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An internet hashtag about the prevalence of sexual assault has filled social media over the past few days with horrific and tragic stories. On Wednesday, a famous athlete spoke up and said, “It’s happened to me too.”
“I had a dream to go to the Olympics,” wrote former Team USA gymnast McKayla Maroney, “and the things I had to endure to get there were unnecessary and disgusting.”
The 21-year-old Maroney accuses Larry Nassar, former doctor for USA Gymnastics, of molesting her beginning at age 13 and continuing to do so throughout her time in the sport – including during the Olympic Games in London. She accuses him of giving her a sleeping pill on a trip to Tokyo, and then giving her “treatment” in his hotel room. “I thought I was going to die that night,” she writes. She was 15 at the time.
[McKayla Maroney: I was molested by team doctor]
Nassar has been charged with 33 counts of criminal sexual conduct. The USA Today Network reports more than 140 girls have come forward with allegations of abuse. Nassar has already pleaded guilty to federal child pornography charges and faces 22 to 27 years in prison.
He was involved with American gymnastics at the highest level for more than three decades. He was also a sports medicine expert employed by Michigan State University.
“Over the years,” reports MLive.com, “some of Nassar’s alleged victims say they were telling parents, coaches, counselors, MSU athletic trainers – even police – that, without consent or explanation, Nassar was digitally penetrating them in the vagina and anus during medical treatments for back, hip and other injuries.”
Several complaints about Nassar reportedly took place in the late 1990s. To put that in perspective, he has been accused of assaulting girls for nearly the entire time Maroney has been alive.
“I can’t tell you how hard it is for an Olympic champion to put her neck on the line like this,” says civil rights lawyer Nancy Hogshead-Maker, who is herself an Olympic champion. “Once they say they were abused and not protected by a governing body, they lose connection with a governing body. To have an elite athlete come forward and say it’s happened over a long period of time, it is really dramatic.”
Maroney has been keeping this part of her story inside for nearly 10 years, and it took a viral online campaign for her to bring her accusation forward. That should indicate how much emotional pain she has been in. She says there were many times when she was exploited, violated, dehumanized. She kept smiling for the coaches and cameras.
She probably felt she had no choice. Whatever agony she was going through was not as bad as whatever consequences blowing the whistle would bring. And those consequences would more likely be for her than for Nassar.
“You have to have a lot of, frankly, male enablers to get away with it,” says Hogshead-Makar, a gold-medal winning swimmer who is now the CEO of Champion Women. “Women have really done what we can. The next big change is going to be men stepping up to the plate and recognizing when they see harassment that they’re willing to step up.”
Maroney was on top of the gymnastics world. She had the acclaim of an entire nation. Now imagine how powerless the unknown victims feel. Of the more than 100 athletes involved in a suit against Nassar, only one Olympian, Jamie Dantzcher, has publicly alleged abuse by the former team doctor. One accuser was reportedly 6 years old when she claims Nassar exposed himself to her. This continued for years, and the doctor even penetrated her, according to testimony. The girl was brave enough to come forward and the police were called. A counselor arranged a meeting between the girl, her parents and Nassar, according to testimony of a Michigan State detective.
Her parents decided they didn’t believe her story.
The #MeToo campaign began in the wake of multiple allegations of assault and harassment by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. It’s an echo of other cases where powerful people went unchecked for years before the general public woke up to their behavior: Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Jerry Sandusky. Those powerful people had powerful protectors, and that’s the heart of the problem. Even on the same morning as Maroney’s essay, a popular TV critic came forward with her account of being assaulted by a network executive.
“I reported him to his company,” wrote Maureen Ryan of Variety. “Spoiler alert: Nothing happened.”
Has that changed? Will it ever change? That’s the question before every sport parent and coach nationwide. If you see something, will you say something? If someone says something, will you listen?
“Is it possible to put an end to this type of abuse?” Maroney asks in her letter. “Is it possible for survivors to speak out, without putting careers, and dreams in jeopardy? I hope so.”
The change should not rest only with athletes. It should rest with every adult. It should rest with the parent who thinks, “He’s spending a lot of time with alone her” or “There’s something off about the way they interact” or “Why is a child texting with a coach?” It should rest with the head of the gymnastics program, the swim program, or the skating program who doesn’t want to have an uncomfortable conversation because “I’ve known them for years; I’ve had dinner at their house.” It should rest with the national governing bodies, including USA Gymnastics, which is still waiting to fill CEO Steve Penny’s role after he left in the fallout of the Nassar scandal. He received a $1 million severance.
This has happened too many times to consider it rare. It’s not rare enough. Prepare for it to happen in your community and prepare to act. This isn’t just on the next McKayla Maroney.
It’s on us, too.
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