A Darker Side of Sport: Sexual Violence against Girls and Women in Sport From “Locker Room” Talk to Larry Nassar

The GIST: The Nassar case is a jarring reminder of a darker side of sport: a space in which sexual violence against girls and women can go unchecked—not just through perverted actions of one man, but through institutional inaction and social norms that enable such oppression in the first place.

Over a month ago, doctor Larry Nassar received a prison sentenced of 40-175 years on seven counts of first degree criminal sexual conduct. Interestingly, this conviction stems from initial investigative work that actually made no mention of Nassar. In 2016, Marisa Kwiatkowski’s article in the Indianapolis Star focused on systemic problems at USA Gymnastics and exposed how the organization had repeatedly failed to report complaints of sexual abuse to law enforcement. Almost 20 years after Nassar sexually abused her as a young competitive gymnast, Rachael Denhollander[1] came across the Indy Star report and took courageous first steps to help bring Nassar to justice. She contacted Kwiatkowski and publicly came forward with allegations against the community-revered clinician. Since Denhollander, over 265 young women[2] and 1 young man[3], have heroically spoken their truth to reveal the bone-chilling, repulsive nature and magnitude of Nassar’s abuse.

Over 265 young women & 1 young man.

nassar photo

For over 20 years.

            This post comes to you a bit delayed because as a graduate student at Michigan State University, I have been in the eye of the scandal’s institutional storm. The flurry of controversies and conversations across campus since the fall have been a lot to process—emotionally and cognitively. From President Simon’s resignation; the unanimous Trustee appointment of John Engler as Interim President—despite overwhelming student and faculty opposition; and town hall meetings; to formal and informal dialogue with community members. It’s been a whirlwind.

I am not a survivor of sexual violence. I cannot speak to the experiences of the brave female survivors of Nassar’s abuse—nor should I. As an MSU community member and educator who is deeply passionate about critically examining intersections between sport and social issues, however, I’d like to offer some of my reflections on the topic.

What’s been most difficult for me to unpack is the expansive scope of Nassar’s sexual violence absent any institutional response—from MSU or USA gymnasts. Both were focused on protecting their brand and institutions. In the weeks following his sentencing, I kept coming back to the numbers. Over 265 young girls and women and 1 young man. For over 20 years. I tremble still, just writing this; it’s hard not to let this disheartening reality be paralyzing. What the Nassar case makes utterly apparent is how inaction, just as much as action, can devastate.

At base, Larry Nassar’s case is a jarring reminder of a darker side of sport: a space in which sexual violence against girls and women can go uncontested.

This underbelly does not just regard Nassar, the individual, but is tethered to broader institutional and social structures in place. I’ve tried to peel back each of these layers as a way to organized my thoughts. Doing so has helped clarify how I can move forward to affect positive change as a female educator and coach.

Institutional Level

Perpetrators of sexual violence and harassment are easy to ostracize. We view their perverted actions as an aberration from our social world—as separate from our “order of things”.  Larry Nassar is no exception. We need to remember, however, that perpetrators do not act alone. They live and carry out their abuse within communities. In these spaces, leaders and administrators who can/should respond are relevant social agents. Their inaction—as much as their action— dictate whether harassment and abuse continue.

As the coaching axiom goes, “If you are not coaching it, you are allowing it”.

Complaints from MSU gymnasts and other female athletes date back as far as 1997. These complaints fell through institutional cracks because those in positions of power dismissed them. Nassar was a community-respect clinician and seemingly compassionate caretaker. This persona may have been earnestly blindsiding; nevertheless, institutional actors ignored the warning signs and voices of these young women. What they ignored is exactly what enabled Nassar.

Social Level

The Nassar case has unfolded alongside a flurry of recent stories of powerful men perpetrating acts of sexual harassment against women. This misconduct stretches beyond the sport domain to include Hollywood movie sets, corporate offices, news conference rooms, and automotive assembly lines.[4] The broad scope of these abuses, like that of Nassar’s crimes, underscore how such conduct is not merely the result of a few bad apples (i.e., powerful individuals making bad decisions). Rather, their ubiquity reflects to broader social, cultural norms that actively and passively reinforce such misconduct. Social identities (our professional role, gender, or race) can afford us privilege—or lack thereof. And, the privilege a single identity (e.g., a white person) or intersecting identities (e.g., a white male executive) inherently provide an individual can breed entitlement. Entitlement can not only blind powerful people to their own privilege, but to the needs of others. For example, research has shown that powerful men overestimate the sexual interest of others and erroneously believe that women around them are more attracted to them than they actually are.[5]

These repeated instances of male privilege and entitlement are not the only manifestations of gender inequity in society. More than these visible stories, we need to attend to the invisible ways in which day-to-day actions reinforce harmful gender biases. Subtle actions, carried out consistently and uncontested, are just instrumental in creating and sustaining a culture in which demeaning and objectifying women is ok—because it’s “just locker room talk”.

But, the words spoken “privately” in a boys’ locker room carry ideas. Ideas about what it means to be a man, and what men should/are allowed to think, feel, and do. These ideas travel.

They seep into other social spaces. Not all sexual harassment is equally egregious, but this seemingly casual banter meaningfully contributes to why the Weinsteins and Nassars of the world think that they can act as they do—and commit the sexual violence that we more openly detest.

Individual Level

If your heart is hurting and head spinning, that’s ok. Mine is too. This discomfort is important to acknowledge. It’s there to help move us to act. Regardless of your social identit(ies), we can all move to impact the institutions and cultures in which we are situated. For me as a female coach, these events have further reaffirmed two beliefs:

1) Creating trusting relationships and open lines of communication with players is absolutely essential. As a way to actively evaluate and reassess this relationship I hope to keep two critical reflective questions as a coach: Have I effectively communicated to my players (in my words and actions) the value of open lines of communication? Do my players feel comfortable coming to me with issues or concerns?

2) Challenging “locker room talk” is just as important as contesting more visible acts of sexual violence against women to change culture. As a female coach often in male-dominated spaces, I need to have the courage to contest locker room-type talk and action, even if this disruption is risky or unsettling. Male leaders in sport (elite athletes, coaches, ADs, and parents) are similarly, if not more, instrumental in this regard. Male leaders are the exemplars that young athletes revere. Their example can be positively contagious, and spread ideas and actions that tie compassion, equity, and respect to what it means to be a man.

The Nassar case is a jarring reminder of a darker side of sport: a space that can perpetuate sexual violence against girls and women. To honor the heroic survivors, we need to do better. We need to peel back these layers and do our part to not just contest Nassar’s actions, but challenge the small, subtle actions (e.g., locker-room talk) that reinforce oppressive social norms and power dynamics. This is a pivotal moment for MSU as an institution—and for its community members—myself included. We need to listen to the voices of the courageous survivors who Nassar, and those in positions of institutional power, silenced. We needed to acknowledge their truth. Only when we hear their voices and take what lessons must be learned from this tragedy can we honor their humanity.


[1] Rachael tells her remarkable story in more detail in her interview on the Burn It All Down feminist sports podcast.

[2] Huffington Post (February 1, 2018)

[3] In a most recent update on the Nassar case, a brave young man came forward as the first male to accuse Nassar of sexual abuse. For details click here.

[4] Click here for a gripping narrative of sexual misconduct against women workers at Ford automotive plants from the New York Times. The article details how embedded sexual harassment was in the company’s culture.

[5] For more on these dynamics and related research by Dachar Keltner click here.

 

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