Nassar case signals shift in sexual assault discourse

On Jan. 24, former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison. Over 150 of his victims spoke in court, and the total number of accusers has risen to nearly 300 young women. He has been a criminal since his years at Michigan State University to his rise as the leading doctor of USA Gymnastics. Victims have said they merely believed his abuse was how doctors typically worked, as they were exposed to him when they were as young as six.

As the Time’s Up movement takes off in Hollywood, the importance of eradicating sexual assault by men in all positions of power cannot be understated. From politicians to producers to doctors, sexual assault is an epidemic among powerful men across many professional fields. As reported by The New York Times, since the fall of Harvey Weinstein, 51 men in Hollywood and politics accused of sexual assault have resigned, been fired, or experienced serious professional fallout. This “Weinstein Effect” has not yet fully permeated into the sports world.

Nassar’s case is unique, not only for the vast number of women speaking out, but also for the court decision. Most cases of sexual assault in sports never make it past rumors: cases are usually settled quietly outside of court, and accusers often retract their statements. It happened with Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, with Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2009 and 2010, and with Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane in 2015. Claims of sexual misconduct and domestic assault seem to be in every sport, from football to golf to gymnastics, but are swept under the rug.

This is the horror expected by victims of sexual assault. A crime is reported, one that changed the victim’s life forever, and their abuser is allowed to walk away with his life and reputation intact. The Nassar case changes things.

The unprecedented number of victims and the explicit description of the crimes committed brought justice to almost 300 women. But if there were so many victims and the assault was so damaging, why did it come out just now? Why were allegations only leveled against Nassar within the last two years, after the Indianapolis Star released a story about the first two accusers?

The blame lies undeniably with USA Gymnastics. The board of USA Gymnastics and, to a similar extent, the leaders of Michigan State, have covered up Nassar’s crimes since he began his work. Allegations date back over 20 years, but many victims are only just now w forward. Olympic gold medalist McKayla Maroney stated that USA Gymnastics paid her $100,000 to keep quiet about her allegations against Nassar. Michigan State processed misconduct claims in 2012 and 2014 — neither were pursued, and both were dismissed. The people in power were desperate to keep Nassar in power as well, covering up scandal after scandal until they could no longer hold back the words of the women they had let down.

Nassar faces sixty more charges of sexual assault in a separate county in Michigan, after having already received his sentence from the first case. The entire board of USA Gymnastics has resigned on the request of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and both the President and the Athletic Coordinator at Michigan State have resigned as well. These enablers of abuse will not face charges; they will not have to listen to the accounts of the countless women they allowed to get abused. They will likely all find new jobs soon, with their role in this brushed under the table.

Sadly, America is just now learning how to address the way many powerful men abuse their power. The Larry Nassar case is hopefully the first of many to bring down the men enabled and forgiven by society, and perhaps it will set a standard for the future. There is nothing that can bring back the years lost to Nassar’s abuse and no way to turn back time in order to save every single woman he violated in his office, under the guise of medical expertise. Yet, perhaps this surge of men finally facing consequences for their actions will allow victims, not only those from sports but countless women assaulted by men in power, to finally begin to heal.