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‘Athlete A’ should be lesson to institutions on how seriously they should handle abuse

‘Athlete A’ should be lesson to institutions on how seriously they should handle abuse

‘Athlete A’ should be lesson to institutions on how seriously they should handle abuse
July 17
22:12 2020

Since 2012, I found myself on the edge of my seat every four years watching the Team USA Women’s Gymnastics team on the Olympics. Smiling in joy and triumph became a tradition as I watched the strong athletes give their all. However, behind the smiles, flowers and victory, was a culture of fear and abuse that stemmed from a multitude of things, but nothing was as twisted as the sexual abuse that happened at the hands of team doctor Larry Nassar and the coverup, thereafter. 

Netflix released the documentary “Athlete A” on June 24. The film explores the details uncovered by a team of reporters at “The Indianapolis Star” regarding the sex abuse scandal within the Team USA gymnastics at the hands of Nassar. “Athlete A” refers to gymnast Maggie Nichols, who is now active in gymnastics at the University of Oklahoma, and her complaint to USA gymnastics about Nassar and its handling. 

When Nichols made her complaint, she found herself in the center of a coverup and blackballing that resulted in her leaving the organization altogether. What I learned from watching this documentary is not only that the women I looked up to since my childhood have been relentlessly violated, but that institutions could use their power to enable abusive behavior and protect their own image and needs. 

Discussing the nature of this movie should begin with how our country views rape culture. In a Vox article, rape culture is defined as “a culture in which sexual violence is the norm and victims are blamed for their own assaults.” Ultimately, the culture of fear and constantly being the best version of yourself for an institution like USA Gymnastics (USAG) can lead to this happening and it did. 

What institutions can learn from this is that there are constant lessons to be learned when it comes to educating yourself about rape culture, consent and other entities that are tied to abuse. Although universities have departments that are there to enforce Title IX, the departments don’t hold any value if those in charge of it do not make an effort in evolving themselves. 

When it comes to handling the reports of these matters, persistence and following through to the end is key. Continuing to do otherwise is dangerous and introduces an element of victim-blaming that is detrimental to potential victims and, unfortunately, victims that have yet to come to terms with what has happened to them. One failure discussed in the film is that USAG did not report the accusations to law enforcement, but instead, kept the abuse within the organization. Even with the knowledge of the abuse, the main concern for USAG was keeping it under wraps. 

It makes sense that universities would want to handle situations like this. It doesn’t make sense that they can set their own limitations on how much they decide to let the public and law enforcement know. This enables abusive behavior and prevents any accountability on the assailant and others involved following the reporting because there has already been a culture set. 

Addressing sexual abuse and the behaviors that accompany it, including the enabling, allows a cultural shift of taking abuse seriously. It doesn’t happen overnight, but the power to build a system that takes these matters seriously is greater and more honorable than any image or persona. There also needs to be more of a concern when it comes to listening to the victim and realizing the disconnect that society has when it comes to doing so. 

“Athlete A” offers a compelling look into the culture set at USAG and how being perceived as a champion involves sacrificing oneself. In this case, it meant that victims had to lose their own voice in order to become one with success. Survivors deserve the right to not feel like they have to sacrifice their humanity even further than they have been exposed to, and it is up to the system that they put their trust in to ensure that that doesn’t happen.

Featured Illustration: Olivia Varnell

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Jasmine Hicks

Jasmine Hicks

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