By Stephanie Colbert, Ashlea Hopkins, and Lorin Mordecai
Over the past few months, the Larry Nassar case has made national news as one of the largest sexual abuse cases in the history of sports. After three separate trials, Nassar will inevitably live out the rest of his life behind bars.
As social workers, we support and applaud the judge who presided over Nassar's case. She provided the opportunity for these women who suffered by the hands of Nassar to finally have a voice, to be heard, and to feel like they can help to lead the change that is so badly needed. Change not only for USA Gymnastics, Michigan State University, Twistars USA Gymnastics Club, and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), but for all sports.
We have only just begun to see the ripple effects of this case. The USOC has forced the entire USA Gymnastics board to resign in an attempt to start fresh and rebuild the governing body for the sport of gymnastics. The Twistars club itself is at risk of losing their USAG membership as a club and location for USAG sanctioned gymnastics meets to be held. Numerous corporate sponsors, such as Hershey's and AT&T, have severed their ties with USA Gymnastics. And of course, there are investigations taking off left and right into Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics for potential oversight and mishandling of sexual assault.
While these steps symbolize acknowledgement of Nassar’s actions as heinous crimes, they are sadly only reactive. There has been a culture of abuse for years and many people enabled it to continue. The gymnasts that have spoken out against Nassar have also spoken about the emotional abuse they endured for years. They feared retribution if they reported Nassar. The emotional abuse didn’t foster trust between the athletes and their coaches. The use of emotional abuse as a coaching technique is not supported by research in athlete or human development. We must take action and train our coaches to provide a positive supportive atmosphere that builds trust and healthy athletes. The athletes’ mental and physical health must take priority. In a culture that uses emotional degradation and ignoring as a coaching technique it is easier for sexual predators to hide. We must change the environment to change the outcome.
It is time to be more proactive to ensure nothing like this ever happens again. There is absolutely no reason an athlete should fear getting treatment for an injury or not speak up because they feel like they won't be heard. There is no reason parents shouldn't let their little girls fall in love with the sport of gymnastics for fear of someone taking advantage of the trust and support system that is built within the gym. And there is no reason change can't be made not only for gymnastics, but all sports, to be a safer place for all individuals involved.
How do we accomplish such a large and daunting task of rebuilding the gymnastics brand and preventing sexual assault? First, is support. Support for the girls who courageously shared their stories in court. Support for the girls that spend hours in the gym working to achieve their goals. Support for all current and future gymnasts, and coaches, who are doing the right thing in making it fun to take part in sports.
Second, is education. Education for everyone; not only gymnasts and coaches, but parents and all those involved in sports. The education needs to include signs to look for, knowledge about what is appropriate and what is not, and most importantly, what to do when someone discloses and where to go for help.
Last, and probably the most obvious of all, is change. A complete change in attitude that an athlete's health and well-being is more important than the number of medals they win for their country. A change of leadership in who is controlling actions of the governing body of gymnastics. And a change in rules, laws, and how reports of sexual abuse are handled.
Athletes of all sports deserve to follow their dreams free of fear. Social workers are in the best position to support, educate, and help create the change that is so badly needed right now. It is our ethical duty to stand up, speak out, and advocate for all of these individuals. We need to show everyone that allowed the abuse to go on for so long that this will no longer be tolerated. #Timesup.