Former U.S Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced in 2018 to live the rest of his life in prison for multiple instances of sexual assault. Michigan State University Dean William Strampel was charged with willful neglect for knowing about the abuse, and not taking action. But survivors of Nassar’s assaults say holding individuals accountable is just the beginning.
“There’s this myth floating around that maybe because the perpetrator’s behind bars, the problem has been solved,” said Amanda Thomashow, who filed the first Title IX complaint against Nassar in 2014. “Larry would not have been able to exist in an environment that didn’t allow for abuse.”
That’s why a new, independent commission made up of 16 national experts in the fields of child psychology, pediatrics, law and research held its first in a series of hearings in Philadelphia on Monday.
Over the next two years, the Game Over Commission will issue a report recommending policy changes at the state level, the federal level, and at a number of organizations Nassar was involved in, from the university to national athletics associations.
“How is it possible that so many institutions let these children down?” asked Marci Hamilton, CEO of Philadelphia-based CHILD USA and chair of the commission.
Pennsylvania has had more grand jury reports on child sex abuse than any other state in the country, including last summer’s sweeping investigation into allegations against 301 Roman Catholic priests. But Hamilton said the athletic field is uncharted territory.
“This is not a story about the Catholic church’s internal mechanisms, which have been studied to death,” she said. “This is a group of children that went through a system in which a major university, a major source of power in the United States, the U.S. Olympic Commission, USA [gymnastics], gyms across the country, parents — nobody had the tools or the weapons to make sure this didn’t happen to this many children.”
Subsequent hearings will take place in Denver, where the U.S. Olympic gymnastics teams train, and Michigan, where most of Nassar’s assaults occurred.
On Monday, commissioners heard statements from four Nassar survivors who offered a variety of recommendations for ways to hold institutions accountable.
Thomashow saw Nassar when he was practicing osteopathic medicine at Michigan State in 2014. She was a student there, and wanted treatment for hip pain stemming from a high school cheerleading accident. Thomashow’s sister had also been treated by Nassar and her mother had worked under him. He had a reputation as the best doctor in town for the sort of care she needed.
When he examined her, Thomashow said Nassar repeatedly touched her inappropriately and she saw him hide an erection. He forced her to schedule a follow-up appointment before she left. She filed a Title IX report with the university, and it was investigated internally. But after asking around, Tomashow said the investigators deemed the exam a routine medical procedure. Nassar continued practicing for years.
“The institutions prioritized his reputation and the money he brought into the institutions,” Thomashow said of Michigan State and USA Gymnastics. “They saw dollar signs instead of human lives that were being damaged.”
Thomashow also expressed concern over U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s new proposed changes to Title IX that would increase protections for universities in sexual assault reporting. For instance, her recommendations would prevent instances that happened off campus from being eligible under Title IX. Thomashow’s assault happened at an office across the street from the Michigan State campus, and said she was hopeful the commission’s report could offer a response to policy recommendations like the one DeVos is proposing.
Hamilton pointed to other ways she says the federal government has fallen short on the issue.
She criticized Congress, which is charged with holding the U.S. Olympic Commission and USA Gymnastics to account, for dropping the ball.
Hamilton described the U.S. Center for SafeSport, the nonprofit created by Congress for athletes to report sexual misconduct, as “utterly inadequate for the protection of children.” The center has been criticized for being slow to respond to complaints and for allowing coaches to return to work after evading investigations.
Thomashow and three other Nassar survivors who testified also urged investigations to be led by third parties, and suggested coaches be included in the list of mandated reporters for incidences of sexual assault. Thomashow said the people receiving the reports should have trauma-informed training, and that there needs to be better education regarding how to talk about sex and consent with children.
The women also pushed for ensuring that survivors be offered victims’ advocates earlier in the court proceedings (they only received one during sentencing), and be given clear instructions on the options and implications for filing charges.
Megan Halicek, a former gymnast and Nassar survivor now based in Los Angeles, had an even broader critique of the power dynamic created when young people engage in highly competitive sports.
“Your body becomes a tool,” she told the commissioners. “A prop. A mechanism to be used by adults to propel your body to win. Naturally, this makes a perfect environment for a predator to thrive.”
The more pressure a young athlete was under from coaches, Halicek said, the less likely she would be to speak out if something went wrong.
When a commission member asked Halicek if, based on the toxic culture she described in the world of youth athletics, she thought there was any way that world could be salvaged, Halicek’s answer came without hesitation.
“No,” she said, “Not even a little bit.”
This article was updated to correct the spelling of Megan Halicek’s name.