Netflix’s “Athlete A” Uncovers the Systemic Coverup of Abuse Within USA Gymnastic

Photo from Netflix

Larry Nassar joined the USA Gymnastics national team medical staff as an athletic trainer in 1986. He was accused of sexual abuse for the first time by an Olympic gymnast in 1994. Then again in 1997, 1998 and 2000. In 2015, gymnast Maggie Nichols reported Nassar for abuse to USAG officials. Nassar was not indicted until 2016 and did not receive a sentence until 2018. 

Photo from Netflix

The new Netflix documentary, “Athlete A,” begins with Nichols’ story. Nichols, an incredibly talented gymnast, was just steps away from making the Women’s Olympic Team. She even reached the point where she was training with Olympians Aly Raisman and Simone Biles. What should have been an exciting time in the young athlete’s life ended up being the beginning of the end for her.

As the documentary unfolds, viewers learn that it was at one of these training camps that Nichols, among others, were sexually abused by Nassar. After making her parents aware of the situation, the Nichols family filed a complaint to USAG officials, including former president Steve Penny. The Nichols were told the situation would be dealt with, but were strictly instructed not to talk about it for fear of jeopardizing an FBI investigation. 

Months passed and Nichols received no word about the supposed investigation. It wasn’t until 2016 that the Indianapolis Star published a lengthy investigation into the USAG’s handling of sexual assault complaints. This prompted former gymnast Rachel Denhollander, and others, to come forward and file complaints against Nassar for abuse they experienced when they were still minors. 

In 2018, Nassar was eventually sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for multiple sex crimes after more than 150 young women publicly confronted him and spoke out about his abuse. But, for many years until then, he continued to see patients and was even elected to his county’s school board. 

Photo from Netflix

This is a direct result of the systemic coverup of his abuse allegations.

The events which take place in “Athlete A” are a prime example of a string of abuse which could have been prevented, if only officials had taken the first complaint seriously. Though we are progressing, there is still a stigma within society which argues for “false rape reports.” Not only is this argument detrimental and harmful to people who may encounter that abuser in the future, but it is also grossly inaccurate. 

According to a variety of studies by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, less than 10% of all rape reports are false. In comparison, an estimated 63% of rape and abuse incidents are never even reported, therefore are not included in the prior statistics. 

As the documentary shows, Nassar continued to have a career which put him in a position of power over underage and impressionable girls for two decades. In that time, he saw and abused countless patients, and every time there was an allegation against him it was swept under the rug and he was allowed to continue on with his behavior. 

Nassar is just one example of the effect ignoring such a strong allegation can have on an entire group of people. If nothing else, “Athlete A” should teach viewers one lesson: when you allow one abuser to get away with his actions, you give him the opportunity to harm numerous other people. 

The 150 women who came forward and shared their experience with Nassar should never have been put in that position in the first place because action should have been taken after the very first report in 1994.

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As a senior studying magazine journalism at Ohio University and a passionate feminist, I created Freely Femme as a way to use my love for storytelling to highlight some of the most inspirational women in my personal life and beyond.

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