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    Athlete A: A Netflix Documentary

    June 29, 2020 Jessica Debanné

    The Netflix documentary Athlete A, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, details the story of the USA Gymnastics (USAG) sex abuse scandal that utterly shocked the world in recent years. Through the lens of interviews with survivors and a thorough account of the Indianapolis Star journalists who first dug into this story, the film poignantly delves into the experiences of the many gymnasts who came forth and shared the truth about being victimized by the national team’s sports doctor Larry Nassar.

    The documentary congruently sheds light on the lived experience of Maggie Nichols, the young woman and USAG athlete behind the moniker “Athlete A.” This title was the name by which the then-anonymous Nichols was called in the early days of the investigation against Nassar, after she made a complaint in 2015 about his sexually intrusive behaviors. Her complaint would foster the first public disclosure of Nassar’s decade-long abuse.

     

    However, when informed about Nichols’ allegations, USAG President and CEO Steve Penny delayed reporting the case to authorities. Likewise, Nichols and her family were cautioned not to go public with the allegations: the young woman’s gymnastics career and potential selection for the Olympics was even threatened by the organization’s leadership. In other words, USAG, under the direction of Penny, sought to purchase the silence of an abuse victim within his care. For over fifteen months following Maggie Nichols’ allegation, Nassar continued to abuse further patients.

     

    In the end, it was revealed that 500 young gymnasts were molested by Larry Nassar. The disgraced USAG team doctor was ultimately convicted in 2017-2018 as sex offender and sentenced to 60 years in federal prison and 40 to 175 years in state prison, respectively for child pornography charges and first-degree sexual assault against minors. Since then, Steve Penny was also arrested and indicted for evidence tampering in the Nassar case, and now awaits trial.

     

    An underlying question of the documentary is the following: how could Nassar have gotten away with this? How did such vile abuse go unnoticed and unaddressed for so long?

     

    In reality, Larry Nassar was able to deceive and prey upon so many vulnerable people because he worked within an organization that protected him. As a consultancy agency committed to equipping organizations servicing the vulnerable sector in abuse prevention, Plan to Protect© identifies many all-too-common deficiencies and blind spots in the practices of USAG, as relayed in this documentary. Here are some that come to mind.

     

    1)      Lacking policies and reporting guidelines

     

    An especially troubling component of Athlete A was the realization that many adults who worked within USAG were aware of Nassar’s predatorial behaviors – yet remained silent. In fact, USAG had a policy that the organization would not alert the FBI about reports of abuse, unless they had a signed statement by a victim or a victim’s parent, or if USAG was an eyewitness of the abuse. Although every province, state and territory has its own legislation with respect to reporting child abuse, one must recognize that failing to report child abuse is wilful neglect.

     

    When learning of Nassar’s victimization of young girls, the adults involved should have immediately reported this information to authorities. In Canada, the duty to report is not only immediate but direct, meaning that it is the responsibility of any person who finds out about abuse to report directly to the proper authorities. In the Nassar case, however, coaches brought forth their athletes’ allegations to USAG leadership instead of the police or child protection services. Alas, as we know, Steve Penny and other head figures of the organization did not address this deluge of allegations; instead, they sought to minimize, invalidate or obliterate them. The documentary explains that there were complaints of this nature against over 50 coaches, which were all filed and kept in secrecy for years.

     

    When reporting child abuse is not emphasized in an organization, children and youth are immediately at risk. Reporting abuse allegations is a principle of care that ought to be outlined clearly in an organization’s policies, and all staff and volunteers should be advised, trained and empowered to act accordingly.

     

    2)      Culture of abuse

     

    As you watch Athlete A, consider the four key principles for reducing the risk of injury, harm and abuse:

    • As risk increases, supervision should also increase
    • Risk increases as isolation increases
    • Risk increases as accountability decreases
    • Risk increases when there is an imbalance of power, authority, influence, and control between a potential abuse and potential victim.

     

    Throughout the documentary, many former USAG athletes explain how the organizational culture was one which facilitated abusive behaviors. Most importantly, the power imbalances between the young athletes and their coaches (or other supervising adults such as health care professionals) were massively exaggerated, rendering the situation dangerous for youth. The gymnasts were often far from their parents during weeklong trainings, physical discipline was endorsed, berating young girls about their appearance and weight was normalized, and victory was ultimately prioritized over child welfare. In Athlete A, one of Nassar’s victim-survivors, Jennifer Sey, movingly states that, in her experience at USAG,“[…] the line between tough coaching and child abuse gets blurred.”

     

    As you endeavor to create a plan to protect, keep in mind that abuse prevention goes beyond policies and procedures. Of course, these are two inarguably crucial and necessary elements, but your organizational culture speaks volumes too. Are you nurturing a culture of care and respect, or are you endorsing fear-based discipline? Are staff and volunteers holding one another accountable about safety procedures, or are they turning a blind eye to worrisome behaviors? Are activities happening in sight of others, or are aspects of your programs occurring in isolation? Negligence was weaved into the fabric of USAG’s leadership and culture – don’t let this be your story.

     

    Likewise, keep in mind that when your organization stands up against any type of aggressive behaviors or inflated authoritative measures, you are communicating a zero-tolerance for abuse. One of USAG’s main failures was not recognizing that their celebration of excessively harsh training fueled undue power imbalances. Such power imbalances ultimately allow predators like Larry Nassar to victimize the vulnerable.

     

    3)      Misplaced priorities

     

    USA Gymnastics, as revealed in Athlete A, is a classic example of an organization that was more concerned with its reputation, optics and “business as usual” than the actual safety of the children and youth within its care. This would explain why gymnasts such as Maggie Nichols and Jennifer Sey were effectively silenced and blacklisted by USAG when they came forward against Nassar. It would also explain why a slew of non-disclosure agreements were effectuated to halt these victim-survivors from tarnishing the USAG brand.

     

    The allegations of abuse against Nassar -namely, situations from within the very walls of USAG-yielded more concern about the organization’s clout than about how much they were failing these young women and girls. Let us ask ourselves: what are our priorities? Does our brand take precedent over protection? Are we so focused on winning medals or delivering good programs or making profit that we are forgetting about the individual safety of the youth for whom we are responsible?

     

    Child safety cannot just be an illusion. Child safety cannot just be a theory. Child safety cannot just be one box to check off in our organization’s to-do list. It must become the praxis of any organization servicing children and youth.

     

    _____

     

    We strongly urge you to watch Athlete A for its harrowing depiction of abuse, and just how much is at stake when organizations fail to establish a thorough plan to protect.  In 2018, over 150 young women made victim impact statements about Larry Nassar during his court proceedings. Their poignant testimonies and collective roar for justice was powerful, and accentuated the call to protect children and youth at all costs, such that a horrific story like this one would never happen again.

     

    To learn more about this case, we also highly recommend the book What Is a Girl Worth? By Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar.

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