Opinion | How bystanders enabled Larry Nassar

By on February 13, 2018

Larry Nassar, the former doctor for USA Gymnastics and sports medicine physician at Michigan State University, will be behind bars for the rest of his life, as he should be.

However, it should not have taken until 2018 for this to be Nassar’s fate. In his time as a doctor, Nassar abused over 260 women, according to Vox.

While some were famous such as Olympic gymnasts Aly Raisman, Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas, most of Nassar’s victims were not as well known.

“The majority (of victims) were not famous competitors,” Vox’s Jen Kirby wrote. “They were students and young female athletes — gymnasts, dancers, and volleyball players. Nassar’s reputation as a well-connected, talented doctor won their trust. It also helped secure their silence.”

Larry Nassar used his image as one of the most renowned doctors of his time, to assault more people than Jerry Sandusky, Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby combined, according to the Huffington Post’s Alanna Vagianos.

At his trial, more than 150 women testified that Nassar sexually abused them over the span of two decades in his time with USA gymnastics and Michigan State University, according to CNN. Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexual assault by Judge Rosemarie Aquilina. His time will be served concurrently with his 60-year sentence in federal prison on child pornography charges.

“It is my honor and privilege to sentence you,” Judge Aquilina told Nassar. “You do not deserve to walk outside a prison ever again. You have done nothing to control those urges and anywhere you walk, destruction will occur to those most vulnerable.”

Larry Nassar joined USA gymnastics as an athletic trainer in 1986. He became the associate professor of osteopathic medicine at Michigan State University in 1997. His duties at Michigan State included teaching and seeing patients at Michigan State University’s sports medicine clinics. Nassar was also the team physician for Michigan State’s Women’s Gymnastics and Crew teams as well as the team doctor at Holt High School in Michigan, according to Advanced Publication’s MLive.com.

These responsibilities not only grew Nassar’s reputation, but they helped enable his sexual abuse. The earliest reports of abuse came from a Jane Doe, later identified as Jamie Dantzcher, who was a part of USA Gymnastics team at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

Dantzscher filed a civil suit against Nassar, alleging abuse as early as 1994, all the way through 2000, according to Vox. This was the beginning of a massive cover-up and deflection of allegations and complaints against Nassar.

Nassar’s actions are undisputedly horrific. But two questions continued to puzzle me as more and more women came forward against him.

How did he get away with this for so long?

And how did no one, from US Gymnastics, to Michigan State, to Twistars and others, that knew about the abuse, come forward against this man?

What Larry Nassar did to these women is disturbing and traumatizing. But the fact that he was able to get away with this for over two decades is even more disturbing.

I’d like to start with a 1997 lawsuit filed on behalf of 18 women in Grand Rapids. A parent reportedly complained to Twistars owner John Geddert about Nassar’s treatment methods, according to MLive.com.

Twistars USA offers recreational gymnastics classes and competitive team for boys and girls from ages 18 months to 18 years old, according to their website twistarsusa.com.

Geddert neglected to follow up with the complaint, thus beginning the denial of Nassar’s abuse of those who involved themselves with him. Nassar’s reputation, as one of the best in his profession, helped him gain the benefit of the doubt.

“Even Olympic athletes were told to feel grateful for Nassar’s care,” Kirby wrote. “Raisman said an official with USA Gymnastics told her she should feel lucky for his treatment because he was such a good doctor.”

Geddert is now facing criminal charges for failing to act on the complaints filed against Nassar, according to the Chicago Tribune. Since being suspended by USA Gymnastics for his role in the Nassar case, Geddert has since transferred his ownership of Twistars to his wife and announced plans for retirement, according to the Lansing State Journal.

It is a spineless move by Geddert, who has been accused of assaulting a parent as well as a gymnast before, though no charges were filed, according to the Chicago Tribune. Geddert’s failure to follow up on initial complaints about Nassar is just one example of how people in power turned a blind eye to Nassar’s actions when they could’ve have prevented something much bigger than the few allegations that they knew about.

None of these 260 plus women should have ever been assaulted. But if people like Geddert had taken initial complaints more seriously, some of the 260 may have been spared from Nassar.

Geddert is just part of the larger cover-up by USA Gymnastics that occurred when the Nassar abuse first surfaced. As we know, many current former gymnasts have criticized the handling of Nassar by USA Gymnastics. In fact, dozens are suing the organization for negligence and have named coaches such as Bela and Martha Karolyi, according to Vox.

The US Olympic committee has already forced the entire USA Gymnastics board of directors to resign and three members of the board of directors had already stepped down because of the scandal, according to Vox.

Steve Penny, the CEO of USA Gymnastics, stepped down after being named in several lawsuits as the scandal continued to unfold, according to Vox. Penny had been the CEO for over 10 years.

This has led to an investigation by the US House of Representatives Oversight Committee into USA Gymnastics.

“The Committee is investigating how Nassar’s crimes were able to occur, let alone persist, for over two decades,” the committee wrote in a letter. “USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport in the United States, is at the center of many of these failures.”

Simply, USA Gymnastics failed to protect its athletes.

“I’m so angry that, after realizing that we were abused, they (USA Gymnastics) let him continue to molest other gymnasts when they told me there was an investigation going on,” Raisman told ESPN’s Outside the Lines. “They told me to be quiet. I thought that they were doing the right thing, and I didn’t want to tip off the investigation. I trusted them and I shouldn’t have.”

The fact that USA Gymnastics refused to protect its athletes against Nassar is astounding to me. They sided with a manipulative doctor, in order to preserve their image. Meanwhile, Nassar continued on his abusive path, as he was enabled by those who did nothing.

Michigan State University is just as much to blame. After former athletic director Mark Hollis abruptly announced his retirement, the school now plans to fire its medical dean, Dr. William Strampel, according to Fox News.

The university conducted a Title IX investigation in 2014 which cleared Nassar of sexual assault, but advised that he should not be alone with patients while treating “sensitive areas,” according to Fox News.

Michigan State did not enforce this request. Instead, Strampel told the FBI that having a someone in the room, such as a chaperone was “health care 101,” according to Fox News.

ESPN found four women that had reported abuse by Nassar, but weren’t taken seriously. Two of them told Kathie Klages, the longtime gymnastics coach who later resigned, of the abuse, according to Vox.

Nassar’s abuse went beyond gymnastics. Tiffany Thomas Lopez, who was a softball player at Michigan State, complained about Nassar to athletic trainers in 1998-1999. However, she was dismissed.

“I felt like they thought I was a liar,” Thomas Lopez said in an ESPN interview.

After meeting with Destiny Teachnor-Hauk, an athletic training supervisor at the university, Thomas Lopez was basically turned away.

“She brushed me off, and made it seem like I was crazy. She made me feel like I was crazy.”

At least 14 MSU officials or representatives were aware of allegations or complaints of Nassar’s abuse more than 20 years before his arrest, according to a Detroit News investigation. The investigation states that eight different women came forward and that even one went to police.

To return to my question, how did Larry Nassar get away with abuse for so long?

Negligence and incapability to take the next step in investigating complaints from countless athletes across multiple organizations, is how.

When I was younger, I remember countless bullying presentations in school that highlighted that the bystanders to a bullying incident were just as bad if not worse than the bully themselves.

In the case of Larry Nassar, USA Gymnastics, Geddert and Twistars and Michigan State University were the bystanders. They did not act, and in turn unfolded the most horrific sexual abuse scandal in the past 25 years.

Janna Marnell | The Quinnipiac Chronicle
Their refusal to question a doctor, just because he was so highly regarded, came at the price of the traumatization of hundreds of women, some as young as the age of six.

Nassar may be going to jail for the rest of his life, but the damage he inflicted on the lives of others may never be forgotten.

For so many people to be aware of what was happening, or at least have a clue and not act is despicable. These people at USA Gymnastics, Michigan State and Twistars need to be held accountable for their actions, or in their case, lack of action.

I believe what we can learn from what Nassar did can be summed up in a quote by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

“What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander.”


About Peter Dewey