Five years ago, former U.S. national team gymnast Maggie Nichols filed the first anonymous complaint with USA Gymnastics stating that Dr. Larry Nassar had sexually molested her under the guise of medical treatment.
Athlete A, a Netflix documentary released on June 24, chronicles Nichols and other gymnasts’ chilling accounts of Nassar’s sexual abuse. But it also reveals a wider culture within USA Gymnastics that silenced victims and enabled sexual, physical, and mental abuse to flourish. Victims said the sport still has a long way to go to protect young gymnasts. Nassar received a 175-year prison sentence in 2018, hundreds of victims have come forward and testified, and USA Gymnastics has introduced sweeping reforms, but reports of abuse continue to surface.
On July 10, authorities arrested former USA Gymnastics women’s national team coach Terry Gray, 52, in Las Vegas on more than a dozen counts of lewdness with a minor. He coached at Brown’s Gymnastics in Las Vegas from 2009 to 2015, where the alleged incidents occurred, according to local authorities. If convicted, he could face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
“Former national team coach. A child under 14. My heart is so heavy,” Rachael Denhollander, the first victim to accuse Nassar publicly, tweeted in response to Gray’s arrest. “Precious survivors, you are not alone. We believe you.”
USA Gymnastics previously suspended Gray from coaching in 2018. But USA Gymnastics accepted his appeal and he continued coaching young female gymnasts at SCEGA Gymnastics in Temecula, Calif., while the U.S. Center for SafeSport investigated him. Though the group ultimately gave him a two-year suspension, the delay sparked outrage among congressional lawmakers who were investigating USA Gymnastics.
“We have all these new policies that are supposed to protect children and ensure their safety, but we see the same thing happening all over again. … There’s no accountability,” said Alex E. Cunny, an attorney with Manly, Stewart & Finaldi, which is representing 180 of Nassar’s victims.
The U.S. Olympic Committee established SafeSport in 2017 in response to the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal. It is supposed to function as an independent but federally authorized entity to investigate reports of abuse in sports. But the organization has drawn sharp criticism for its backlog of cases and lack of enforcement when it imposes sanctions for sexual misconduct.
SafeSport exists “to check a legal liability box” and operates with “no sense of urgency,” said Katherine Starr, a former Olympic swimmer and founder of Safe4Athletes, an organization that sets policies and procedures for local sports administrators. Starr, who founded Safe4Athletes in 2012 after she started coaching, witnessed how readily parents entrusted coaches with their children—and how easily coaches could manipulate that power. Her swim coach sexually assaulted her when she was 14.
Safe4Athletes’ requires gyms and clubs in its network to have an independent “athlete-welfare advocate” for athletes and parents to contact in cases of abuse.
Athlete A shows how Nichols’ complaint fell on deaf ears, and officials at USA Gymnastics and the FBI allowed Nassar to sexually abuse other young athletes for more than a year after Nichols’ report. Victims are demanding to see the results of an ongoing U.S. Department of Justice investigation into how the FBI handled the allegations against Nassar.
USA Gymnastics filed for bankruptcy in 2018 and has since established entirely new leadership and new policies in an attempt to prevent abuse. It offered Nassar’s victims a $217 million settlement, which they have rejected, and the case is now in mediation, according to Cunny.
Following the release of Athlete A, USA Gymnastics CEO Li Li Leung said the leaders in her organization are “deeply committed” to learning from their mistakes and the “mishandling of the horrific abuse perpetrated by Larry Nassar.”