- By Wayne Baker Staff Writer
In the last week, events in a Michigan courtroom have shocked and saddened parents, officials and female athletes.
Dozens of women provided powerful victim statements against Larry Nassar, a disgraced former USA Gymnastics doctor and Michigan State University physician. The statements were given during hearings to determine how long Nassar would be sent to prison for multiple sex crimes against those athletes.
The answer came Wednesday: 40 to 175 years.
The gripping testimony from some of Nassar’s victims shone a bright light on the fact that the abuse occurred not only through Nassar’s own actions, but a willingness of other adults to turn away.
“If over these many years, just one adult listened, and had the courage and character to act, this tragedy could have been avoided,” Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman said during her victim impact statement at Nassar’s sentencing hearings. “I and so many others would have never, ever met you.”
‘Those girls will live with scars forever’
Local gold medal Olympian Kayla Harrison, a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of a coach, spoke exclusively to this organization about her thoughts on the Nassar case. Read Harrison’s full reaction »
Raisman, and other victims, said the crimes could have ended long before they did.
“Fact is, we have no idea how many people you victimized or what was done or not done that allowed you to keep doing it and to get away with it for so long,” she said. “Over those 30 years when survivors came forward, adult after adult, many in positions of authority, protected you, telling each survivor it was OK, that you weren’t abusing them. In fact, many adults had you convince the survivors that they were being dramatic or had been mistaken. This is like being violated all over again.”
Parents and officials in southwest Ohio — which has a connection to Nassar — said the Nassar testimony revived concerns about what should be done to protect youth athletes.
Actions destroy trust
Tim Stried, director of communications for the Ohio High School Athletic Association, said the organization has written bylaws to ensure school administrators are on scene for events, but that Nassar was able to commit the bulk of his crimes away from the arena of competition. That is why OHSAA guidelines stress that athletes shouldn’t be alone with coaches or officials, he said.
“That is a different situation and is very disturbing,” he said. “I am a parent and that makes every parent concerned. We want to make sure that each student-athlete isn’t alone outside of the arena of competition, and we want to make sure that parents are talking with their kids about definite boundaries and what experiences they are having while participating in sports.”
Some parents followed the testimony this week with dismay.
“The general public is now very well aware of how often this is happening with vulnerable children and those that they look to for guidance and leadership,” said Terri Johnson Adoff, whose two adult sons participated in school sports in Yellow Springs and other club sports ranging from Springfield to Dayton.
“I am not going to trust any organization to watch out for the well being of my child because too often they fail.”
Erika Reyes of Kettering has three kids — including one now an adult — who have participated in soccer, basketball, gymnastics and other extracurricular sports ranging from high school varsity to club sports. She said Nassar’s actions should remind all parents to monitor what’s happening with their kids.
“All I can say is that the more eyes and ears in youth organizations the better,” Reyes explained. “Maybe it means having adult volunteers around to oversee everything overall. There is no reason to meet with a child one on one when you are coach or leader in a organization. And these days, both the child and coach would be better off and protected equally by making sure a third party is always present.”
Adoff said she is glad Nassar’s seven-day set of sentencing hearings drew publicity because it shed light on the issue of sexual misconduct that both male and female athletes get exposed to.
“It is my belief that policies should exist that do not allow any male coach, trainer or doctor to be alone with a child,” Adoff said. “I understand though that groping behavior can literally happen in a room full of people. So in addition … real and true conversations need to happen on a regular basis in an environment that is conducive to transparency and honesty.”
Ben and Becky Bolser of Liberty Twp. have two kids. Sophia is 18 and is involved in Tai kwon do, and John 13 and active in baseball. They stressed the need for building relationships with those who are coaching or have influence over children.
“We have always been able to get to know the people coaching our kids so that we know they can be trusted,” Becky Bolser said. “We have close communication with them, and I think those kinds of things are important. I think if you just send your kids off to do something and aren’t paying close attention, that would be an ideal to create a dangerous scenario.”
A major impact
Nassar and a former gymnastics coach convicted of sex crimes, Ray Adams, have connections to athletes who have trained locally. Both were involved with gymnasts who trained at the Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy in Fairfield.
An investigation published by the Indianapolis Star in 2016 detailed charges against both men. Adams, who was found guilty of multiple sex crimes against children, coached gymnastics for 20 years in four different states, the Star reported.
The owner of Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy, Mary Lee Tracy, declined comment for this story.In 2016, Tracy told WCPO-TV in Cincinnati of Nassar: “My Olympians have all worked with Larry. We were all defending him because he has helped so many kids in their careers. He has protected them, taken care of them, worked with me and worked with their parents. He’s been amazing.”
But the aftermath of trust many had in Nassar was revealed in the testimony, tears and anger in the Lansing, Mich. courtroom this week. .
Other examples have been seen in many communities. Last week, a former Fairfield High School coach and guidance counselor was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison after being convicted on charge of having sex with a student. During that sentencing for Craig Harden, 43, of Liberty Twp., the teen victim was in the courtroom and cried.
Kara Bray has a child who participates in volleyball and basketball in Hamilton and is in the eighth grade. She was shocked at how Nassar was able to commit some of his sex crimes against female athletes while their parents were in the same room.
“ It takes a sick person to assault a child with their parent in the same room,” Bray said. “But that doesn’t change the fact that parents need to stay involved with their kids and be an active participant in their activities.”
What happens next?
Wendy Waters-Connell, who was just appointed as the new executive director of the Hamilton YWCA, said she is a survivor of sexual abuse and that she understands how Nassar was able to continue to carry out his crimes, because people never viewed him as a threat.
She wrote about her experiences in this publication in 1995 op-ed piece.
“You know, I look at the entire situation of abuse and what is going on with Nassar and it is awful,” she said. “This is not just about one gender or demographic, but it affects everybody. We can’t bury this issue, but have to keep it open to discuss so we make sure our kids can be safe.”
Hearing from victims, like the athletes who made statements in the Michigan courtroom this month, “bridges the journey to survivorship,” she said. “The gymnasts who spoke up in court against this predator are strong. They deserve our gratitude and our respect for their courage.”
Rachel McCoy of Hamilton said that as a parent with kids who have played for years, she no longer feels comfortable dropping them off and not taking the time to watch games or practices.
“There are too many people that just drop off their kids and they never see a game or observe any practices even for few minutes,” she said. “I know a lot of people are busy, but you have to get to know the other parents and kids and all of the people coaching. Keep an eye on everything.”