Last Wednesday, former gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar stood in an orange jumpsuit in an Ingham County, Michigan court room and plead guilty to sexually abusing seven girls, at least three of whom were under the age of seven. As part of the plea agreement, he will be sentenced to 25 to 40 years in prison.
“You used your position of trust that you had in the most vile way, to abuse children,” Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said. “You were trained as a healer, and what you did was harm them.”
Nassar — a longtime team physician for USA Gymnastics who had a successful and highly-touted medical practice at Michigan State — has been accused of sexually abusing more than 140 women and girls under the guise of providing medical treatment.
Last week’s plea, which came just a day after Gabby Douglas became the third member of the 2012 London Olympics gold-medal winning “Fierce Five” gymnastics team to say she was abused by Nassar, is only the beginning of the consequences in store for the disgraced doctor.
This week, Nassar will plead guilty to similar charges in Eaton County, Michigan. Next month, he will attend his sentencing hearing for federal child pornography charges. He is a defendant in nine lawsuits alongside Michigan State, Michigan State’s Board of Trustees, and USA Gymnastics.
This is, without a doubt, the biggest sex abuse scandal in the history of U.S. sports. So why does it seem to have gotten a fraction of the attention of other high-profile sex abuse scandals in recent history — such as Jerry Sandusky’s abuse at Penn State, or the systemic enabling of rape culture at Baylor University? And why aren’t there more widespread repercussions for the figures involved?
Most the attention so far has been focused on Nassar’s work with USA Gymnastics, and, recently, his alleged abuse of “Fierce Five” gymnasts. And while USA Gymnastics deserves all the scrutiny and punishments that come its way, it’s not the only institution that has questions to answer.
Nassar also worked at Michigan State. For two decades, the public university paid him, provided him with facilities, referred student-athletes from across the athletic department to his practice, showered him with awards, and even used his work with the Olympic team as a recruiting tool. This is despite the fact that, between 1997 and 2015, at least seven girls and women raised concerns about Nassar’s actions to authority figures at the school — including trainers, police, and MSU university officials.
Despite what Michigan State would like you to believe, a pedophile who allegedly perpetrated abuse on such an enormous scale cannot exist in a vacuum. So how will this prominent university and athletic department be held accountable for their involvement in the abuse of more than 140 people?
Top Michigan State officials somehow still have their jobs
Nassar began working with USA Gymnastics in 1986, and joined Michigan State in 1997 — one year after he worked with the 1996 Olympic gymnastics team, where he was one of the trainers to help Kerri Strug off the mat after her legendary ankle-breaking, gold-medal clinching vault.
The allegations against Nassar date back to 1994, and they all follow a similar pattern. Accusers say that while Nassar was medically treating young women and girls for lower back or hip pain, he would touch their vagina with his fingers, usually without prior notice. This often escalated to him digitally penetrating their vagina (often without gloves), grabbing their breasts, and even masturbating in front of them.
Two of Nassar’s victims allege in court documents obtained by Lansing State Journal that they told Michigan State women’s gymnastics coach Kathy Klages and multiple MSU athletic trainers about Nassar’s abuse in 1997 and 1998, but they were silenced.
“I have been told it is virtually impossible to stop a determined sexual predator and pedophile.”
One of those victims was Larissa Boyce, a 16-year-old gymnast who was treated at Nassar’s MSU office for back pain in 1997. In her federal lawsuit against Nassar and MSU, Boyce says that not only did Nassar digitally penetrate her vagina during treatments for back pain, but he would also often make grunting noises, ask her about her sex life, and appear to be sexually aroused during appointments. She eventually told Klages about Nassar’s behavior, but says Klages told her there was “no reason” to bring up Nassar’s conduct, and even threatened that filing an official complaint could lead to “serious consequences,” both for Nassar and Boyce.
Other victims say they notified officials at MSU about Nassar’s abuse over the next 15 years. But the most egregious known examples of Michigan State’s enabling of Nassar came more recently.
In 2014, there were two investigations into Nassar’s behavior — one conducted by the Michigan State police department, which ultimately “determined what Nassar did could have been a medical procedure,” and another conducted by the Michigan State Title IX office, which eventually cleared Nassar because it concluded the accusers didn’t understand the “nuanced difference” between an osteopathic medical procedure and sexual assault.
In 2015, after the conclusion of a five-week internal investigation, USA Gymnastics parted ways with Nassar and contacted the FBI about sexual abuse allegations against him. But Nassar remained employed at Michigan State until September of 2016 — only after a detailed Indianapolis Star investigation about his abuse was published.
At other universities that have been confronted with major sex abuse scandals — like Penn State, where 52 child sex abuse charges against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky came to light in 2011 — there has been some cleaning house.
Penn State President Graham Spanier was forced to resign, and the Penn State Board of Trustees terminated the contracts of athletic director Timothy Curley and Joe Paterno, the longtime, legendary head football coach at Penn State. The Baylor sex abuse scandal, which includes at least 52 alleged rapes by at least 31 football players between 2011 and 2014, led to the firing of head football coach Art Briles, the demotion and eventual resignation of Baylor University President Ken Starr, the resignation of Athletic Director Ian McCaw, among others.
But at Michigan State, so far the only person other than Nassar to lose their job is coach Klages, who retired a day after being suspended by the university in February 2017. There is nothing controversial about this dismissal — except perhaps how long it took to happen. In addition to the victims such as Boyce who say that Klages discouraged them from reporting the abuse, members of the 2016 MSU gymnastics team say that Klages called a team meeting after Nassar was fired from the university, in which she passionately defended Nassar and asked gymnasts to sign a card for the alleged molester.
Still happily employed at MSU? Athletics Director Mark Hollis; Dr. William Strampel, dean of MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, who told Nassar that he was “on [his] side” after the IndyStar investigation surfaced; and President Lou Anna K. Simon, who defended MSU’s inaction against Nassar to the Board of Trustees earlier this year by saying, “I have been told it is virtually impossible to stop a determined sexual predator and pedophile, that they will go to incomprehensible lengths to keep what they do in the shadows.”
At a press conference after Nassar’s guilty plea last week, Rachel Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual assault in the Indianapolis Star last September, and her lawyer, John Manly, called for Simon to resign, or at least publicly release findings from the university’s internal investigation. There are no signs she’s doing either.
Michigan State isn’t being transparent enough
Even if you believe the only MSU administrator who knew about the allegations against Nassar prior to the fall of 2016 was Klages, and therefore everyone else should keep their jobs, that still doesn’t account for the disturbing inaction by school administrators in the past year — and the institution’s ongoing disregard for transparency and accountability on this matter.
While Penn State and Baylor are hardly trailblazers in this arena, it is worth comparing their reactions to sex abuse scandals to what’s happened so far at MSU.
Penn State Board of Trustees commissioned an independent investigation by former FBI director Louis Freeh; what came to be known as the Freeh Report investigated what Penn State officials knew about Sandusky and when they knew it. The report found that leaders at Penn State showed a “total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims” and “empowered” Sandusky for 14 years to continue his abuse.
“This internal review was never designed to end in a report.”
Baylor commissioned law firm Pepper Hamilton to conduct an external investigation into the university’s handling of sexual violence. In the spring of 2016, Baylor released a summary of that report, which concluded football and athletic department administrators demonstrated “a failure to identify and respond to a pattern of sexual violence by a football player and to a report of dating violence.” (Baylor, which is a private school, unlike Penn State and Michigan State, has been criticized for not releasing the full report.)
So what about Michigan State? Well, first of all, Michigan State’s own police department is conducting the investigation into Nassar, which concerns some of the lawyers representing Nassar’s victims. Secondly, the university has paid New York law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meager & Flom more than $1 million in taxpayer money to conduct an independent internal investigation about the school’s handling of Nassar, but the school says that the results of that report will be presented only to the University Board of Trustees — not to the public.
“This internal review was never designed to end in a report,” says MSU spokesman Jason Cody. “So I don’t want to act like there is a plan to have some report. It’s what we’re referring to as an action-oriented review.”
The university has argued there has to be discretion because of the ongoing lawsuits, but lawyers for Nassar’s victims call this yet another example of the school’s “continuing cover-up of misconduct.”
“These young women and these young girls deserve justice, and they deserve to know who knew what, when. And the truth is, Michigan State is hiding that information. And when institutions hide information there’s a reason,” attorney John Manly told reporters last week. “The only investigation of Michigan State in this case that’s occurred, is by their own attorneys. In my experience, your own attorneys rarely find you guilty.”
The Michigan State Board of Trustees is in a position to push for more accountability, but it seems far more invested in protecting its school’s reputation and having the backs of its top administrators than it does in getting justice for the victims. The trustees feel at the end of this, the school will come out just fine.
“MSU is going to look great,” Joel Ferguson, vice chairman of MSU’s Board of Trustees, told WXYZ-TV in reference to the school’s internal review.
Title IX hasn’t been used as a real tool for accountability
Last week, Michigan State released a report by an independent law firm that stated Michigan State’s Title IX policy, procedures, and related resources “exceed those we have seen at other institutions, including large and complex organizations like MSU” and are in complete compliance with federal law.
But don’t let that takeaway fool you — the report, which was commissioned by Simon in the wake of the Nassar revelations, is only focused on the school’s current policies and practices, not on its past compliance with the landmark federal law that ensures gender equity in higher education. And MSU has a long history of failed Title IX compliance, a history that goes well beyond Nassar.
In fact, in 2015, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that MSU had failed to meet multiple Title IX requirements, including notifying students of the name of the Title IX coordinator, conducting investigations in given time periods, and following proper grievance procedures.
These failures are glaringly apparent when looking at MSU’s 2014 Title IX investigation against Nassar.
During that investigation, all four physicians who evaluated Nassar and looked into the legitimacy of his medical procedures were either directly chosen for the investigation by Nassar, or were very close friends of Nassar. Is it any wonder they sided with Nassar and decided the victims must be simply confused?
“The only investigation of Michigan State in this case that’s occurred, is by their own attorneys.”
Somehow, the investigation simultaneously concluded that Nassar’s treatments were medically appropriate and that Nassar should nonetheless be supervised at all times while performing these procedures in the future. However, Nassar continued to assault victims after these regulations were put into place, and there is no proof that the guidelines for supervision were publicized or followed.
And at the conclusion of the investigation, MSU reportedly gave Nassar’s victim a less extensive copy of the Title IX report than it provided to Nassar and the university — which is a direct Title IX violation.
Michigan State has recently made improvements to its Title IX office and regulations, which is certainly a positive step. But it does not erase past sins. While the federal government has never actually revoked money or accreditation due to Title IX violations, it’s likely that Michigan State’s Title IX violations will cause the school a lot of money in civil lawsuits.
The NCAA probably can’t do much here
Even though Nassar wasn’t involved in football or basketball, this is still very much an athletics scandal — which means that another potential outlet for punishment is the NCAA.
Back in 2012, instead of launching its own investigation into Penn State, the NCAA used the Freeh Report’s findings as the impetus to impose unprecedented sanctions on the school — in the form of a $60 million fine, a four-year postseason ban for the football team, scholarship reductions, and the vacating of all PSU football victories from 1998-2011. The Big Ten also imposed a $13 million fine.
NCAA President Mark Emmert said that Penn State’s swift action — including the commissioning of the Freeh Report and the swift forcing out of Spanier and Paterno — prevented the NCAA from imposing “significantly worse” sanctions. (There were reports that the NCAA considered giving Penn State the “death penalty,” a term that refers tot he NCAA’s power ban a school from competing in a given sport for one year or longer. Only five schools have ever received this punishment.)
But the NCAA announced this year that it will impose no sanctions whatsoever on Baylor. And there will probably be no sanctions for Michigan State, either.
That’s because the NCAA determined it overstepped its authority with the Penn State sanctions — while a player selling his own autograph or being given extra cash to pay a utility bill is an NCAA violation, child sex abuse is a criminal matter only. According to Sports Illustrated, after Penn State there was an opportunity for the NCAA to expand its ability to punish schools for ethical failings, such as a failure to report allegations of violence. But leaders of the NCAA schools chose not to go that route.
Instead, in 2013, the NCAA reduced the sanctions against Penn State by gradually restoring scholarships, removing the postseason ban starting in 2014, and officially returning Paterno’s football victories to the school.
“Nobody’s perfect. People make mistakes, and some of those are purposeful and premeditated.”
Interestingly enough, MSU president Simon was actually the Big Ten representative to the NCAA when the 2012 sanctions against Penn State were handed down — and a week after the sanctions were handed out, she was named the NCAA’s executive committee chair, boasting that she wanted to “build trust and confidence back in the system.”
“Nobody’s perfect,” Simon said at the time. “People make mistakes, and some of those are purposeful and premeditated, and if you just take the Penn State experience, pretty pervasive. Other times, people just make mistakes, and we have to have a violations structure and framework that tries to sort through that in the labels of what the NCAA does.”
Ultimately, accountability for Michigan State is going to have to come from within. It’s going to have to come from a taxpaying public that demands to see the results of MSU’s own internal investigation, from journalists who refuse to let the voices of victims be lost in the clamor of the news cycle, and from alumni and current students who want those in charge at the university to do much more than the bare minimum.
Nassar deserves every second of prison time he receives. But those who allowed his abuse to continue unchecked for decades shouldn’t get a pass, either.