Why hasn't abuse scandal brought MSU and USA Gymnastics into the crosshairs like Jerry Sandusky did Penn State?

Dr. Larry Nassar was convicted of molesting girls while working for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. (AP)
Dr. Larry Nassar was convicted of molesting girls while working for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. (AP)

It is one of the most abhorrent scandals in American sports history, with more than 100 victims and one doctor who has been sentenced to 60 years in prison for child pornography charges and pleaded guilty to 10 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct. It is a shameful look for the United States Olympic movement and for a major U.S. university.

It should be seen as an earthquake: dozens of teenaged girls molested and often ignored, over the course of decades. Instead it’s making only a few tremors.

“This case is extremely egregious,” says Pat Miles, the former U.S. attorney who brought charges against former Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar, who admitted to sexually assaulting female gymnasts during private examinations. “I’ve seen difficult and ugly exploitation, but I’ve not seen one of this scale. This really deserves much more attention than it’s getting in my mind.”

The scope of Nassar’s horror is almost unfathomable: as a doctor at Michigan State and for USA Gymnastics, Nassar digitally penetrated multiple gymnasts while treating them for hip and back pain, over the course of decades. He was accused of fondling them, as well. Nassar retired from USA Gymnastics in 2014 and was fired by Michigan State in 2016, but that was many years after the abuse began.

On Dec. 20, one of the gymnastics’ biggest stars, McKayla Maroney, revealed that in 2016 she reached a deal to keep quiet about abuse by Nassar. She has said Nassar abused her beginning at age 13. USA Gymnastics replied later in the day saying Maroney’s representatives sought the deal, but the larger issue is the agreement to stay quiet.

That should lead to alarms all over the country. Instead we’re on to the next news cycle.

“I’m surprised this is not getting anywhere near the same reaction as the Jerry Sandusky scandal [at Penn State],” says Nancy-Hogshead-Makar, a civil rights attorney and Olympic champion. “Girls and women being abused never get the same play as boys and men.”

That claim has some credence. To this point, Michigan State has not released the findings of its investigation and there’s debate whether it was “independent” or not, and it’s not clear if USA Gymnastics is doing anything. It wasn’t until two weeks ago that any high-ranking official from the state of Michigan, House Speaker Tom Leonard, called for Michigan State president Lou Ann Simon to step down.

“The best-case scenario for Michigan State University is that there was absolutely gross negligence all the way to the top,” Leonard told the Detroit News, “and worst-case scenario, something’s being covered up.”

Miles, who is running for Michigan attorney general, has been adamant about a full, independent investigation into Michigan State’s handling of the case. He says he assumed that would happen by now. “They don’t appear to be planning one,” Miles says of the current A.G.’s office. “That’s really unconscionable.”

Two weeks ago, Michigan attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette was asked about an independent investigation. His response: “I’m not going to get into that right now.”

Schuette wanted to see the results of MSU’s own internal investigation, and the school’s attorney sent him a letter on Dec. 6. Last Thursday, more than two weeks later, a representative of Schuette told Yahoo Sports, “We are reviewing the letter sent by Mr. Fitzgerald to the Attorney General.”

Mr. Fitzgerald could not provide a full report of the school’s internal investigation because a full report was never created.

The clamor for full accountability is not just at Michigan State. There doesn’t seem to be any major shake-up at USA Gymnastics. Chief executive Steve Penny resigned earlier this year. He got a $1 million severance package.

When the Indianapolis Star first reported its investigation concluding that USA Gymnastics “has followed a policy of not reporting all sexual abuse allegations against its coaches,” Penny wrote an open letter including this passage: “We have … refined our investigating process, made member club requirements compliant with Safe Sport standards, and worked hand-in-hand with law enforcement, as well as employing investigators when cases have arisen after the statute of limitations had legally expired.”

Steve Penny, right, was president and CEO of USA Gymnastics from 2005-2017. He resigned in March and received a $1 million severance package. (AP)
Steve Penny, right, was president and CEO of USA Gymnastics from 2005-2017. He resigned in March and received a $1 million severance package. (AP)

But many in the gymnastics community want far more done. Aly Raisman has been outspoken on social media, tweeting to USA Gymnastics on Dec. 12, “I can’t understand how you allow those who knew to continue working. So disappointed. At a loss of words for how badly you are continuing to handle this. USA Gymnastics this is unacceptable.”

A Change.org petition calling for an overhaul of USA Gymnastics has 20,000 signatures. It declares, “The current leadership of USA Gymnastics failed in its responsibility to protect child athletes from sexual predators and failed to alert authorities to reports of sexual abuse as required by law.”

Elected officials in Washington haven’t made much noise. So it’s fallen to the survivors themselves.

“I had no intention of filing a civil lawsuit,” said Rachael Denhollander, one of the first victims to speak out, said at a press conference earlier this month. “I was waiting to see how MSU and USAG would respond, and their response has been heartbreaking, because it’s reminded me time and time again that our voices do not matter.”

This isn’t a new issue for Team USA. In 2010, then-USA Swimming chief Chuck Wielgus (who has since passed) was interviewed by ABC’s 20/20 about coaches who had been banned for sexual abuse and misconduct. Victims blamed him for dismissing their complaints and in some cases protecting the coaches. Wielgus dismissively asked ABC, “You feel I need to apologize to them?” Four years later, he wrote an open letter to sex abuse victims in his sport, beginning with the words, “I’m sorry.”

“Going back in time, I wish I knew long before 2010 what I know today,” Wielgus wrote. “I wish my eyes had been more open to the individual stories of the horrors of sexual abuse. I wish I had known more so perhaps I could have done more.”

Wielgus’ difficult lesson should have been a warning at USA Gymnastics. Instead it appears that organization failed its athletes in similar fashion.

This is what the #MeToo movement is up against: a general disbelief of women’s accounts, and a general inertia even when accounts are believed. This has changed somewhat in politics and entertainment in 2017, but not in sports. We are in a new era when it comes to male athletes and coaches speaking out about social issues, yet how many have commented about the Nassar case? Or #MeToo generally?

“The only difference [between this and the Sandusky case] is the gender of the victims,” says Miles. “And one involved the football problem and one involved gymnastics. Those are the differences. Football and male victims get more attention than gymnastics and female victims. In my experience in society, that’s a societal issue we have to deal with as well. It ties into the MeToo movement, but these things have been going on a long time.”

If a scandal this appalling doesn’t create a wave of investigations and soul-searching, it’s hard to imagine what would.