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It's All Terribly Familiar: Watching Netflix's "Athlete A"

Recently, I was scrolling through Netflix’s viewing suggestions and came across Athlete A, a Netflix documentary about the sexual abuse scandal within the USA Gymnastics organization. I had, of course, heard the revolting stories about Dr. Larry Nassar, who sexually assaulted hundred of athletes over the span of decades, under the guise of medical care. But I hadn’t spent much time digging into the details, and I thought it might be helpful to learn more about an abuse crisis in an organization besides the Catholic Church.


So, I clicked “play” on the movie. I’m glad I did.


A note for viewers: Athlete A includes explicit descriptions of sexual assault of children. It is rated PG-13 and is less emotionally intense than other documentaries I have seen on sexual abuse, but I would still advise caution in viewing.


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I know there are unique dynamics that come into play with abuse in a religious context, but watching this film, I couldn’t help but notice the striking similarities between the scandal in USA Gymnastics and the scandal in the Catholic Church. In fact, the world of elite gymnastics sounds like a quasi-religious community itself, demanding complete commitment and a strong sense of loyalty from adherents.


The grooming tactics of Larry Nassar are distressingly familiar - right down to the way he slipped gymnasts candy to win their trust. It’s disturbing to watch multiple young women talk about how much they liked Nassar, how he always acted like their friend, how he listened to their troubles when no one else would. They trusted him, just like so many children trusted the priests who abused them.


When women and girls raised concerns about Nassar’s abusive behavior, the response of those in authority was to blame, shame, and question their reports. USA Gymnastics clearly wanted to handle this through internal processes, rather than reporting immediately to the police. Does that sound familiar too?


I also noticed that decades of abuse and cover up were brought to light only when the abuse allegations became front-page news. The first few athletes who reported through internal mechanisms were effectively silenced. It took the courage of one brave woman, who was willing to go public with her story, to open the floodgates of accusations and to start the process of real change. Watching Athlete A is a bit like watching the movie Spotlight, and in both cases, the role of media attention in revealing the truth was essential.


Athlete A raises important questions that should be asked about any community in which abuse takes place: What elements of the organizational culture allowed this abuse to occur? Why did this environment make it so difficult for victims to come forward and tell someone what was happening to them? Besides the abuser himself, who else knew - or should have known - what was happening but failed to act? Why was protecting the institution considered more important than protecting the children? These are the same hard questions that need to be asked about the Catholic Church as we wrestle with our own problem of sexual abuse.


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Aside from all these similarities with the scandal in the Catholic Church, what I found most striking about Athlete A was that it is constructed as a hero story, complete with a tidy happy ending. The heroes of the story are Rachel Denhollander, Maggie Nichols, and all the other athletes who came forward about their abuse, as well as the parents, investigators, journalists, and lawyers that supported them and worked for justice. The “bad guys” are the powerful people within USA Gymnastics who did not keep children safe, along with Dr. Larry Nassar himself. We get our happy ending when Nassar is sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, after being forced to listen to 156 victims testify about the devastating impact his abuse had on their lives. You can’t help but tear up when the camera pans to these courageous women gathered in the courtroom, crying in each other’s arms as the judge reads out the sentence.


That may be why Athlete A feels less “heavy” than other documentaries on the subject of sexual abuse. It’s a horrible story, but it’s tied up in a nice little bow at the end. When you turn off the TV, you have a feeling of satisfaction, like justice has been done and everyone will now live happily ever after.


Of course, that’s not how real life works. Childhood sexual abuse leaves scars for a lifetime, and the abuser being put behind bars does not magically heal those wounds. Some key leaders being removed and a training camp being closed does not necessarily demonstrate a radical change in the culture that allowed and covered up this abuse.


After finishing the movie, I did a little research to see what had happened in the years since Larry Nassar’s trial in January 2018. There were certainly some considerable changes: All 21 board members of USA Gymnastics resigned. Top executives and coaches were removed. New athlete-protection policies were put into place. The United States Olympic Committee began a process to decertify USA Gymnastics as the official governing body for gymnastics in the United States. USA Gymnastics filed for bankruptcy, saying this would expedite the process of settling athletes’ financial claims.


These are significant changes, but there are still important questions to be answered - about USA Gymnastics, about the Catholic Church, and about any institution that has had issues with sexual abuse: Has the institutional culture changed enough that abuse cannot happen again? Are children going to be safe from other abusers in the years to come? Are there still secrets that have not been brought to light?


Jon Shenk, one of the the directors of Athlete A, offered a partial answer to these questions in a recent interview: “This is not about one bad dude. He got away with it for years and had hundreds of victims because he was operating in a milieu where abuse was not only tolerated but accepted… USA Gymnastics has done some surface-level things to at least make it seem like they’re trying to make a difference. We just look to the cues of the Simone Biles of the world, and what they’re saying is ‘No, not enough has happened.’ There’s a lot of shoes left to drop on this.”


In fact, in 2019 the United States Olympic Committee paused the process of decertifying USA Gymnastics. In February 2020, USA Gymnastics revealed a proposed bankruptcy settlement that would "release U.S. Olympic officials, former USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny, former coaches Martha and Bela Karolyi and others from liability” and “includes no provision for disclosing who at USA Gymnastics was aware of and hid Nassar’s abuse.” Gymnast and survivor Aly Raisman commented: “The problem is USAG and USOC don’t want anyone to know. This is a massive cover up. The only way for anyone to know what really happened is if someone forces them to release ALL documents and data to investigate.”


To someone closely following the Catholic Church’s response to its own abuse crisis, this all sounds terribly familiar. It is easier to convict one abuser than to transform the system in which that abuse occurred, and when the spotlight is off, change often grinds to a halt.


I want to believe in happy endings, like the one we’re given in Athlete A. Unfortunately, I think reality is much messier.


But I do believe in survivors who become heroes. I know quite a few myself.


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Saint Mary MacKillop, speaker of truth and protector of children, pray for us.


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©2020 by Sara Larson