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The Horror and Shame of Larry Nassar

Former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar faces his criminal sentencing this week for his history of sexual abuse. Survivors’ accounts are gut-wrenching—and reveal a disturbingly familiar pattern of devastating system failures.

Larry Nassar Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The story of Larry Nassar is the greatest shame in recent sports history, and each day we learn more and more about how horrible it is. We are hearing the voices and accounts of those whom Nassar abused in his time as a doctor for Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics; we are finding out just how many people at both organizations could have stopped Nassar, but sought to minimize public knowledge of his abuses rather than try to put an end to his horror.

Nassar’s M.O. was simple: He used his role as team doctor to sexually abuse young athletes when he was supposed to provide them with medical treatment. Nassar pleaded guilty to 10 charges of criminal sexual conduct in November, at which point the survivors were not called to the stand to provide testimony. He has been sentenced to 60 years in prison for possessing a massive stash of child pornography, including videos that the FBI believes show Nassar sexually assaulting children in a pool. And now, at his criminal sentencing hearing this week, at least 98 people who say Nassar abused them plan to provide statements explaining the impact of his actions. Some already have, and their stories are gut-wrenching.

At Michigan State, staffers reportedly ignored repeated complaints and allowed Nassar to continue practicing. Time and again, Michigan State athletes say they informed university employees about Nassar’s abuse. Time and again, they say their accounts were met with skepticism. The school allowed Nassar to continue working for more than a year while he was under criminal investigation for sexual assault. The school itself investigated Nassar in 2014, but allowed him to return to work after a three-month investigation, with the addition of several new protocols. At least a dozen women and girls say they were abused by Nassar after he was reinstated.

Nassar’s wrongdoing came to public light after a survivor read an Indy Star series chronicling reports that USA Gymnastics routinely failed to report sexual abuse incidents involving coaches. It seems as if USAG acted upon initial reports about Nassar’s abuse more quickly than Michigan State did, but ESPN writes that the organization tried to stop survivors and their families from going public with complaints.

This story should be leading every segment on SportsCenter, taking over your Twitter feed, and getting front-page treatment in every newspaper. The list of women coming forward about Nassar now includes some of the most famous U.S. Olympians in recent memory: Aly Raisman, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, who has harshly criticized USA Gymnastics for trying to keep Nassar allegations quiet; McKayla Maroney, who says she was abused in London before she won Olympic gold; Gabby Douglas, also a three-time gold medalist; and Simone Biles, perhaps the greatest gymnast of all time, who went public with her experiences for the first time this week.

Gymnasts, by nature, are extremely young for elite-level athletes. They typically have brief peaks when they develop enough strength and discipline to perform various feats while still possessing the flexibility that human bodies naturally lose as they age. Most gymnasts are capable of competing at only one Olympic games. As such, the brightest talents are identified in grade school and subjected to rigorous training that seeks to maximize performance in a limited window.

It was during this process that Nassar ingratiated himself to these athletes, reportedly giving them desserts and a respite from coaches’ yelling. Then he molested them. They were ideal targets, often too innocent and naive to speak up, and too young and too female to be believed when they did.

In many ways, this story brings to mind the Jerry Sandusky investigation at Penn State. There are stunning similarities between the two: Both tell the tale of prominent American universities looking the other way when confronted with disturbing accounts about a faculty member, with the schools seeking to protect their athletic hierarchy rather than stopping a pattern of abuse. But there’s a significant difference. In Sandusky’s case, he was the celebrity, the man whose unique talents as a football coach had helped bring Penn State decades of success and won him the undiscerning loyalty of administration members. In Nassar’s case, the athletes were the unique talents. He worked with students who won competitions for Michigan State, and with Olympians who brought glory to America, starred in prime-time coverage, and populated magazine covers. Nassar was just a behind-the-scenes doctor. His job was to protect athletes, and yet Michigan State and USAG opted to protect him instead.

No one person enabled Nassar. It took the power structure of two institutions simultaneously aiding Nassar as he preyed on eminently talented young women to create the chorus of voices currently being heard in a Michigan courtroom. That’s why this story needs to be everywhere. It shows how easy it was for multiple sets of people to value the professional safety of one replaceable man over the actual safety of so many irreplaceable women.