Since the advent of Title IX, American athletics have been understood as a principal avenue for women’s empowerment and advancement. Confidence, self-esteem, strength, and resilience are touted as positive qualities imparted to girls through the playing of sports.
But how quickly is this cultural messaging undermined by the very institutions that are suppose to endorse them? The egregious crimes of Dr. Larry Nassar prove that even within realms intended for their advancement, girls and young women are being systematically abused and violated under the guise that they are being supported and coached in their quest to become champions and strong, independent women.
Not only that: It’s still possible for this abuse to go on for decades before anyone takes it seriously.
So how do men like Nassar “get away with it?” We must first look to the institutions — USA Gymnastics, the US Olympic Committee, Michigan State University, Hollywood, higher education, the Oval Office — that so often serve as “enablers.” These elite organizations perpetuate the culture of silence that can cover up and even lead to sexual assault. This is especially true for young female athletes who are groomed to be as pleasing aesthetically as they are athletically, seen and admired but rarely heard.
Young female athletes are groomed to be as pleasing aesthetically as they are athletically, seen and admired but rarely heard.
Within the realm of gymnastics broadly, a 2016 investigative report by the Indy Star found that “at least 368 gymnasts have alleged some form of sexual abuse at the hands of their coaches, gym owners and other adults working in gymnastics” over the past two decades.
And while Nassar’s trial was big news — this week — the crimes he committed stretch decades back in time. They were also first reported in the summer of 2016, during which time he was convicted of child pornography charges and the case failed to make many national headlines.
As a comparative point of reference, commentators note that the sex abuse scandal at Penn State University, where assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse against young male athletes made headlines much sooner. The scandal engulfed America, making it impossible to miss. “I remember when the Penn State scandal was talked about at length for months and months and even years,” sexual abuse survivor Morgan McCaul told the HuffPost. “This is nearly five times the size and no one knows about it.”
Buzzfeed contributor Jessica Luther attributes this gender difference in media coverage to the gendered prescriptions of the two respective sports — football is culturally coded as “male,” while gymnastics is coded “female”— and the correlative lack of sports coverage given to gymnastics in general, “a sport that most people only care about for one week every four years.”
I remember when the Penn State scandal was talked about at length for months and months and even years.
Not only is football coded “male” and considered a man’s sport; it is considered one of America’s national pastimes, and therefore an emblem of American nationalism. This cultural truth coupled with the statistical fact that women’s sports receive drastically less media coverage than men’s sports, can be woven together in order to explain why Nassar’s case seemed to fly under the radar for so long —even despite these most recent watershed months of #MeToo. It was only after Olympic champions like McKayla Maroney, Simone Biles and Aly Raisman spoke up about their own abuse — and the judge handing Nassar’s trial made the choice to allow every single victim to directly face Nassar — that the cable shows and national newspapers took notice.
McCaul was blunt in her assessment of the media discrepancy: “I think it plays into the importance that we put on male athletics versus female athletics,” McCaul said to the Huffington Post. “This is a case of gymnasts and dancers and figure skaters, not football players or basketball players. I think it’s sexism, to be honest. There’s no other explanation for why this many women have come forward and it’s not big news.”
But the type of sexism that female athletes face in the form of systemic oppression is arguably unique to their role in society as athletes — people trained to be more than human, to become machine-like, and to vicariously bring pleasure and glory to the masses on behalf of their “tribe,” or nation.
The type of sexism that female athletes face in the form of systemic oppression is unique to their role in society.
The historical objectification of female athletes encompasses both their glorification and their victimization. Monuments, after all, are mute. And female athletes, especially those who come to represent the nation as its Olympians, are most beloved when they embody the ideal woman who serves her nation: quiet, perfect and subservient.
The female athlete, in this regard, is identified as the perfect victim for abusers like Nassar. “I was a textbook victim, brainwashed to believe I was fine,” Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman said in an interview with NBC’s “Today” show.
The female athlete can endure. She defers to the presumed mastery of the coach/doctor/mentor who, as a sort of godlike figure, can make her a champion. “I worshiped my coach,” swimming legend Diana Nyad wrote in her stunning New York Times op-ed about her swim coach who repeatedly assaulted her. “His word was The Word. I built a pedestal for him and gazed up at the center of my universe.”
Pain, for the athlete, is natural. Coupled with the societal acceptance and normalization of sexual violence against women, the use and abuse of female athletes is still considered part of the game. The relative dearth of media attention, then, is no surprise when it reflects a culture that expects the female athlete’s objectification and dehumanization.
It is only when monuments speak — in this case, the dozens upon dozens of female survivors who faced Nassar in court and gave voice to their horrifying stories — that the spell breaks, breaking the culture of sexual assault along with it.
Marcie Bianco is a writer and the Editorial and Communications Manager of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University.