Nassar’s abuse had been reported on multiple occasions years before the publication of the 2016 Indianapolis Star report. The 2016 report is considered the first major publication to detail Nassar’s abuse and how it was repeatedly ignored by his various employers.

The first allegations against Nassar began in 1997. A gymnast shared her concerns about Nassar with her coach but was discouraged from filing an official complaint. An official report was also filed against Nassar in 2004. Yet again, this complaint was also ignored after Nassar used his medical expertise to convince the officer that he had only provided medical treatment. In 2014, even the FBI failed to protect over forty victims while they were investigating Nassar for a Title IX claim at Michigan State University. It is clear that Nassar’s position of power and status within the gymnastics community allowed this abuse to continue for decades.

Additionally, other organizations and individuals are also to blame for the victims’ continued abuse and exploitation. Michigan State University and the USA Gymnastics Association (USAG) along with numerous other individuals and organizations are to blame as they frequently turned a blind eye to the abuse. Specifically, it is apparent that the organizational culture of the USAG was more concerned with preserving its dazzling reputation rather than protecting their gymnasts. Instead of reporting allegations against Nassar to law enforcement,  the USAG encouraged reporters to remain silent. Following the unveiling of the USAG cover-ups, prominent individuals within the gymnastics community like Valorie Kondos Fields, the head coach of the UCLA women’s gymnastics team, dubbed the overall culture of gymnastics as “one of abuse.” Kondos Fields, like many others, continues to advocate for positive reform of the professional gymnastics culture. The coverups instituted by the USAG prevented the removal and arrest of Nassar, while simultaneously forcing victims to relive their abuse each time they sought medical treatment.

Thanks in part to the mounting public pressure generated by the Indianapolis Star report, police arrested Nassar in 2016. In January 2017, eighteen victims filed a federal lawsuit against Nassar, Michigan State University, USA Gymnastics, and the Twistars USA Gymnastics Club, “alleging sexual assault, battery, molestation, and harassment.” In November 2017, Nassar pled guilty to seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, following his guilty plea to three counts of possession of child pornography. The following month, Nassar was sentenced to 60 years in federal prison as punishment for possessing child pornography. In January of 2018, a seven-day hearing began where 150 of the 275 victims gave impact statements. Following the impact statements, the entire board of USA Gymnastics stepped down. On January 24, 2018, Nassar was sentenced to an additional 40 to 175 years in Michigan State prison after pleading guilty to seven counts of rape of a minor. More recently, in June of 2022, Nassar lost his final appeal. Nassar’s victims are now seeking justice in the form of $130 million from the FBI for mishandling the case investigated in 2014.

This case illustrates that often individuals in trusted positions of power are exploiting others.  At the CSE Institute, we have observed lawyers, doctors, teachers, bosses, and landlords alike who have used their power, wealth, and status to manipulate, sexually assault, rape, and exploit others. Most importantly, the CSE Institute applauds the bravery of the survivors in this case. After all, it is irrefutable that survivor voices will be the force of change and bring awareness to the reality of abuse in hopes of dismantling the system that breeds these imbalances of power. We continue to urge organizations to establish proper procedures for investigating and effectively handling reports of abuse in hopes of facilitating relief and justice for potential victims.

This piece is part of our first-year law student blog series. Congratulations to author Morgan Almeida on being chosen!

All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University.

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