For much of its three-hour long broadcast on Wednesday night, the ESPYs — essentially the Emmys for athletes — was, to put it mildly, forgettable. Danica Patrick, who served as the evening’s host, offered up a wan variety of cringe-worthy jokes, the speeches (Jim Kelly’s inspiring ode aside) were mostly bland and apolitical, and the comedy bits felt stiff and forced.
And then, 141 women took the stage and delivered what I believe to be the most powerful moment in ESPYs history.
These women — all survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of former Michigan State and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar — poured onto the stage from all corners of the auditorium to accept the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. And, just as they did this past January at Nassar’s sentencing hearing when they gave victim impact statements, the Sister Survivors forced the world to stand still and listen to the voices of victims. In the process, they delivered a message of hope to survivors of sexual abuse everywhere.
“Make no mistake. We are here on this stage to present an image for the world to see,” survivor Sarah Klein told the audience of athletes and celebrities. “A portrait of survival. A new vision of courage.”
"As the days went on, the momentum built and the country, the world, started listening to us."
The sister survivors epitomize the meaning of courage: https://t.co/HocZWm4qpe
— espnW (@espnW) July 19, 2018
It wasn’t a surprise that the survivors were getting the award; ESPN announced it well ahead of time. But the accompanying package produced for the show summoned something new: A hopeful, empowering story that didn’t gloss over the abuse itself; a powerful Jennifer Garner reminding the audience that even though this story was hard to hear, we have to listen anyways; and the gut-wrenching impact of seeing 141 women in one place — knowing that all of them were abused by the same man, knowing that they make up less than half of the more than 330 women who have come forward as Nassar victims, knowing that there are probably far more victims that we don’t even know about.
Knowing is one thing; seeing makes it real. And hearing from these women? It changes everything.
“The abuse of Larry Nassar began 30 years ago with me,” Klein said said. “For 30 years, people at the United States Olympic Committee, USA Gymnastics, and Michigan State University all placed money and medals above the safety of child athletes.”
Klein stressed how painful the process has been for all of the survivors, but said that all of the suffering will be worth it if they can make one more victim of sexual abuse feel less alone.
“As a mother, I am here to say that we must start caring about children’s safety more than we care about adult’s reputations,” she said.
— ESPN (@espn) July 19, 2018
Tiffany Thomas Lopez, a former softball player at MSU who was abused by Nassar in 1999, spoke after Klein.
Nearly 20 years ago, Thomas Lopez told a supervising trainer at MSU about Nassar’s abuse, but officials at the school told her that filing a complaint against the highly regarded doctor would be a burden on her family, and insisted he was performing a real medical procedure.
“The amount of loss we’ve endured over the years is almost immeasurable. Tonight, we stand here, and it feels like we’re finally winning,” Tiffany Lopez said. “I’m here to tell you, you cannot silence the strong forever.”
Aly Raisman, the two-time Olympic champion who has become one of the leaders of the #MeToo movement, finished by listing all of the calendar years that a survivor spoke up about Nassar’s abuse, but was ignored: 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2004, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016.
“All we needed was one adult to have the integrity to stand between us and Larry Nassar,” she said. “If just one adult had listened, believed, and acted, the people standing before you on this stage would have never met him.”
Raisman challenged enablers and bystanders to take a stand against abuse; she encouraged other survivors to speak their truths; and she commanded us all to work together to break the culture of silence and hold those in power accountable. Change cannot be captured in a moment or a voice, in a conviction or an award. Rather, change is a deliberate choice that all of us must make every day if we want to make sure that sexual predators like Nassar are never allowed to abuse with abandon for three decades, and that sexual assault victims are never again shamed into the shadows.
“We may suffer alone, but we can survive together,” Raisman said.