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Larry Nassar, Gymnastics and What it all Means for the field of Sport Social Work

By Ashlea Hopkins, Lorin Mordecai, and Stephanie Colbert

The world of sports and more specifically, gymnastics, has been shaken up by the news of more than 20 years of sexual assault by long time national team, Michigan State University (MSU), and Twistars USA Gymnastics Club team doctor, Dr. Larry Nassar. The doctor has now been charged with more than 25 counts of sexual assault and over 30 counts of possession of child pornography, with the possibility of additional unknown crimes. Over 100 other athletes have come forward. Jessica Howard, an Olympic rhythmic gymnast from 2000 reported that Nassar abused her beginning in the 1990’s, but a culture of fear and intimidation in the sport prevents athletes from taking action in response to abuse. The athletes had been telling their coaches, trainers, police, and parents of this abuse for 20 years, but no real action had been taken until lately. Recently, NBC reported that Dr. Nassar even recorded some of his abuse on a GoPro camera.

While at MSU and Twistars, Nassar treated college athletes, as well as youth, taking part in the gymnastics programs at both facilities. The former head coach of MSU Gymnastics, Kathie Klages, thought very highly of Nassar, so much so that Klages denied her athletes’ claims of sexual abuse when they went to her in confidence. Through this, Klages clearly violated Title IX policies which specifically state all MSU employees are mandated reporters. As soon as the scandal broke, Klages quickly resigned from her position at the University after 27 years.

The power of USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University prevented any action from taking place. Even worse, these institutions became accessories to the crimes. The Karolyi’s, the former national team coordinators of USA Gymnastics and owners of “The Ranch” where all USA Gymnastics national team members train on a regular basis, as well as athletic trainers and coaches at MSU were aware of these accusations, did not take any action. They only continued to send athletes to Nassar for treatment. What is worst is that these girls, were put into the position of choosing between their dreams and a sport they loved, or being abused by a man that was supposed to be supporting their dreams and keeping them healthy. Gymnastics is a young sport. Elite gymnasts are typically between the ages of 14 and 18 years old. These are girls. College athletes are young adults. Often they have their entire education at risk due to sports scholarships. These girls were forced to make a decision about either quitting and losing their scholarships and possibly their opportunity for college, and sexual abuse by a man they were told to trust. USA Gymnastics and MSU used their positions of power to put these girls in an impossible situation; at best, they are negligent, at worst they are accomplices.

What does all this mean for the world of social work? It means we need to advocate for change. Social workers have a responsibility to recognize populations that are under-represented or who are taken advantage of, and work to better their lives. Athletes are a unique population. They often have many privileges that are accompanied by many sacrifices. They are recognized throughout their sport and community, but also work long, hard hours and give up social interactions to achieve their biggest goals. Gymnastics coaches, specifically, have a unique relationship with their athletes. These girls spend 25-40 hours a week in the gym, working to achieve their dreams, and often see their coaches more than their parents. Unfortunately though, these dreams can become nightmares when the coaches, trainers, or doctors take advantage of them. Verbally abusive and emotionally dismissive coaches are common place in gymnastics. Should they be? Combine that with reports of sexual and physical abuse throughout the sport and it becomes apparent we must take action.

Social workers can work with local sports teams to educate them on positive and emotionally supportive coaching, and can do the same with local universities. We as a profession must work to make reporting of abuse easier on college campuses, national teams and in club facilities. These women should not have to fear losing their position on the team because they are reporting they were sexually abused, physically harmed, or emotionally degraded. After looking through the USAG member website, we could not find an obvious number to call to report abuse to the organization. This is a problem. Social workers must work to make reporting easier and support those who do report such claims. We must also work on a national and local level to affect legislation so that those who know and stand idly by can be charged as well. This issue extends beyond the world of gymnastics. We must do this for all sports and are in the position to do so.

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