Fallout from Nassar case prompts experts to call for new leadership of US Olympic programs

·11 min read

A report from a team of experts who spent three years examining how Larry Nassar was able to prey on hundreds of young female gymnasts over nearly 30 years calls for Congress to create a new federal agency to lead the U.S. Olympic program.

The agency would replace or oversee the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, a nonprofit which collects billions of dollars from sponsors and television rights but operates with little outside scrutiny.

Instead of focusing on medals and money, the report says the new leadership must be driven by one clear mandate: The welfare of athletes comes above everything else.

The Game Over Commission to Protect Youth Athletes is releasing its case study just days before the opening of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, where Team USA will have more than 200 athletes competing on the world stage.

While Olympic officials would like to put the stain of the Nassar scandal behind them, the report says neither the USOPC nor the sports governing bodies it sanctions have adequate policies “to stop sexual, physical, mental, and emotional abuses from happening now or in the future.”

More: Victims share what Larry Nassar did to them under the guise of medical treatment

Jon Mason, a spokesman for USOPC, said in an email to IndyStar that he could not speak to the report, including its recommendations, because officials have not seen it and were not asked to participate in the process. The email also included a list of 26 actions the USPOC shared with Congress last year detailing what Mason called significant and ongoing reforms to improve safety and give more voice to athletes.

The Game Over commission was convened in 2018 by CHILD USA, a national think tank that conducts research and proposes policies to prevent childhood abuse and neglect.

"This is the first independent investigation of how one perpetrator abused hundreds of gymnasts and athletes," said Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of CHILD USA.

"We thought if we've drilled deep on one case study of one perpetrator, we would uncover examples that then turn out to be true for many other sports. And that's exactly what happened. The failure in the Nassar cases is really just an example of what's wrong with the larger culture."

IndyStar reached out to U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, and Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, who head the Senate Commerce subcommittee with jurisdiction over the health and safety of U.S. Olympic athletes, but did not receive a response.

Perfect storm of institutional failures

The blistering report includes recommendations for changing the power dynamic in sports that facilitated Nassar’s crimes, but extends far beyond gymnastics. It also includes steps for state lawmakers, athletic organizations and medical licensing boards to address systemic gaps and breakdowns that allow abusers to continue harming children.

USA Gymnastics settlement: How IndyStar helped uncover Larry Nassar's crimes

Members of Game Over Commission to Protect
Youth Athletes listen to testimony about sexual abuse in gymnastics and other sports during a hearing Nov. 4, 2019, in Philadelphia.
Members of Game Over Commission to Protect Youth Athletes listen to testimony about sexual abuse in gymnastics and other sports during a hearing Nov. 4, 2019, in Philadelphia.

Beyond calling for new federal oversight of Olympic sports organizations, the commission recommends:

  • Congress fund and direct the Department of Justice to create a national database of all persons associated with sports who have been accused of misconduct with a child.

  • State governments eliminate the statutes of limitation for child sexual abuse, and open new windows for reporting past abuse.

  • Gyms and other athletic institutions adopt evidence-based child protection regulations such as CHILD USA’s Gold Standard Child Protection Policies.

  • State medical boards require criminal background checks for sex-related offenses for maintaining licensure.

Those recommendations were based on what the commission discovered about the institutions it investigated in the Nassar case, including the USOPC, USA Gymnastics, Michigan State University and the FBI.

"Our findings translate to all sports, whether they're youth sports or elite sports, and they also translate to youth-serving organizations generally," Hamilton said. "This is just one piece of the larger problem of institutions putting children at risk in their own interests."

Labeling the Nassar case “a perfect storm of institutional failures,” the commission found competitive and financial pressures on elite and Olympic athletes — who are often conditioned to submit to authority and ignore pain or their own emotional needs — make them especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

The commission's call for new leadership is the latest in a growing chorus of criticism aimed at the USOPC and its affiliated governing bodies that began following an IndyStar investigation into sexual abuse in USA Gymnastics in 2016.

What makes the commission's work different, Hamilton said, is that it didn't stop at assessing what went wrong and who's to blame. More importantly, she said, "the report offers clear next steps for both governmental and non-governmental bodies to finally end this endemic cycle of abuse.”

Hamilton said CHILD USA will work to push the commission's recommendations. That includes sharing the report with every member of Congress and drafting legislation to help state and federal lawmakers on a path forward.

Nassar abused more than 500

Nassar, a doctor of osteopathic medicine, joined USA Gymnastics in 1986 as an athletic trainer. He was appointed national medical coordinator in 1996 and served as the women's team doctor until quietly retiring in 2015 after three gymnasts reported sexual abuse to USA Gymnastics.

Larry Nassar appears in court for a plea hearing in Lansing, Mich., on Nov. 22, 2017. Nassar, a former sports doctor accused of molesting girls while working for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, pleaded guilty to multiple charges of sexual assault.
Larry Nassar appears in court for a plea hearing in Lansing, Mich., on Nov. 22, 2017. Nassar, a former sports doctor accused of molesting girls while working for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, pleaded guilty to multiple charges of sexual assault.

His crimes were first revealed publicly a year later by IndyStar after three former gymnasts told reporters they had been sexually abused by Nassar. As more survivors came forward to IndyStar and police, Nassar was criminally charged in Michigan where he lived and worked at a Michigan State University sports medicine clinic.

The case took an unexpected turn when MSU police investigating the sexual abuse allegations discovered computer files containing 37,000 images of child pornography during a search at Nassar's home.

In 2017, Nassar pleaded guilty to three federal child pornography charges and later that year he pleaded guilty to state charge of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in Michigan.

Nassar is now serving two sentences that will keep him in prison the rest of his life: 60 years on the pornography convictions which will be followed by 40 to 75 years on the sexual abuse charges. In a gripping and emotional scene at his sentencing on the state charges in 2018, more than 150 survivors testified about how Nassar's abuse shattered their lives.

One woman, who may have been Nassar's first victim, said she was abused by him in 1992. She was only 12 years old.

The making of a monster: How Larry Nassar abused hundreds of gymnasts and eluded justice for decades

Ultimately, more than 500 women have come forward to report they were sexually abused by Nassar, 58, who is being held in a high-security federal penitentiary in Florida.

Commission created in 2018

The Game Over commission was created after the dramatic sentencing hearing in 2018.

Hamilton, from CHILD USA, said an independent investigation was critical to understanding how one man was able to harm so many girls and women — as well as broader issues across sports and other youth programs that put thousands of other children in danger.

While there have been other institutional investigations surrounding the Nassar case, Hamilton said the commission's work is the only fully independent and comprehensive examination.

Before preparing its 125-page report, the commissioners conducted hearings with survivors; examined thousands of pages of documents; surveyed elite athletes on the prevalence of abuse, mental health issues, and other contextual factors; and reviewed best practices from outside institutions. (Indianapolis Star reporter Tim Evans participated in a media panel discussion the commission hosted on the Nassar case in 2019 and IndyStar's reporting is cited 18 times in the report.)

The final report was prepared by 14 national experts in fields ranging from child sex abuse prevention and law enforcement to trauma and sports.

Teresa Huizar, CEO of the National Children's Alliance, was a member of the Game Over commission.
Teresa Huizar, CEO of the National Children's Alliance, was a member of the Game Over commission.

"What excites me is that there's an opportunity to truly learn something from a tragedy so that it doesn't have to happen again," said commission member Teresa Huizar, executive director of National Children’s Alliance, a membership organization representing the largest network of care centers supporting child abuse victims in the U.S.

"One of the things that we need to avoid in this country is a sort of view of fatalism around child sexual abuse — that this is always going to happen. Sure, occasionally, there's going to be a bad apple. But I think the way we need to think about this is, while there may always be bad apples, they don't always have to be given this sort of carte blanche to spoil the entire basket."

Huizar added the commission's findings and recommendations, if adopted, will help "ensure that the next generation of athletes is well protected."

Latest call for new leadership

The commission's request for Congress to act is not the first call for new federal oversight of the Olympic program. Over the last five years, athlete advocates, Nassar survivors and their attorneys have repeatedly called for a change to this system they contend put medals and money over the welfare of athletes.

In December, the CEOs of USA Gymnastics and USOPC issued apologies to survivors. They also said their organizations have taken significant steps, and plan to do even more, to address abuse and athlete safety.

Those statements came after a federal bankruptcy judge said she would approve a $380 million settlement involving USA Gymnastics, USOPC and their insurance providers. The money will be divided among more than 500 women abused by Nassar and others affiliated with the sport.

"We recognize our role in failing to protect these athletes, and we are sorry for the profound hurt they have endured," Sarah Hirshland, who heads USOPC, said in a statement in December. "USOPC has enacted sweeping reforms to our governance structure to combat sexual abuse, support athletes and survivors and strengthen protections for athletes against any form of abuse."

But for many, including Nassar survivors and the experts on the Game Over commission, the apologies and promises are too little, too late. They also don't jibe with claims repeated in court filings where the organizations said they are not responsible for the safety of their athletes.

Huizar, of the National Children’s Alliance, said the problems that make it hard to root out abusers are tied to the monopoly USOPC and its appointed governing bodies hold over the path to the Olympics and other international competition. And there are so many athletes competing for a very small number of positions on national teams.

"There's always somebody who can take your place, and you have no other reasonable alternative if you're an elite athlete," Huizar said. "That sets up an environment that makes it very difficult for an athlete to come forward in the first place, and to be taken seriously once they are."

Until the economic incentives for Olympic organizations are tied to athlete well-being and their mental health and their safety and child protection, she said, "the Larry Nassar today will be someone else tomorrow."

Indiana attorney Jon Little has seen the situation from both sides. He participated in Olympic trials as an athlete, and now represents elite athletes who were abused. Little was not a member of the commission, but said he is happy to see the panel addressed the monopoly issue.

"The only 'purchaser' of Olympic labor is the national governing body, and that's the problem," Little said. "The only fix to this is a union — a real athletes' union like the Major League Baseball Players Association. That is the only fix. If athletes had economic bargaining power, then things would change."

Report ignored, hundreds more abused

Larissa Boyce is the first person to report Nassar's abuse to a gymnastics official. That was in 1997, and she told a coach at Michigan State University who was a friend of Nassar.

"I was 16 when it first started," she said. "Basically, I was told that I was going to cause a lot of trouble for me and Nassar if I said anything."

Boyce followed her coach's orders. And the coach didn't notify police or child welfare officials.

The silence allowed Nassar to continue molesting young girls for 18 more years.

Boyce, who testified before the commission, said her goal in speaking out now is simple. She wants to protect other children from the trauma she experienced.

"I think one thing that is hard for people to understand is that just because the case is over, just because you're not experiencing abuse physically anymore, we're still dealing with the after effects of the trauma, mentally and emotionally," she said. "It affects you for the rest of your life. And that's why it's so important to try to prevent this from happening to other kids."

Boyce, now 41 and a mother, said she hopes the commission's report and recommendations finally break down the economic and cultural barriers to bring changes that make children safer.

"If I had even a tidbit of education on any of this, or if any of these recommendations were in place back then," she said, "I think Nassar could have been stopped way sooner."

USA Today contributed to this story.

Contact Tim Evans at 317-444-6204 or tim.evans@indystar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @starwatchtim.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Nassar abuse fallout drives call for new agency for Olympic programs