If you’re particularly attune to the recent #MeToo movement, or just watch a lot of ESPN, then you’ve no doubt seen coverage of the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal that poisoned over thirty years of US Gymnastics. I take a particularly deep personal resentment to the unfolding as my younger sister is currently an active gymnast at a prominent elite training facility. Naturally, my mother and I have discussed in great lengths the backlash faced by USGA, the Olympic Committee, and now Michigan State University. We also have been engrossed in the statements of the victims and the implications these proceedings have on the future of not only my sister’s career but the prospects of many young aspiring gymnasts to come. But one particular thread of this discourse that we can’t quite seem to get past is: where the hell where the mothers all this time?
As humans, when tragedy strikes, or to use the old adage, “when bad things happen to good people,” we search for some understanding as to why. We hope to make sense of disaster so as to better comprehend how these things happen and how we can best prevent it. Reality being what it is, we of course can’t stop every bad thing from taking place. But we can identify where decency starts to fall through the cracks, becomes tolerable, and eventually is institutionalized.
The phrase “mama bear” has been coined rightly so for mothers whose maternal instincts kick in to true life-or-death survival mode, doing whatever is necessary and possible to protect the well-being of their offspring. My mom was aghast at the realization that this pure evil had been going on for so long, as anyone should be. I now know that my little sister was vaguely aware of the reputation of this team doctor, not in explicit events having occurred, but that he was a known creep. I can also thankfully say my sister never was on the national team, so she has never met Larry Nassar or come close to encountering him. If my mom had been aware of this threat to not only her child’s safety but the safety of her teammates, no doubt she would have fought for her. It’s a mother’s job not to be your best friend, or give you everything you want, but keep you from harm.
I can’t speak for all of the families traumatized by this scum of a man allowed to carry on his disgusting behavior, but I find myself searching for an explanation of where the mothers were to witness, listen, and then advocate for their children. At what point did any of these mothers turn a blind eye for the sake of their child’s Olympic prospects, collegiate recruiting, or sponsorship opportunities, or even just their own crusade for their child to be a champion? And at what point did the mothers who were brave enough to ever voice their concerns to a coach, therapist, or official decide to let it lie?
I was never a potential Olympian in training. I was never asked to take on the responsibility and pressure that these girls, my own sister included, shoulder during one of the hardest times of their lives. But I was sexually assaulted as a child by a stranger at a youth summer soccer camp. I didn’t tell my parents not because I was afraid of what they would say. I didn’t know what to make of it, and repressed it for years. When I had come to terms of what happened to me, I was able to tell them. They were the first people I was able to speak the words out loud to. And it broke their hearts like it would any good parent. Had they known about it at the time, they would have torn the world apart to make sure what happened to me never happened to any other kid, and to let me begin to heal. That’s the kind of love and support parents are supposed to give their children. It’s a haunting thought to think that that was not the immediate reaction by any of the some 260 victims that have come forward to date from Larry Nassar, but the only people I believe are the victims. Some have admitted their parents were in the room when this assault took place. In the end, Larry Nassar will rot away behind bars for his despicable crimes. But where does the accountability come from for any parent who kept mum while their girl suffered, and especially to any gymnastics professional who made sure they stayed that way?
*A word: I will note there are may extenuating circumstances in which the parents were not fully cognizant of the ongoings by this doctor. And whether it be socioeconomic status or by intimidation of the child’s own coaches, some felt they couldn’t speak out. But to those who could have, this didn’t have to go on for over 30 years. I’m not a mother. But I do have a sister who could have experienced the same horrors. It starts at the top, but society is learning that the people at the bottom hold a great deal of power when they dare to speak their truth. I don’t think a finger can be pointed at any one party in this situation. But it’s a question I don’t see posed as prevalently in the discussion.