Opinion: Gymnasts Case Illustrates Youth Vulnerability

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Copyright 2017 The Washington Times
All Rights Reserved
The Washington Times
Deron Snyder

How do agencies charged with caring for children and youth become so callous?

In England last year, an "Operation Hydrant" hotline was flooded with calls about coaches' sex abuse not just in soccer, but in rugby, gymnastics, tennis, swimming and golf as well. In Pennsylvania last week, the arrest of Jeffrey Sandusky re-opened scars caused by his father, Jerry, the convicted pedophile and former Nittany Lions football coach.

In Connecticut two years ago, the Boys Scouts were slapped with an $11.8 million verdict for sexual abuse and cover-up, with a reference to the organization's "ineligible volunteer files" (aka, "Perversion Files"), which tracked and concealed allegations of sexual misconduct. In Massachusetts, The Boston Globe won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for revealing a widespread pattern of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church that the city's Archdiocese hid.

The United States Olympic Committee appears to be the latest culprit in a troubling pattern of betrayal: another organization that should protect kids but instead has allowed them to be prey. Various examples exist among the national governing bodies, i.e., USA Swimming, USA Taekwondo, etc. One of the latest - USA Gymnastics - was featured Sunday on "60 Minutes."

The broadcast follows last summer's damning report by The Indianapolis Star, which found that USA Gymnastics (USAG) failed to report multiple allegations of sexual abuse by coaches. Such lapses included a Georgia case in which a coach abused young female athletes for seven years after USAG dismissed the first of four warning about him.

How does the fear of bad publicity and stained reputations outweigh the concern for young lives? How did we reach a point when victims are victimized twice, first by the perpetrator, then the organization that employs him?

There aren't enough gold medals in the standings or zeros on sponsors' checks to justify an answer. Likewise, there's no excuse for reform efforts that creep at the speed of tectonic plates.

The USOC created safesport.org in 2014 to help combat sexual abuse. Two years passed before an advisory council and board of directors had been added. The U.S. Center for SafeSport, now expected to open in a couple of months, was originally scheduled to open nearly two years ago.

"The USOC has been very, very slow to tackle this," Donna Lopiano, former CEO of the Women's Sports Foundation, told The Washington Post. "It's like pulling teeth to get them to make a move. They have to be so inundated with public criticism or lawsuits that they can't ignore it."

In addition to corrupt coaches, athletes apparently need protection from despicable doctors.

Three former star gymnasts told "60 Minutes" that a U.S. national women's team physician masked sexual abuse as medical treatment for years. Dr. Larry Nassar, who treated gymnasts at four Olympic Games and served as a longtime physician for Michigan State University athletics, faces federal charges of possession of thousands of images of child pornography and attempted destruction of evidence. He's been accused of sexual abuse by more than 50 women in criminal and/or civil complaints. The incidents date as early as 1994 and as recently as last year.

"He would put his fingers inside of me, move my leg around," 2000 Olympic bronze medalist Jamie Dantzscher told "60 Minutes." "He would tell me I was going to feel a pop and that would put my hips back and help my back pain."

Jessica Howard, the U.S. national champ in rhythmic gymnastics from 1999 to 2001, was leery of complaining because it might've decreased her chances of making the team.

"You can't say anything," she told CBS. "If you do, there's a chance you're going to get in trouble, and the last thing you want to do is bring more trouble onto yourself on purpose. You just don't cause trouble. That's one of the first rules of being an athlete."

Said Jeanette Antolin (U.S. National Team, 1995-2000): "No one wants to step out of line because there's a group of people that make decisions that dictate whether you're successful or not. So you just comply with what you're told to do."

USAG fired Nassar in 2015, five weeks after an internal investigation that it shared with the FBI. Unfortunately, neither organization bothered to inform Michigan State, where Nassar continued to see patients until a police complaint was filed last summer. Rachel Denhollander was inspired by the IndyStar investigation and alleged that Nassar assaulted her as a 15-year-old club-level gymnast in 2000.

"I was terrified," she told the paper. "I was ashamed. I was very embarrassed. And I was very confused, trying to reconcile what was happening with the person he was supposed to be. ... How could he reach this position in the medical profession, this kind of prominence and stature, if this is who he is?"

It's too easy for the predatory doctors, coaches, troop leaders and priests to become respected monsters. Far too often, a victim's welfare has been no match against a perpetrator's machine.

We can't level the playing field soon enough.

Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.

February 21, 2017


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