Sports Editorial: Nassar case highlights need for united front in athletics regarding sexual assault, protection of victims

Former American gymnastics physician Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar received a sentence of up to 175 years in prison on Jan. 24 for abusing young athletes, according to The New York Times. This verdict is extremely important and demonstrates that sexual assault knows no boundaries.

This is likely the biggest sexual assault scandal in sports since former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky of Penn State University was “found guilty of 45 counts” of sexual abuse in 2012, according to CNN. It is important to recognize, however, that the political and social culture now six years later is much more accepting and open to change.

While the news has been consumed with names of entertainers who were accused of sexual assault, the unfortunate truth is that no industry or profession is isolated to the vulnerability of sexual assault. Athletics are intended to be a safe place and an outlet for young adults, yet power dynamics and manipulation can still cause sex crimes to occur. 

This was made clear by the staggering statistic that Nassar’s sentence “capped more than a week of victim impact statements by young women and teenagers,” according to The New York Times. This very public and horrific trial is pushing back against victim blaming, specifically in the athletic sphere, but also in all instances of sexual assault.

The gymnasts who spoke up and testified against Nassar are setting a positive example and are likely preventing more young athletes from suffering in the ways that they had. They will hopefully empower individuals who are placed in these situations to come forward and identify their abusers.

Former gymnast Marta Stern stated that she had intended to stay unnamed, “out of fear and how it would affect my life, my loved ones and my career. However, I will no longer let you have control over me. I will not let you win,” Stern said in her statement to Nassar, according to Time Magazine.

That being said, supporting victims can only go so far when individuals who do come forward are often not heard or believed. This is exacerbated when individuals who work with the abuser are aware of the sex crimes taking place and do nothing to stop it.

Such a phenomenon was extremely clear in the Nassar case as, “understanding how Nassar gained unfettered access to young girls and young women over the course of a quarter-century—despite repeated warning signs—means confronting an uncomfortable truth: He didn’t gain that access alone,” according to ESPN.

Nassar’s actions were enabled by “coaches of club, collegiate and elite-level gymnasts, the USA Gymnastics organization, medical professionals, administrators and coaches at Michigan State University and gymnastic parents,” according to ESPN.

Furthermore, former Michigan State University softball player Tiffany Thomas Lopez came forward about Nassar three times to athletic trainers, as reported by ESPN. 

“I felt like they thought I was a liar … and made me seem like I was crazy,” Lopez said.

Testimonies like these are not uncommon, and victim blaming allows abusers like Nassar to continue a dangerous cycle of sex crimes.

In the athletic arena particularly, individuals tend to be glorified and seen as trustworthy. It is absolutely imperative that the courage shown by Nassar’s victims in coming forward and testifying does not go to waste. 

When it comes to sports—whether they are recreational, collegiate or professional—victims of sexual assault must be heard and respected when they speak up. Until this happens, abusers like Nassar will continue to prey on the young and vulnerable, and sports will not be the safe haven  it aims to be.u