As we watched the Opening Ceremonies of the Winter Olympics early this morning, it was difficult not to think about the 260-plus women and girls who have accused Larry Nassar of sexual abuse and assault. Victims included Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney and Jordyn Wieber, four members of the Fierce Five, who dominated the 2012 London Games.
Olympic swimmer Ariana Kukors also came to mind. Just this week, Kukors released a blog post outlining sexual assault by her former coach, Sean Hutchinson. The abuse began when she was 16, Kukors said, and her statement was released only a day after Homeland Security officers searched Hutchinson’s home for evidence “he took sexually explicit photographs of her when she was underage.” Hutchinson has said their relationship was consensual.
Watching athletes proudly bearing their country’s colors at the PyeongChang Games, it was hard not to wonder how many of them have also suffered at the hands of predatory doctors and coaches. It would be wrong to categorize all Olympic athletes as victims of sexual assault, but it would also be wrong to ignore patterns of abuse that have been swept under the rug and ignored for years.
In the weeks since Nassar’s victims addressed their abuser in court, many have asked, what is being done to make sure something like this never happens again? Neither laws nor their absence protected these women and girls from Nassar’s decades-long predation.
“The days of turning a blind eye to abuse are over,” Feinstein says. “This vital reform was only possible because of the incredibly courageous women who decided to come forward, share their pain and do all they could to make sure this dark chapter is never repeated. They all deserve our thanks.”
The bill, which is currently awaiting the president’s signature, is an attempt to fix – or amend – the Victims of Child Abuse Act, the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, and the federal criminal code. Each of these laws, as well as Title IX, were in place long before the first complaint was made against Nassar in 1997.
The bill, which was introduced in 2017, adjusts the statute of limitations from 10 years from when the abuse actually occurred to 10 years from the date the victim discovers the violation or injury. It also extends the statute of limitations for minors who have been victims of a federal sex offense. Currently, once a victim reaches the age of 18, the person only has three years to file a civil action. Under the bill, a victim would have 10 years.
These are crucial changes because, as we are seeing play out in the news daily, victims do not immediately process an act of abuse as such. It is very common for children to delay disclosure, and it often occurs when they are approaching adulthood, says Theresa Tebbett, chief of the Special Victims Bureau in Nassau County, N.Y. The fear, embarrassment, shame and confusion victims experience is tenfold in children still in the developmental stages of life.
The bill is also meant to hold individuals who know of child sexual abuse but fail to report it accountable by making them subject to criminal penalties, a response to the gross negligence and failure of USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University in the Nassar case.
The failure to act by schools and institutions is a likely reason why so many victims do not come forward. However, Tebbett says those who are publicly sharing their stories could empower others who have remained silent, especially when they see justice is being served.
“You don’t have to be a famous athlete or actress to have your case heard,” Tebbett says.
According to the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, the U.S. Olympic Committee is ultimately responsible for processing complaints made by athletes. The USOC oversees 47 governing bodies, including USA Gymnastics. In 2017, Scott Blackmun, USOC’s CEO, lead the effort to open the United States Center for SafeSport, a nonprofit meant to provide resources for victims and prevent abuse. He did so only after the USOC came under fire for ignoring claims of abuse and assault. Since Nassar’s sentencings, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) have called on Blackmun to resign.
Rather than taking power away from the USOC – and therefore USA Gymnastics – Feinstein’s bill authorizes them to “enforce policies, mechanisms and procedures to prevent, report and respond to the abuse of minor or amateur athletes.” By adding a few more emphatic words to amend the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, are we to believe these committees will finally take abuse seriously?
Unfortunately, our laws only serve us when they are enforced. We are only protected when those legally empowered to protect us do their job.
Historically, laws that created equal opportunity for women to receive an education and participate in school, amateur or professional sports have also granted more access to the people likely to abuse them. Since the passage of Title IX in 1972, the female athletes and the financial investment in them increased, but opportunities for coaches – and their salaries – increased in tandem. While the number of female athletes climbed, the number of female coaches dropped dramatically, according to a 37-year study by R. Vivian Acosta and Linda Carpenter of Brooklyn College. Male coaches flocked to high-paying gigs coaching America’s most talented women. All too frequently, they were men like Nassar, who got away with more than two decades of abuse.
Although officials were told about his behavior as early as 1997, Nassar’s access to young women was not revoked until 2016, when the Indianapolis Star published an investigation into USA Gymnastics and its handling of sexual abuse complaints. After that, former gymnast Rachael Denhollander became the first to file a criminal complaint against Nassar.
Countless victims later, Nassar is serving 60 years in federal prison for possession of child pornography. He will serve two other sentences issued by Michigan judges concurrently, effectively spending the rest of his life in prison.
The Nassar case is a watershed moment for the rampant abuse of female athletes. But it is not the first case of abuse against female athletes and it surely won’t be the last. According to RAINN, 82 percent of all victims of sexual abuse by an adult are female, and “females ages 16-19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault.” There are also 339 open sexual assault investigations into Title IX violations by American universities.