“You play word games saying you didn't know because no one believed. I know that. And the reason everyone who heard about Larry’s abuse did not believe it is because they did not listen. They did not listen in 1997 or 1998 or 1999 or 2000 or 2004 or 2014. No one knew, according to your definition of ‘know,’ because no one handle(d) the reports of abuse properly.” — Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Dr. Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, taking on Michigan State University in her victim impact statement.
Most people had never heard of the largest sex abuse scandal in U.S. sports history until Olympic champion gymnasts Jordyn Wieber and Aly Raisman made it an impossible story for national news outlets to ignore.
It’s a reminder that even as prominent men — and some women — engage in predictable public handwringing whether the #MeToo movement highlighting sexual harassment and sexual assault has already gone “too far,” too many women’s stories still aren’t being heard.
Armed with their 2012 Olympics gold medals, Wieber and Raisman brought star power to a scandal involving a women’s sport most people only care about once every four years (if America has a decent Olympic team).
They were among the 163 women who gave victim impact statements in an Ingham County courtroom during the trial of Dr. Larry Nassar. The former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor has since been sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for sexually assaulting his patients.
Nassar is clearly a monster, having written a letter to Judge Rosemarie Aquilina that he was a “good doctor” and his accusers were just “seeking the media attention and financial reward,” adding, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”
After suffering for years in silence, Raisman found her voice as she addressed her abuser: “Larry, you do realize now that we, this group of women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time, are now a force, and you are nothing.”
But the problem is bigger than Nassar. Raisman and other women unflinchingly described the complicity of the leadership at MSU, USA Gymnastics, the United States Olympic Committee and the Lansing-area Twistars Gymnastics training center.
Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar, emotionally eviscerated MSU for playing “word games” with its public denials and said its officials “did not listen.” The Detroit News confirmed this in a blockbuster report, “What MSU knew: 14 were warned of Nassar abuse.”
The 14 officials included President Lou Anna Simon, who finally resigned Wednesday after her remarkably tone deaf response to the abuse scandal. She was outdone, however, by MSU Trustee Joel Ferguson, who this week said that Simon was “by far ... the best president we’ve ever had,” adding “there’s so many more things going on at the university than just this Nassar thing.” (Needless to say, no one bought his subsequent apology).
Three USA Gymnastics officials have also stepped down. But there remains much more to investigate about the coverup, especially at MSU, a public institution receiving taxpayer dollars.
And it’s fast becoming a political flashpoint this election year. On Wednesday, the state House overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for Simon’s resignation, which came within hours.
But let’s be honest. Most politicians ignored the scandal until recently, as MSU is a sacred cow in Lansing (aside from cutting state aid, which is considered a noble conservative goal). The Capitol is filled with proud alumni. Basketball coach Tom Izzo is revered like a Greek god — which is why he’s gotten so little flak for saying of the Nassar case, “I hope the right person was convicted” — and football coach Mark Dantonio is quickly rising to that level.
The Nassar scandal now seems destined to play a role in the 2018 governor’s race. Attorney General Bill Schuette, the GOP gubernatorial frontrunner, has said he’ll be reviewing MSU’s role. But the conservative Detroit News editorial page ripped his record, arguing his “indifference borders on dereliction of duty,” prompting Schuette to ask for a retraction.
On the Democratic side, businessman Shri Thanedar grabbed headlines for crassly calling for Gretchen Whitmer to drop out. He accused Whitmer, a rape survivor herself, of mishandling the Nassar allegations when she served as interim Ingham County prosecutor. But Bridge Magazine has reviewed the record and concluded that “Whitmer’s mantle as an advocate for sexual assault victims remains intact.”
Nassar’s victims deserve to know the truth. They don’t deserve for investigations to be twisted for political gain. And it’s up to us in the media to be a watchdog.
It’s also up to us to listen to victims. As Aquilina noted this week, it was investigative reporting by the Indy Star that finally shattered the decades-long institutional silence about Nassar’s crimes. Good journalism has the power to bring justice.
Right now, many reporters probably know of other sexual abuse allegations. But some outlets fear getting sued, even for reporting the truth. Some reporters may find it hard to report allegations about someone who’s a respected member of the community or a good source. Women know all this. That’s why so few of us ever come forward.
But the 163 brave women in that Ingham County courthouse have told us, over and over again, how devastating it is not to be believed. We all need to do better for them and countless others.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.