Column: Justice for Gymnasts after Former Team Doctor’s Sentencing

“I just signed your death warrant,” Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said after sentencing Larry Nassar to 175 years in prison.

Nassar was a Michigan State University doctor and the USA Gymnastics national team doctor, who was found guilty of sexually assaulting 156 women over 26 years.

I think the only thing more troubling than hearing about a man molesting 156 young women – a majority of whom were underage and as young as six years old – is the amount of people who willingly turned their shoulders, in order for something as terrible as these events to occur. Then to think that a serial case like this occurred at the highest level of performance for the sport – USA Gymnastics. Many of these women who were abused represented America during multiple Olympics, and have social media platforms with thousands, some even millions of fans. And yet, so many of them felt like they could not speak up about their encounter of sexual assault by a team doctor whom they trusted.

We need to do better.

The good news is that over the past few months, the #MeToo movement has given a platform and an environment for victims of sexual crimes to speak up about the abuse committed against them. The #MeToo movement was actually started back in 2006 by activist and organizer Tarana Burke, herself a victim of sexual assault.

The #MeToo movement didn’t become viral until this past year, when actress Ashley Judd and others accused film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment in a story for the New York Times. Multiple women began outing their abusers in response to the article, and on Oct. 15 fellow actress, Alyssa Milano, tweeted out “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.”

Since then, thousands of victims of sexual crimes have been empowered to recall their encounters with their abusers, helping to create a culture that encourages victims to speak out against these crimes rather than hiding their abuse. Although a 2016 investigation by The Indianapolis Star was the first to finally bring Nasser under fire, it wasn’t until former USA gymnast and Olympic medalist McKayla Maroney shared a #MeToo post on Oct. 18 about Nassar that multiple other victims felt encouraged to speak out.

During Nassar’s sentencing, 156 victims shared their stories of his abuse and how it damaged their lives, but also how they are an army of survivors and an example of hope to other victims. Here are just a few of their powerful remarks, courtesy of The New York Times:

“We were ultimately strong enough to take you down,” Kaylee Lorincz said. “Not one by one, but by an army of survivors. We are Jane Does no more.”

“Little girls don’t stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world,” Kyle Stevens said.

“The army you chose in the late ’90s to silence me, to dismiss me and my attempt at speaking the truth, will not prevail over the army you created when violating us,” Tiffany Thomas Lopez said.

As evidenced by the #MeToo movement, sexual abuse is clearly a widespread problem that has stained just about every corner of our culture, but the sports world continues to handle sexual abuse poorly. Frankly, we live in a sinful world and there will always be predators who commit terrible crimes. However, we can get astronomically better at how we handle cases of sexual crimes, especially within the sports world.

For starters, there are a few things that should seem like basic principles, but apparently need to be said. All reported incidents of sexual abuse should always be investigated to some extent. Obviously everyone deserves due process and is not considered guilty until it is proven. But no claim/incident reported should ever go unheard. It is a shame that this even has to be said, but no one should ever be protected from a crime they committed, no matter what their talent, social status, reputation or other value they may have. This also includes their punishment: no one should ever have a lesser sentencing simply because of their reputation.

How can we do better as people who are not directly involved in the sports world? Those who are family members, friends or even just associates of athletes can make a major difference by simply reaching out to that athlete and letting them know that you are willing to listen to them about anything. We can also do better by holding anyone complicit in these scandals accountable. No one who turns away from a victim of abuse should retain their job, regardless of their title. Sexual crimes are a problem throughout our entire culture, and this is something that we all need to be aware of so that we can ask ourselves: ‘How can I help make a better environment?’ I believe it’s important that we also make it known to victims that they are loved, that their voice matters, and that they are not only entitled to, but deserve justice for the crimes committed against them. God made us in his image – do our actions toward others, toward women, toward those who are vulnerable, reflect a reverence for him and his creation? Do they honor God and fulfill his command for us from John 13:34, “Love one another: just as I have loved you.”

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